Philip Seymour Hoffman: A (Cinematic) Journey That Risks the Dark

Today is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s birthday; he would have been 47 years old. In the past five months I have only been able to bring myself to see two Hoffman films that I had never seen before, the Steve Martin-starring comedy Leap of Faith (1992) and the relatively recent drama A Late Quartet (2012). In any case I would like to take a look back at some of the other performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman that I really love. I only wish I could have found a good clip from Nobody’s Fool (1994), in which the young Hoffman plays a small-town police deputy, since that was the first film performance of his that made me sit up and take notice.

“Law & Order” episode “The Violence of Summer” (1991, episode directed by Don Scardino) – Making his television debut in this February 1991 (season one) episode of the long-running series, Hoffman looks very much like the 23-year-old that he was, fresh out of college and his hair still strawberry blonde (it would eventually fade into a paler, whiter shade). “Law & Order” is a show that was famous for featuring up-and-coming actors before they hit it big and this episode is no exception; besides Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson is also featured.

Twister (1996, dir. Jan de Bont) – I recently saw this disaster flick again and it was even better than I had remembered. In this scene, the gang of tornado-hunters gathers around the dinner table and Hoffman regales the group with a wild tale about one of the film’s main characters (Bill Paxton). Hoffman’s grinning countenance and unkempt red hair make his “Dusty” a loveable character.

Flawless (1999, dir. Joel Schumacher) – There are problems (well, flaws) with this uneven dramedy. Hoffman’s performance, however, is wonderful. Rusty is not a run-of-the-mill straight-actor-in-drag routine. True, the part is campy, but there are some interesting depths to Hoffman’s portrayal. Statistically speaking, I don’t know how much of what is seen onscreen comes from Joel Schumacher’s script, but anyway it feels like Hoffman added that extra special something to make the role his own.

The Ides of March (2011, dir. George Clooney) – Based on this film alone, I have to say that I don’t think that highly of Clooney as a director or as a screenwriter, nor do I think too well of his decision to cast the markedly bland Ryan Gosling in the lead role, but it is obvious in this scene that Hoffman was operating on a much greater level, acting-wise. Gosling looks totally lost, but Hoffman adds some oomph to the proceedings. The pretty-boy star can’t deliver, but the character actor can.

A Late Quartet (2012, dir. Yaron Zilberman) – Cliched screenwriting and relationship-based melodrama threaten to overwhelm the classical music elements of the plot here, but Hoffman delivers yet another detailed characterization of another flawed man in his repertoire of flawed people. The character’s unhappiness with his string quartet partners is connected to the unhappiness in his marriage, a complicated set of issues made watchable due to the actor’s conviction in his scenes.

The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) – (SPOILERS: this scene is from the end of the film.) A little over a year after seeing The Master on the big screen, I still say that it is not a particularly good movie, but I can’t really deny how great Hoffman was in the title role. To quote his Lancaster Dodd character from another scene, “We are not helpless. And we are on a journey that risks the dark.” That second line could be used to sum up Hoffman’s career.

A Few Words About James Garner

I was saddened to hear of the passing of James Garner a few days ago. He was a real straight shooter, the kind of actor who chose simplicity and honesty over any highfalutin acting method. I must confess that I had not seen all that many of his films or TV work, but I had seen enough to consider myself a fan. In light of this recent loss to the media world, I’d like to reflect on those few Garner performances with which I am happily familiar.

The Children’s Hour (1961) – This was the first film I ever saw Garner in, and although his role is nowhere near as important as those of Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, he is effective as Hepburn’s compassionate boyfriend (who just happens to be a successful doctor – looks, heart and brains!). In certain ways the material is dated, but the acting by all three stars holds up.

The Thrill of It All (1963) – The first of two romantic comedies from 1963 starring Doris Day and Garner, Thrill is a little too wacky for my tastes, but it’s still cute. Yet again Garner plays a doctor, this time paired with a wife who suddenly rockets to fame as a soap spokeswoman. Garner also sports some impressive pre-hipster spectacles while performing his doctorly duties.

Move Over, Darling (1963) – This remake of My Favorite Wife (1940), in which a wife long presumed dead from a shipwreck returns on the day her husband just so happens to be getting married again, is a lot of fun. There are many wonderful actors in the cast, including Polly Bergen, Thelma Ritter, Chuck Connors, Fred Clark, Don Knotts, Elliott Reid, Edgar Buchanan, John Astin and Eddie Quillan. Garner shows off his comic flair and there’s also that shot of him in his pool – not narratively important, but ah, delightful all the same.

“The Rockford Files” (1974-1980) – I began watching this detective series a few months ago and though I did not get far (schoolwork being the major obstacle), I really liked what I saw. The gruff, occasionally sarcastic Jim Rockford was not above getting tough and landing some low blows, so long as it meant getting the criminal he was after. Rockford’s main concern was getting his man and he was only sentimental when he felt like it, although that didn’t prevent from partaking in some storylines with love interests. After all, when the leading man is handsome and charming…

Twilight (1998) – Not too long ago I saw this neo-noir, directed by Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Nobody’s Fool) and co-written by Benton and Richard Russo, thanks to Netflix. Garner is one of many excellent stars in the film, including Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Reese Witherspoon, Stockard Channing, Giancarlo Esposito, Liev Schreiber and Margo Martindale. It’s quite a fine film, one you ought to see if the opportunity arises. Even in his late 60s/early 70s, Garner still had the magic touch: always being worth watching. He’s an actor we’ll all miss seeing onscreen.

Programming Note: Vacation 2014

Hi, everyone. I’ll be on vacation until August 2, so there may not be any posts here until then. If circumstances permit I will make posts, but that may not happen. My goal is to enjoy the sun and relaxation of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. Being not far from Canada, I expect that temperatures will be much lower than they are in Brooklyn.

In the meantime, please enjoy this Morphine song, “Early to Bed” (from Like Swimming, 1997), which I forgot to put in my recent post about Mark Sandman. The music video was nominated for a Grammy in 1998.

“Early to bed and early to rise / Makes a man or woman / Miss out on the nightlife.” There won’t be much nightlife when I’m on vacation, but I think it’s fine to get away from the noisy city for a little while. And then when I return, ah, that will be great too.

Barbara Stanwyck: A Real Brooklyn Dame

The legendary Barbara Stanwyck, my favorite actress of all time, was born as Ruby Catherine Stevens in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York on this day in 1907. (Her neighborhood, Flatbush, is near my own as well.) By the time she was four years old, she and her siblings were orphans, left to grow up in foster homes. This upbringing gave Stanwyck an edge of toughness, but she could play sweet as easily as sassy. Time spent as a chorus girl paved the way to a spot in the Ziegfeld Follies and later success on Broadway in the drama The Noose. Stanwyck’s triumph on the stage got her a ticket to Hollywood and major stardom followed shortly afterward. I’d like to share with you six clips from films that feature some of the most superb performances from her lengthy career. The films cited below were directed by some of the most talented directors available in Hollywood, testaments to Stanwyck’s prowess as much as their own.

Night Nurse (1931, dir. William A. Wellman) – Stanwyck tries admirably to handle a soused Charlotte Merriam, whose daughter is in imminent danger. Stanwyck’s voice drips with contempt as she says, “You mother,” a line that could just barely make it past the censors during the pre-Code days.

The Miracle Woman (1931, dir. Frank Capra) – I prefer Capra’s pre-Code output to the treacly content of his later work. Miracle Woman has one of Stanwyck’s best early performances. She portrays an embittered preacher who cheats her followers out of collection money through scams, though she is eventually reformed by the love of a blind man (played by David Manners, better known for his roles in Journey’s End, Dracula, The Mummy and The Black Cat). The scene above has some of Stanwyck’s finest impassioned sermonizing.

The Lady Eve (1941, dir. Preston Sturges) – I believe that this is a perfectly crafted romantic comedy. Stanwyck’s clever con woman seduces the hapless ophiologist (studier of snakes) played by Henry Fonda with her midriff-baring outfit and her keen awareness of Fonda’s shyness and gullibility. The dialogue is excellent, but it’s the acting that cements the movie’s status as a classic.

Ball of Fire (1941, dir. Howard Hawks) – In an Academy Award-nominated performance as a slang-slinging nightclub dancer, Stanwyck teaches a stuffy linguistics scholar (Gary Cooper) the art of kissing, 1941-style.

Double Indemnity (1944, dir. Billy Wilder) - I consider Billy Wilder the greatest of all film directors and this collaboration between top-notch artists does not disappoint. Stanwyck is one cool customer in this masterful film noir, for which she was yet again nominated for an Oscar. Here in “the supermarket scene” (as I think of it), Stanwyck reminds Fred MacMurray that “it’s straight down the line for both of us,” underlining the impossibility for the pair to escape their shared destiny.

Clash by Night (1952, dir. Fritz Lang) – With a little help from some cigarettes, the time-tested cinematic symbol of sex, Stanwyck’s chemistry with Robert Ryan sizzles. More than twenty years after the start of her film career, Stanwyck still had it.

Viva Buñuel!: A Film Retrospective at BAM

The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Rose Cinemas is hosting a retrospective of 32 of Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel’s films made between 1929 and 1977. Although I missed the film that opened the festival, Los Olvidados (1950), I got the chance to see Buñuel’s macabre comedy The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz (1955), which was great. It combines themes that recurred throughout Buñuel’s career: sex, violence and hidden desires (and on occasion, lacy undergarments). Here are a few of the other movies that will be playing at BAM’s festival, which continues for the next month until August 14.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) – Tuesday, July 15 – One of the most infamous edits in film history involving this eyeball and this razor can be seen in this Surrealist short film, a landmark in international cinema which was made in collaboration with artist Salvador Dalí.

Susana (1951) – Thursday, July 17 – This melodrama of a young woman’s sexual awakening, starring Rosita Quintana in the lead role, is a forerunner of the title women in Buñuel’s Viridiana and Belle de Jour.

Viridiana (1961) – Friday, July 18 and Saturday, July 19 – Surrealism swirls through this drama of religion, incest, the music of Bach, Handel and Mozart and an extended dinner scene reminiscent of The Last Supper.

El Bruto (aka The Brute) (1953) – Thursday, July 24 - Pedro Armendáriz and Katy Jurado, two Mexican actors who found success in Hollywood, star in a drama that could be viewed as an update of the Frankenstein story.

Robinson Crusoe (aka The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe) (1954) – Tuesday, July 29 – Buñuel’s only foray into Hollywood filmmaking tells Daniel Defoe’s seafaring adventure tale. The film received an Oscar nomination for Dan O’Herlihy’s lead performance, the first time that any of Buñuel’s films was recognized by the Academy.

The Young One (1960) – Thursday, July 31 – This production, filmed in Mexico but with dialogue in English, stars American actors Zachary Scott (best known for the 1940s films The Southerner, Mildred Pierce, Cass Timberlane and Flamingo Road), Bernie Hamilton and Crahan Denton in a story of a black jazz musician on the lam.

Belle de Jour (1967) – Friday, August 1 through Sunday, August 3 – Buñuel’s masterpiece (in my opinion) stars Catherine Deneuve as a housewife in a stagnant marriage who unlocks her inner passion and a kind of autonomy when she secretly begins work as an upscale call girl. Deneuve’s beauty, Sacha Vierny’s lush cinematography and Yves Saint Laurent’s très chic clothes are all exquisite.

Wuthering Heights (1954) – Tuesday, August 5 – This retelling of Emily Brontë’s classic Victorian novel transplants the story to Mexico in the 1800s. The film’s Spanish-language title, Abismos de pasión, translates to The Abyss of Passion.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) – Friday, August 8 – Buñuel’s final film stars French actress Carole Bouquet and Spanish actress Ángela Molina as the same character, Conchita, a maid who is coveted by her employer (Fernando Rey). Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière adapted the screenplay from a book by Pierre Louÿs.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) – Saturday, August 9 – Winner of the 1973 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (France) as well as a nominee for Best Original Screenplay (another Buñuel-Carrière collaboration), this famously surreal and dreamlike film features many of the most recognizable faces in world cinema, including Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Claude Piéplu and Michel Piccoli.

Saturday Night Spotlight #5: Agnès Varda

Born in Belgium to a French mother and a Greek father, writer-director Agnès Varda (b. 1928) is often called the “Mother of the French New Wave” due to her prominence during that cinematic movement and the fact that she was the only woman director in that group of filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. (Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, made films at the same time but he leaned more towards colorful musicals than black-and-white realism.) During a career lasting six decades, Agnès Varda has gained international acclaim for her explorations of humanity, history and time. In addition to often making films focused on female protagonists, Varda has also made a point of working with women film editors, cinematographers, camera operators, assistant directors, composers, costume designers and makeup artists, besides being an editor and cinematographer herself.

La Pointe Courte (1955) – Varda’s debut feature film precedes the New Wave by two or three years but its study of the bond between a husband (Philippe Noiret) and wife (Silvia Monfort) is an antecedent to the examinations of relationships in films by Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer. Another connection to the New Wave: Alain Resnais, soon to be a renowned director himself, served as La Pointe Courte’s editor.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) – Varda’s most well-known fiction film tells the story of a popular young singer (played by Corinne Marchand) who is told by her doctor that she may possibly have cancer. From 5:00 to 7:00 pm, Cléo spends those two hours with friends and acquaintances, all the while wondering and worrying about her prognosis. Michel Legrand (pictured above left), the composer who wrote the music for Cléo and who famously worked with Jacques Demy on the scores and songs for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and Donkey Skin (1970), also acts in Cléo as (what else?) a pianist and composer. Other icons of French film – actor Jean-Claude Brialy, actor/singer Eddie Constantine, actress Danièle Delorme, actor Sami Frey, director Jean-Luc Godard, actress Anna Karina, actor/director Yves Robert – show up in cameo appearances.

Vagabond (1985) – The story of a homeless woman (portrayed by a young Sandrine Bonnaire) is told in reverse, starting with her death and working backward to show her life through flashbacks and with the use of an interviewer’s narrating voice. The style of the film is a fusion of documentary and drama, blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction.

The Beaches of Agnès (2008) – Varda has been making documentaries for years, including Daguerréotypes (1976), about the lives of French shopkeepers, Mur Murs (1981), about wall murals in Los Angeles, and the series The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002), which focus on the habits of French citizens who gather (or “glean”) potatoes and other harvest crops from farmers’ fields due to a centuries-old law that allows the practice. (Varda also delves into stories of people who glean antiques, garbage and recycled materials.) Beaches explores Varda’s history and memories, including her life with Jacques Demy. The result is an emotional, moving film that blends the past with the present.

Indelible Film Images: The Freshman (1925)

The Freshman (1925) – dirs. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Starring: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Brooks Benedict, James Anderson, Hazel Keener, Joseph Harrington, Pat Harmon, Rosalind Byrne, Charles Farrell, May Wallace

Cinematography: Walter Lundin