Not fade away: Philip Seymour Hoffman
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Mark Lawson: The posthumous films of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams

The problem is that film is a form of immortality but it is disturbing if we see the ghost too soon or with scars that remind us of their departure. 

When movie actors die, it’s a common memorial impulse to want to watch one of their films. In the case of Robin Williams, I chose a work cited in several obituaries as underrated – the 2009 film World’s Greatest Dad – but found it uncomfortable to be watching Williams, shortly after he had killed himself, playing a man who covers up the ignominious accidental death of his son by faking a saccharine suicide note that goes viral. Although the circumstances of the deaths were completely different, self-induced death as a plot twist felt, at that point, as inappropriate as switching between images of the search for Malaysia Airlines survivors and a screening of Airplane!.

Even when there is no narrative overlap, the experience of seeing a just-deceased actor on screen is inevitably disquieting, like phoning to offer a family condolences and getting the voice of the deceased on the answerphone. Although the Batman film The Dark Knight (2008) was fantasy, its release was ruinously overshadowed by the death at 28 (from misuse of prescription drugs) of Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker. A year later, knowledge of Ledger’s fate also fatally wounded the tone of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), because the viewer was aware of the narrative trickery necessary to complete his role.

Williams has three films still scheduled for release, including A Merry Friggin’ Christmas. It will be interesting to see if a sentimental seasonal piece can bear the freight of the actor’s now-known pain. What we might call the Dead Actors Society has a distressingly long membership list at the moment, following a run of screen stars dying young.

By macabre coincidence, out in the UK this month are A Most Wanted Man – the final big-screen appearance (apart from two Hunger Games instalments) of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in February from a heroin overdose, aged 46 – and The Drop, the last movie shot by James Gandolfini before his death at 51.

While the loss of Gandolfini was from natural causes, the tragedy overloaded the romantic comedy Enough Said (2013), released a few months later, in which it was hard not to notice that the actor often looked unwell and sounded breathless and the script sometimes seemed to involve elaborate circumlocution to avoid any mention of the shape the romantic lead was in.

The problem is that film is a form of immortality but it is disturbing if we see the ghost too soon or with scars that remind us of their departure. Ideally, a post-mortem movie will serve as a fitting tribute to the performer and, although there is initial unease at seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman cinematically resurrected, A Most Wanted Man ultimately honours his remarkable but agonised talent.

In Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John le Carré’s 2008 novel, Seymour Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a German spy who becomes part of a multinational sting to capture a terrorist suspect in Hamburg. The actor depicts a man on the edge of physical and psychological dissolution: shabby, red-eyed, pitted-skinned, never far from his next drink or cigarette. It is not wisdom after the event to suggest that we are seeing a man who found life and acting difficult because there had long been evidence to suggest that this might have been the case. And le Carré, in a newspaper piece reporting from the set, describes the self-torture that seemed to underlie the performance.

With the exception of the title role of Capote, in which he somehow shrank to become the American literary miniature, Seymour Hoffman generally chose roles in which his body shape and melancholic air were an asset rather than a distraction. Although no one would have wanted Bachmann to be the end of the line for this actor, as a terminus, it is the perfect one.

Almost unbearably, Corbijn ends the film with a lingering shot of an empty car that Bachmann has just been driving. We talk about films being unmissable and A Most Wanted Man is – but mainly because of an actor who is horribly missed.


A painter’s progress

In a time of hyberbolic public discourse, the word “multitalented” is applied to someone who can do two things without falling over. But John Byrne genuinely is, having produced brilliant stage plays (including the The Slab Boys trilogy) and a classic TV drama, Tutti Frutti, in the gaps of his main career as a painter.

The retrospective at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery features four decades of self-portraits and pictures of friends including Billy Connolly and Tilda Swinton – the mother of two of Byrne’s children, who are also portrayed at various ages. “Sitting Ducks”, the show’s title, is a typical Byrne joke, blurring the art-world jargon of “sitters” with a sense that artists’ subjects are targets. Although his eye is brutally truthful about the impact of age (and, in his case, nicotine on beards), the pictures are always loving as well as honest.

They can be seen in Edinburgh until 19 October before touring to Inverness and, if there is any justice, then around whatever constitutes the UK after the referendum. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era