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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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