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

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.