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4 September 2014updated 08 Sep 2014 9:12am

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. 

By Mark Lawson

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.

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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. 

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