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The anti-chameleon

Philip Seymour Hoffman fits into a long line of film stars who have done two things extremely well

Tom Shone | September/October 2014

In the end, he just climbs out of his car, with the engine still running in the middle of the Hamburg traffic, and walks off into the chalky morning light.

There is one more film to come that Philip Seymour Hoffman was working on when he died—“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay”—but whatever digital dexterity its producers can pull off with his unfinished scenes will surely pale, as a send-off, beside the final scene of Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man”. Adapted from the 2008 novel by John le Carré, it stars Hoffman as Günther Bachmann, the head of a small counter-terrorism group in Hamburg who monitors the local Muslim population. He has a cigarette and a glass of whisky in his hands so regularly that they seem a part of him. Yet we never see him drunk, or his senses dulled—he is one of those men who simply soak it up, as indeed he absorbs everything. He tends to his contacts as if they were lovers, and interrogates suspects with a soft, low urgency which pushes right past their well-rehearsed defences and protestations, as if through an unlocked door. 

“Are you threatening me?” a banker played by Willem Dafoe asks him at one point.

“Just sympathising,” Hoffman replies, in his soft guttural German accent.

That exchange is as good an epitaph as any for his saturnine genius. Threat and sympathy; beauty in ugliness. Hoffman was a subtle brute. “The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character,” he once told the director Bennett Miller. “I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.”

Equipped with a self-hater’s sonar, Hoffman had an uncanny gift for identifying and dramatising self-hatred in others—he gave it flesh, as pale and luminous as a Scottish sunbather. He couldn’t have played a navy pilot or a horse trainer, a romantic lead, or Batman, or anyone in a musical, although you wouldn’t have known it from the tributes that attended his death in February, testifying to his “versatility”, “the vastness of his range”, his “chameleon”-like ability to “disappear into every role”, as if the guy were Scotch mist. It wasn’t Hoffman’s job to disappear into anything. It was his job to carve himself up—lend his heart, his head, his lungs, his liver, his subtlety, his stubbornness, his ambivalence—whatever it took to give his man life. He wasn’t a chameleon. He was an organ donor.

Such is the web chatter about any actor who grows his sideburns longer than an inch these days. Jude Law “all but disappears into the role” of Dom Hemingway. Sharon Stone  “really disappears” into the role of “Linda Lovelace” (“I was so into the role that I was unrecognisable”), while Steve Carell is “barely recognisable” as the schizophrenic millionaire John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher”. “Wearing a prosthetic nose (à la Nicole Kidman in ‘The Hours’), false teeth and a receding hairline,” says Variety, “the actor gives one of the most transformative performances of the year.” Entertainment Weekly and the Huffington Post threw caution, and qualifiers, to the wind and called Carell actually “unrecognisable”, as in, you could be forgiven for watching the movie and not realising he was in it. Frankly, given the amount of shape-shifting going on, it’s amazing anyone succeeds in tracking down and seeing their favourite star in anything. 

Carell is indeed extraordinary in “Foxcatcher”, his ribcage lifted by shallow puffs of breath, his words drifting out of his mouth like hundred-dollar bills on a light breeze. His du Pont is a fascinating study in wealth, lassitude and megalomania, but a curious paradox is at work that has to do with the intersection of acting skill, impersonation and celebrity. If you truly forget that it’s Carell up there, it ceases to be amazing—it’s just some character actor doing his job. The performance fails if it succeeds. It can only truly succeed by failing—if we keep a simultaneous picture in our minds of Carell, comedic star, alongside the version we see on screen, measuring the relative distance between the two. We’ve become rather adept at this double-jointedness—the curse of a movie calendar artificially distended by the Oscars, and a celebrity culture that demands continual reboots of pre-existing personas. The studios want their awards contenders anointed, the publicists want their clients flattered, and the stars want to satisfy the psychological itch that drives the famous: they want to disappear. At the 2013 Oscars, the traffic jam of changelings was so great that Daniel Day Lewis, accepting his Oscar from Meryl Streep, joked, “It’s a strange thing, because three years ago, before we decided to do a straight swap, I had actually been committed to play Margaret Thatcher. And Meryl was Steven [Spielberg]’s first choice for ‘Lincoln’.”

What about acting? Isn’t that the point? Kind of. Our vocabulary is being stretched, too. “What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins’ ‘Monster’ isn’t a performance but an embodiment,” Roger Ebert wrote of Theron's performance as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos (2003). “What De Niro does in this film isn’t acting, exactly,” Pauline Kael wrote of De Niro’s turn as Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” (1980), the granddaddy of such transformations, “though it may at some level be awesome.”

To ponder the sort of words used here—“awesome”, “transformative”, “immersive”, “revelatory”—is to see how much they echo the language we use for special effects. Acting has become its own species of special effect, a marquee  attraction based on the actors’ ability to transform themselves physically and thus hold their own against the latest computer-generated pyrotechnics – by, quite literally, making a spectacle of themselves. Acting as morphing. Who needs Michael Bay and his robot-into-car Transformers?

Some actors were transforming for their roles long ago. Lon Chaney (“the man of a thousand faces”) made himself over to play “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in the 1920s. Paul Muni donned a sombrero, whiskers and fake eyelids to collect six Oscar nominations—and one win, for playing Louis Pasteur in 1936. But the studio system existed to hold the stars in place, as fixed as the stars in the sky. “Every successful movie star became a specified type that the public endorsed,” Jeanine Basinger writes in “The Star Machine” (2009), an excellent account of the process whereby the studios groomed, moulded and shaped their stars. They gave them new names, handed them fake hobbies, sculpted their teeth, taught them how to dance, even fixed them up with the right dates to be seen hobnobbing with at the Coconut Grove. Judy Garland was given speed pills to help with her weight. Johnny Weissmuller’s wife paid to expedite their divorce. Joan Crawford said, “I really knew I was a star when Mayer ordered the publicity department to accompany my every personal appearance and make sure I said the right things, made sure I dated the right men.”

The stars were their own franchises. To tamper with them would have been like tampering with Superman’s superpowers—box-office kryptonite. On screen, Bogart needed to seem uncaring, until he revealed he wasn’t, Rita Hayworth needed to be mistaken for a bad woman, until it was revealed that she wasn’t. Hollywood’s Golden Age was Platonic, all the screen personalities aspiring to their own perfect form or essence. “To watch her”, Kenneth Tynan wrote of Greta Garbo, “is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which, like a flower or a fold of silk, is raptly, unassertively and beautifully itself.” It was an act, of course, like any other—maybe more than any other for refusing to admit it was one. “Bogart’s a helluva guy until 11.30pm,” said the restaurateur Dave Chasen. “After that he thinks he’s Bogart.”

Henry Fonda said, “I ain’t really Henry Fonda. Nobody could have that much integrity."  

Or as Cary Grant put it, most famously, “Every­one wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

But it is a peculiarly modern mistake to assume that because a star was “playing themselves”, no artistry was involved. “The question shouldn’t be: can movie stars act?” Jeanine Basinger writes. “The question should be: are they believable on screen?”

It’s arguably the more difficult trick, certainly the rarer gift—just look at reality TV, which features more bad performances than a month of B-movies. The movies are a limbic medium. The camera gets in close, blowing the human face up to the point where the proportions are roughly those of a parent as viewed by an infant. Any “performance” at this point is as redundant as your mother or father handing you their business card.

As Lauren Bacall, recruited at the age of 19 by Howard Hawks to play opposite Humphrey Bogart in “To Have and Have Not”, put it on the screen: “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle.”

Marlon Brando was widely credited with blowing the doors off the star system with a series of performances in the 1950s, playing a paraplegic (“The Men”), a factory salesman (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), a Roman general (“Julius Caesar”), a Mexican revolutionary (“Viva Zapata!”) and a biker (“The Wild One”). But even Brando—the very model for the radar-jamming zig-zag of today’s young stars—“revolutionised American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be ‘performing’, in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being,” as James Franco wrote recently in the New York Times.

Brando’s argument was with celebrity, which he saw getting in the way of acting, although really it was with the medium itself, which baptised celebrities—“the Little Match Girl”, “the Girl with the Curls”—before it got around to recognising actors. The studio system was indeed a tyrannical one as far as the talent was concerned. The studio executives at MGM even had a chart tracking their female stars’ menstrual cycles.

“The movie actor, like the card king of primitive tribes, is a god in captivity,” Alexander Walker wrote in “Stardom: the Hollywood Phenomenon” (1970). When Clark Gable asked for a percentage of the profits from his films, an executive at MGM was reported to have exploded. “He’s nobody! We took him from nobody. We lavished him with lessons and publicity and now he’s the most desired man in the world. Who taught him how to walk? We straightened his teeth and capped them into that smile…we taught this dumb cluck how to depict great emotions. And now he wants a piece of the action?” 

That was a vast underestimation of Gable’s charisma. Personas, even public ones, are not without truth. For all Brando’s stealth, the roles of his that struck the deepest chord were the ones that lined up with the public’s sense of him. First, his trio of youthful rebels for Elia Kazan—“Streetcar”, “Viva Zapata!”, “On the Waterfront”—and then, in the 1970s, a series of dark patresfamilias for Coppola and Bertolucci in “The Godfather”, “Last Tango in Paris” and “Apocalypse Now”. The roles spoke to us precisely because they struck a chord in him. Brando played rebels and then, when he was old enough, he showed us what he was rebelling against: as dark and bankrupt a series of authority figures as has ever been shown on screen.

Robert Mitchum liked to joke that he had two roles—on a horse or off one. But something similar is true of all the greatest screen actors. In this respect the screen is Jungian. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, in 1938, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

James Stewart could be fine and upstanding (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) or he could be a voyeuristic creep (“Rear Window”). Cary Grant could be debonair and playful (“His Girl Friday”) or saturnine and controlling (“Notorious”). Gary Cooper could do bumbling-boyish (“Ball of Fire”) or taciturn-suave (“High Noon”). De Niro can be pedantic-psychotic (“Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”), or pedantic-funny (“The King of Comedy”, “Silver Linings Playbook”). Even Meryl Streep, for all the displays of technique in the early part of her career, now swings between two poles: ice queen (“The Devil Wears Prada”, “Doubt”) and everyone’s best friend (“Mamma Mia”). It’s no insult to any of these actors to point this out; it’s an acknowledgment of the depth of the camera's gaze. 

When Al Pacino directed Jessica Chastain in “Wilde Salomé” (2011), it was her first film role. Her training, at the Juilliard school in New York, had been for stage acting, so he told her to treat the camera as if it were a person. “The camera sees deeper into your soul than your scene partner,” he told her. “Don’t lie. The camera will always pick it up.” 

Today’s film stars enjoy freedom and privileges that were undreamt of in Gable’s day. The studios are more interested in panhandling for superheroes, and the smarter actors have become studios unto themselves, setting up production companies to generate roles. An entire chain of publicists, agents and managers exists to declare how different they are in each role, where once they were paid by the studios to ensure the opposite. But while the star machine may have been dismantled, a version of it lingers. However sophisticated the actors have grown in deconstructing their personas, the public have not abandoned the old typology; rather it has grown as supple and wily as the performances themselves.

Fan sites exist to track Christian Bale’s every transmogrification; film bloggers rush to measure the depth to which Ryan Gosling and Shia LaBeouf have “disappeared” into their characters.

Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn’t lie. He, too, had essentially two roles, both exemplifying extremes within himself. On one hand there are his human punching bags—Allen, the obscene caller in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness”, or Rusty, the lovelorn boom operator in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”, a walrus in a sea of perfect bodies. These were men born to be picked upon, drawing bullies out of the woodwork like lice. But he could flip that around and play a bully just as beautifully, whether it was the preppy who rats out Chris O’ Donnell in “Scent of a Woman”, or the insinuating Freddie Miles, who rounds so mercilessly on Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr Ripley”. His best roles were both at once: Truman Capote in "Capote", Lancaster Dodd in “The Master”, and now Günther Bachmann in “A Most Wanted Man” are all both tormentors and tormented, bearing down on themselves with the same force with which they lash out at the world. In this respect Hoffman came close to Charles Laughton, cinema’s other great zoo-keeper of human beasts.

No wonder Hoffman played spooks so well. His Bachmann is a kind of sequel to his marvellous Gust Avrakotos in “Charlie Wilson’s War”, minus the ’tache and the rage, now turned inward—a kind of Method spy, patient and methodical in his approach to extracting other people’s secrets. In one great scene, he turns a human-rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) against her own client, solely by means of a slow, ready drip-drip of suggestion, sympathy and manipulation.

“Can I go now?” she asks him at one point.

“Go where?” he says, taking in the cell in which they sit.

We might ask: Philip Seymour Hoffman disappear? Where to? 

A Most Wanted Man opens in Britain September 12th

Salomé and Wilde Salomé screening and talk by Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain, BFI Southbank, London, Sept 21st

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