Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Most Wanted Actor

Tonight it struck me after seeing A Most Wanted Man how much we will miss seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on screen or stage. He took what was a pretty good John Le Carre spy novel, made it a wrenching picture that held my attention, and left the story better than he found it.  That's saying a good deal because even a pretty good Le Carre is better than most people's best.

It was a masterful performance because in the Hamburg setting, Hoffman starts off with a little German to establish his bona fides and then turns to English with just enough of an accent to make it real. He makes you accept his character, too, as the author intended: a veteran in the cloak-and-dagger trade actually trying to do some good while doing what his job demands.

It's also good to see this picture because Le Carre has in his post-Cold War novels turned from casting the Soviets as the villains to putting the Americans in that role. The fine actress Robin Wright carries out that theme.  Le Carre now has the Brits--and in this instance, the Germans--wrestle with the values at stake. (At least the Germans have more than one view--and strategy--so much of the struggle is between their agencies and personnel.) It will be interesting to see if Putin manages to change Le Carre's current views.

What also jumped out from the screen is how Le Carre's characters are old school in one major way: they smoke and drink--well, Hoffman's character does--to abandon. In this story, the smoking and drinking merely emphasize the tension his character has brought upon himself. 

A few words to recall Betty Bacall. At 89, she may have been the last link with the old Hollywood she broke into when she was 19. She also lasted long enough to become more than Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, not that there was ever anything wrong with that or with the three pictures she will be remembered for co-starring in with him: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Key Largo.

 The Big Sleep was the best of those, helped by Faulkner's adaptation of Raymond Chandler--but she was the major reason that To Have and Have Not was better as a picture than it was when Hemingway wrote it. Bogart was stalwart in it, Walter Brennan overacted as always, but Lauren Bacall, all of 19, blew them away with her cool, she a model only just arrived on the West Coast, a New Yorker out of Julia Richman High School. Her singing wasn't terrific but she managed to do "How Little We Know" convincingly, too.

I never saw the Broadway stage productions for which she won the Tonys that took the place of Oscars on her shelf. But I did remember seeing the picture where she held her own as an acerbic, sarcastic, absolutely delightful and highly attractive woman when up against no less than Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable: How to Marry a Millionaire.

Although her marriage to Jason Robards ended in divorce, she did at least find in him a man who could hold his own when put up against the imperishable image of Bogart.  Best of all, she was a stand-up person who held her own, whether it be against the studios who made her movie career an endless roller coaster or the politicians who feasted off a usually supine Hollywood.

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