Tuesday, February 04, 2014

touching the parts

Our lives are affected by those around us.  The effect may not be large.  But each person who comes into our lives, leaves a bit of who they are in us.

I thought about that on Monday morning when I received the news that two actors, who have touched my life, had died. 

The death of Maximilian Schell was not a surprise.  He was 83, and had not worked for six years.

Most of the obituaries centered around his Oscar for his role as the German defense attorney in Judgment at Nuremberg.  It was an outstanding performance.  As most of his performances were.

But that is not how I remember him.  For me, he will always be Arthur Goldman, a successful Jewish businessman who survived a Nazi death camp, and is eventually tried as a Nazi war criminal.

The movie explores the tensions between personal and national identity.  And how who both intertwine with personal and national guilt.  Because I have always been a stranger to guilt, I find its exploration to be fascinating.

Even though he is known as a movie actor, Schell also spent time on stage.  I saw him at the National Theater in Washington, DC starring in John Osborne's A Patriot for Me in 1969.  I wish I could say I saw the play as a defender of the First Amendment.  But, at the time, I knew nothing of the controversy surrounding it.

All I knew was that Maximilian Schell, relying on his own Austrian background, dominated the stage as an Austro-Hungarian officer trying to survive as the empire he was sworn to defend began its death spiral.  For anyone who believes that Austrian means Schwarzenegger, I would offer a true actor in defense of the country -- Herr Schell.

The death that shocked me yesterday was the heroin-stoked demise of Philip Seymour Hoffman -- the only actor with whom I have been recently confused (the angel of death).  Now the Charles Laughton is dead.  Everyone knows the roles he made his own.  From Scotty J. to The Capote himself.

But that is not how I remember him.  Nor is it how affected me.

For me, he will always be Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Even though Hoffman played a series of seedy or villainous characters, this movie gave him an opportunity to play the moral center of an otherwise amoral story.

And he ran with the part.  He built a loutish Teddy Kennedy persona, and then counter-intuitively acted as the watchful eye of God exposing the sinful frailties of other characters.  In the process, he artfully drew a line between Being Nice and Being Good.  By being good where everything surrounding him was not, he teased the audience into hating him.  Until we realized that we have been seduced into rooting for Evil.

I do not easily hate people.  But I hated Freddie to the core.  And respected Hoffman even more.

Anthony Minghella wrote a great part for him.  But it was Hoffman who breathed life into Freddie and made us realize his value only after we had cheered for his death.  It was an actor's dream part.

I feel as if I knew Arthur Goldman and Freddie Miles.  They were far more "real" than a lot of people I meet every day.  And, because they still live on in electronic form, I can spend as much time as I like letting them into my life and pondering their ideas.

We will miss both Maximilian Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  But they have added new layers to our lives.  Who could ask for a better epitaph?

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