A Performance From Beyond the Grave

In the six months since Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I have insisted to myself and others that he will never truly be “gone.”  Like a band that has broken up or a novelist from a bygone era, the Finest Actor of His Generation deeded us a body of work that will allow him to continue to entertain us for as long as we possess the means (and the interest) to indulge.

Sure, Hoffman’s hideously untimely demise at age 46 meant that his movie oeuvre had reached an abrupt endpoint, but what a collection of performances he gave!  From his pathetic fanboy in Boogie Nights to his appealing but possibly pedophilic priest in Doubt, from his scruffy, boisterous rock critic in Almost Famous to Truman Capote himself, Hoffman appeared not only capable of doing it all, but seemed, in his 23 years on screen, to have actually done so.

Another 23 years of Hoffman, had they existed, would have yielded countless more excellent roles, but probably not anything we hadn’t seen before, broadly-speaking.  At this point in his career, I figured, he had retained his power to impress, but had all but exhausted his power to surprise.

Then I saw Hoffman’s performance in A Most Wanted Man, and all of that thinking went out the window.  I am now somehow compelled to mourn all over again.

This movie, directed by Anton Corbijn from a novel by John le Carré, was filmed in the fall of 2012, but released only last month.  It features Hoffman in its leading role, essayed when he was very much alive and kicking, and thereby has the distinction—much like The Dark Knight in 2008—of showcasing a virtuoso performer to an audience that cannot help but view him in the past tense.

And like Heath Ledger, whose mad, manic Joker revealed an exciting, promising and altogether unexpected side to an actor everyone in the audience knew was dead, Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man allows the painful irony of introducing a whole new depth of his talent that we will never get the chance to see.

What exactly am I referring to, you ask?  What is it about his final major film appearance that so differentiates it from all that came before?

A German accent, as it turns out.

In A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman is Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence agent based in Hamburg.  He had been responsible for a major intelligence failure in the past and is now attempting to redeem himself in the present by heading off a terrorist attack in the future.  (Hamburg had played host to several key planners of the 9/11 attacks.  The film takes place shortly thereafter.)

It’s not that anyone doubted Hoffman could credibly play a spy.  Indeed, he did exactly that in 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.  Nor should anyone be taken aback by his exceptional capacity to brood, arresting our attention with little more than his mere presence and a few puffs from a cigarette.

Nope, the revelation is in the accent.  Hoffman plays a German man speaking English, and unlike virtually every other American actor to ever attempt such a stunt—including two other actors in this movie, I might add—he makes you believe he is, in fact, a native-born German.  Those who are seeing Hoffman for the first time will have no reason to assume he is actually American, just as when I first saw Titanic, I had no idea that Kate Winslet is actually British.

Obviously, that’s not all there is to the performance, nor is Hoffman all there is to the film, which is engaging and politically astute even when Hoffman is nowhere to be found.

But it’s worth underlining all the same, because Hoffman in his movies—unlike, say, Meryl Streep in hers—was not known for speaking any way except as he actually did (Capote was an exception).  That he could pass so persuasively as a European, while unsurprising in retrospect, was not something to which we had been subjected while he was alive.  Now that he’s dead, we will forever be tormented by the gazillion additional turns his career might have taken.  The infinite possibilities.  The prospect that he was an even better actor than we thought.

Of course, Hoffman is not the first great actor to shuffle off at a point when, by all outward appearances, he had plenty of life still in him.  Indeed, it was in the middle of writing the previous paragraph that I learned that Robin Williams, one of the great comic chameleons of the age, has gone off to the big genie retirement home in the sky at the frightfully young age of 63.  Who’s to say he didn’t have a secret second (or third) act in his back pocket that would have blindsided us all?

In Hoffman’s case, the loss is felt with particular intensity due, in large part, to the intensity of the man himself.  And to the paradoxical notion that, for all he had accomplished as an actor—an output so vast in both size and scope for someone only in his mid-40s—he was really just getting started.

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