RIP: Maximilian Schell, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Schell Hoffman
When I heard on Saturday that the great actor and director Maximilian Schell had died, I planned to write something.  I waited one day, and sadly now it’s time also to acknowledge the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Schell, who died at 83, is probably less well known now (in America, at least) than he was 40 years ago, when his matinee idol good looks and charismatic presence almost made him a movie star.  But though he won an Oscar (1961 Best Actor for JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG), it didn’t quite happen.  I doubt he cared — or maybe it’s more that he cared about not becoming a movie star, or at least not a regular participant in studio-led projects.  Schell seemed  complicated and intriguing in ways that American movies didn’t or maybe couldn’t capitalize on, and in any case he seemed to have other interests.  He was a gifted pianist and lover of classical music, and he worked with Claudio Abbado and others — even directing a handful of operas.

But it’s as a film director that I found Schell most interesting — in particular, two extraordinary documentaries.  MARLENE (1984) is a tribute of sorts to the great Marlene Dietrich, planned around the idea that Schell would interview her on camera.  When Dietrich withdrew her permission, allowing him only to make audio recordings of her reminiscences, it seemed like the end for the project.  But Schell was cleverer than that, the resulting film — made up of archival footage of Dietrich, whose off-the-cuff narrative comments are often at odds with what the audience is seeing, sometimes even with basic facts — is riveting.  Nearly 20 years later, Schell filmed a portrait of his sister, the actress Maria Schell, who was then living almost as a recluse in the Austrian alps.  Schwester Schell, apparently a very fragile person, found the larger world overwhelming.  (One gets the feeling that both Schells were, at very least, ambivalent about participating in commercial films.)  MEINE SCHWESTER, MARIA is at once an intensely affectionate and wryly aware tribute, and it often feels like the great play Chekhov never got around to writing.

Both films deserved — and got — major critical raves, yet sadly they’re not nearly as wellknown now as they should be.  But the good news is both can be seen instantly via Netflix.  Which is how you should see them — instantly.

I’m not sure that I can add much to what is already being said about Philip Seymour Hoffman.  It’s a given that he was prodigiously gifted, and died much too young (age 46).  There were a handful of film performance I admired a lot — as Truman Capote especially.  My only experience of seeing him on stage was as Trigorin in THE SEAGULL, and I didn’t think it worked — whatever Hoffman could do, he was NOT a romantic leading man, and I thought too much of the performance had a casual, even disheveled sense about it.  That was always my reservation about him, and now, inevitably, I think about it in light of his private demons.  As good as he could be, I often felt his rumpled, checked-out affect was not an actor’s character choice — it was an inevitable part of him, and he couldn’t leave it behind if he tried.  Fine actor that he was, he made it work many times.  For me, though, I felt increasingly uncomfortable watching the work of someone whose character’s physical and emotional presence seemed so rooted in his own personal life.

Hoffman seems like the kind of actor who would have grown more interesting with age (he already seemed much older than 46).  Now we’ll never know what he would have become.  Yet when I heard the news, I was shocked but not surprised, which may be the saddest part of all.

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