Pure exhilaration is what I feel every time I read a sharply observed and superbly crafted piece of writing about anything. Writing is at its best when the writer becomes the individual reader’s eyes and mind. A short but eminently readable piece by the novelist John le Carré about the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in the NY Times today had that effect on me this morning.
The piece is about le Carré’s brief time together with Hoffman during the making of ‘A Most Wanted Man’, an upcoming spy drama, based on the novel by the former. It is Hoffman’s last film.
“There’s probably nobody more redundant in the film world than a writer of origin hanging around the set of his movie, as I’ve learned to my cost,” le Carré writes. One has no experience of that one can still full understand that feeling. If you are not involved in a particular film, being on the set of that film can be a greatly sobering exercise in your own irrelevance.
le Carré was obviously deeply affected by his time together with Hoffman. Being a writer of enormous gifts, he has been able to capture that experience in this distilled little piece. Just consider the following two passages from it.
“In retrospect, nothing of that kind surprised me about Philip, because his intuition was luminous from the instant you met him. So was his intelligence. A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours; or if the mood took him, hugged you to him like a big, pudgy schoolboy, then stood and beamed at you while he took stock of the effect.
Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time. It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle. He had to screw up his eyes or be dazzled to death. Like Chatterton, he went seven times round the moon to your one, and every time he set off, you were never sure he’d come back, which is what I believe somebody said about the German poet Hölderlin: Whenever he left the room, you were afraid you’d seen the last of him. And if that sounds like wisdom after the event, it isn’t. Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it.”
Or just this one line about the way the actor spoke his lines in a German accent: “He seemed to kiss his lines rather than speak them.”
The way le Carré has written about him, it seems as if Hoffman was a deeply moving and remarkably intelligent character from one of his own novels that became a real person by some weird process.