Philip Seymour Hoffman was, without question, one of the great acting talents of our time, playing a wide variety of roles like Truman Capote, which earned him an Oscar, and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman on Broadway in 2012. I recently watched a film he did, also in 2012, with Christopher Walken called, A Late Quartet. The title comes from Beethoven's "late" string quartets. Watch the trailer here.
These quartets were written by Beethoven late in life and are amazing, especially given the fact that Beethoven was deaf by the time he wrote them. Did you hear that? He was deaf when he composed some of the most beautiful music ever written.
The play Death of a Salesman is a modern tragedy by Arthur Miller. The protagonist is a guy named Willy Loman who, in the years following The Great Depression, is a firm believer in the American Dream. Without going in to the whole story, suffice to say, it, like all tragedies, doesn't end well. His son at the graveside of his father has this to say of his father's life: “He had all the wrong dreams. All, all Wrong.”
NPR this morning aired an interview with Hoffman about his portrayal of Willy Loman. The interviewer asked Hoffman if playing Willy had had an impact on him personally:
"He has two sons who are kind of impressive," Hoffman says. "They're beautiful, talented, physically gifted, but he's not. He's none of those things. I think Willy probably was like that when he was young, but he had no sense of himself. He's never had a sense of himself. He's been cobbling together a narrative from birth."
Hoffman also acknowledges it's easy to judge Loman and the choices he's made. Early in life, the character might have had an opportunity for adventure, but he turned that aside in order to get security. When he learns, at the end of life, that he can't pay his bills or even hold on to his job, it's heartbreaking.
But Hoffman says Loman's struggle is not without value.
"He really did give his life for his sons," Hoffman says. "He didn't do it in a way that's effective, or got what he wanted, or actually nurtured his sons in a way that was going to help them, but he did."
Hoffman, who has three children of his own, says the play is one that provokes thinking on all aspects of life, including family.
"It really seeps into why we're here," Hoffman says. "What are we doing, family, work, friends, hopes, dreams, careers, what's happiness, what's success, what does it mean, is it important, how do you get it?"
Connecting all these themes together, Hoffman says that ultimately, the play is about wanting to be loved.
In the movie, A Late Quartet, there is a scene on a subway train where a young girl is speaking. She seems to be speaking philosophically about old guys. Then you realize she's reading from a poster on the train. I paused the movie to try to read the poster and found it was a poem called Old Men by Ogden Nash
People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when…
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead now. He was not old by any definition; 46. Did he have the wrong dreams like Willy Loman? Could he or did he metaphorically write a "late" quartet while deaf?
There are two things that scare me: tragic endings and poverty. Not just economic poverty, but poverty of the soul--spiritual poverty.
The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations. --Adam Smith
I'm not judging Philip Seymour Hoffman. These questions are just me, soul searching out loud.
I have learned this: Damn addictions. Damn hopelessness. Damn our poor choices.
Blessed are the poor in spirit... -- Matthew 5:3