a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Posts tagged ‘heroin’

Robin WIlliams & Phillip Seymour Hoffman

CapoteI didn’t know Robin Williams. I never had him as a guest on my show. But the seismic impact of his death put me all too much in mind of another shocking seemingly self-inflicted tragedy.

That of the OD of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Phillip, I knew. We looked so much alike, as I have noted before, and I interviewed him more than once and talked to him many times at press events. He always seemed to be nearby.

And the world, and especially, the Show Biz world. My world? Reacted very profoundly to Williams’ horrible manner of passing. It seemed incomprehensible because everything you read about him, and certainly his many, many performances over many decades, seemed to convey joy. And of course, laughter. And well, his exit is not funny, by any means.

And now comes the news of his having Parkinson’s disease, which makes this tragedy a bit more comprehensible. He knew what he was doing. His wife says he was sober. This suicide was a conscious decision on his part, something he had to do. And no one can stop a determined suicide victim. He HAS to go. So he goes…and clearly Williams didn’t care the last image of himself that is now stamped invariably on all his comic antics. It’s so sad. But it was what he wanted to do. And he did it.

Everybody has been asking me about him and his death as if I KNEW him. I’ll say again, I only knew his work. Which I loved.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the more I think about it, must’ve been so out of his mind on smack that he may not have known exactly when he crossed that line of death. I don’t think he has trying to kill himself. Not in the way Williams just did.

I’ve been very troubled and haunted by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. But somehow, Williams’ end has put Phillip’s departure in a kind of perspective I didn’t expect, but needed.  Yes, you still feel awful for the children. They both had three kids. And the wives.

I was drawn to watch “Capote” arguably Phillip’s greatest performance and the one he won the Oscar for. I hadn’t seen it since I first saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, where I am heading once again in a week.

I was totally gripped by “Capote.” I was spellbound all over again. His artistry was operating at its’ highest level in that performance. And the massive achievement it was for him. AND director Bennett Miller, who is still with us and has a new TIFF film “Foxcatcher” that I’m looking so forward to seeing in Toronto.

Phillip is gone. But “Capote” will last forever. I felt incredibly comforted by his harrowing and ultimately heartbreaking performance of the  ultimate user and abuser that  Truman Capote certainly was.

And as I listened to the Special Features Audio Commentary with Phillip and Bennett Miller, who were the closest of friends, at one point Phillip says “Alcoholism was the subplot. Alcohol was always around. Especially towards the end of the film.” Or words to that effect. And alcohol was one of the things that ultimately drove Phillip over the edge at the end also.

Then I picked up an old newspaper(I’m frantically cleaning and simultaneously packing for my big Canadian Trip of trips), the NY post that I was about to discard headlined Phillip on the front page saying “I Am a Heroin Addict.” And of course that made me sad. Momentarily. But then I just kept listening to the Special Features on “Capote” which is like watching the film for two and three times more, I was again comforted by the nuanced, great subtle performance of a lifetime that he gave playing what could have been a huge gay stereotype of a man, but wasn’t at all.

“Capote” was making me happy. Of all films. And at this terrible time, when every magazine and newspaper, and internet site, is blaring out “ROBIN WILLIAMS 1951-2014” at me.( I don’t have a working television right now. But that’s ANOTHER story.) And eventually, the pain and shock of Robin’s violet death will pass, too. And we will be left with the great gift of his talent, and his staggering number of great performances. He made us laugh. Now he’s making us cry. But time will bring a perspective on him, as it has with Phillip.

And we’ll just be happy hopefully, and grateful for the great work they did give us in their lifetimes.

 

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Audra McDonald Soars In the Sublime “Lady Day”

Audra McDonald, who has won more Tonys than any other actress, five at last count, is looking seriously at her sixth, for her superb rendition of the doomed & dying Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille.” McDonald, always masterful, here touches the sublime in a superb interpretation the late, jazz great Holiday.

Watching, and hearing, this silken voice soar over the rainbow, is beyond the beyond. And watching a great singer and a great actress at the absolute peak of her vocal and dramatic prowess is a great, great privilege and a pleasure second to none. McDonald has captured lightning in a bottle.

The legendary MacDonald has an operatic range and Julliard training and was simply magnificent as Bess in “Porgy and Bess”, in what was, up til then, the performance of her career.

Now, she’s done the impossible and topped herself, with her heart-rending, scintillating, melodious “Lady Day.”

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille” is named that for a very specific reason. We here see Billie Holiday right near the end of her drug-addicted and booze-fueled life. She was dead at 44. And Emerson’s Bar and Grille was one of the only places she could play after being imprisoned in New York City for drugs. And it’s in Philadelphia, a town she hates.

“I don’t care if I go to heaven or to hell, as long as it’s not Philadelphia” she says.

She lost her license to perform in New York City clubs because of her prison time. Even though she could and did sing at Carnegie Hall, she couldn’t practice her art in nightclubs.

Her sad, sad life is enlivened and elevated, of course, when she sings. And MacDonald has captured the exact timbre and tone and the tremendous pain behind all of Holiday’s singing. And also the singer’s utter joy in her music.

McDonald has won Five Tonys and is celebrated and lauded wherever she goes. starring on Broadway and in concerts. And she restricts her vocal stylings to exactly match Holiday’s very limited range. But her voice flies up to rapturous emotional heights as Holiday’s did. I felt like I was watching a moonbeam sing.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille” is a very strange cocktail of a play and a musical. It’s really both, and it calls upon McDonald to go places onstage that she’s never been asked to go before. But go there, she does. As she continues to sing and interact with the admiring throng, she is also going to pieces right in front of us.

She literally staggers on to the Circle in the Square stage, from the back room of Emerson’s Bar and Grille, where she was clearly soused to the gills as the play opens, and McDonald weaves her way through the assembled cocktail tables where much of the audience is seated, as if it were a for-real nightclub. She staggers and needs help mounting the stage and sings a couple of upbeat numbers, before she halts her act, to inform the audience of her tragic back story. Her cleaning the steps of a Baltimore whorehouse, and actually working in some herself before she started singing.

She keeps cursing the man in her life who got her hooked on drugs, and now she’s helplessly in the death throes of her addiction, and there’s nothing she can do about it.It isn’t pretty, but Audra McDonald makes it beautiful beyond belief.

She even staggers back through the audience to leave the stage completely to her confused and dismayed musical trio, who vamp until she returns, having clearly shot up in the back room of Emerson’s Bar and Grille.

She wears long white gloves to cover the track marks, and one of them is dangerously slipping and MacDonald returns to the stage glistening with sweat all over, as junkies do. Her bare shoulders slightly soaked and beautiful face sweaty & screwed up into that all-too-familiar, self-satisfied smile of inner glee that junkies have immediately after they get high.This moment was so accurately portrayed, it was chilling.

McDonald builds her definitive portrait of this damaged artist detail by detail, describing one shocking racial incident after the other, so that by the time she sings her signature song, “Strange Fruit” she becomes an unforgettable mixture of pain and beauty.

The song, of course, describes a lynching she has witnessed in the South.

But the joy in this great spirit is incandescent. And a performance of this caliber is so high and so rare, don’t by any means miss it. You’ll never forget it.

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman & I

Phillip Seymour Hoffman & I

It’s soooo difficult to write about the tragic passing of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, because I looked so much like him & was mistaken for him almost constantly.

Especially when he played Truman Capote and won an Oscar for it. Then didn’t acknowledge the real person whom he was portraying so memorably. I got very angry about that more than once, especially at the National Board of Review awards that year when he didn’t even mention Truman or that he was playing a gay character. Nothing. Zip. In that acceptance speech that night or when he went on to win every award in the world that year for “Capote” culminating in the Oscar.And it was the year of “Brokeback Mountain”, too. The Year of the Queer, if ever there was one.

Contrast these acceptance speeches to what Jared Leto, who keeps winning and winning for “Dallas Buyer’s Club” has been criticized for, which is leaving out People with AIDS He’s corrected that.

Phillip never did. He didn’t think it was appropriate, at that time. 2006 which seems like 100 years ago in gay life.

Phillip saw the resemblance between us, too. I remember sitting in the front row of a press conference at the NYFF, can’t remember the name of the film, but he played yet ANOTHER gay part, this time a drag queen named Rusty. And he REALLY looked like me, when I lived in drag in the early ’70s. And he kept turning to look at me in the audience and was clearly disconcerted by the resemblance as I always was.

But for a straight man with a family and children, he played many, many gay parts both before and after Capote. He looked so much like me in some films especially “Boogie Nights” where he heartbreakingly played a young, long-haired P.A. who had a crush on Dirk Diggler. That part was an enactment of me in the ’70s, friends commented to me. It was unnerving. But of course I appreciated the intelligence and the power that went into that characterization.

We came officially face-to-face in the interview for “When the Devil Knows You’re Dead” which I posted in the previous piece here on my blog. And he was as uneasy about the striking resemblance as I was. It was uncanny sometimes. He was a blond. I was a redhead. But my god, it was an unusual similarity. Too close for comfort, and as you can see in the interview, Phillip is strangely scratching himself throughout. It was weird.

I met him many, many times at press events and junkets after this interview, and he always acknowledged me with respect. He played soooo many gay characters, and there I was the living embodiment of the roles he always claimed were “very difficult” for him. Esp. Capote.

He was one of the greatest actors of our time, or any time. He made 50 movies. He was excellent in all of them.

From the Tod Solendz film “Happiness” where he played a creepy telephone stalker that broke him open to a wider recognition. To his last final great role of Willy Loman on stage live in “Death of a Salesman.” It was a great privilege to have seen him onstage in that iconic role. He was clearly too young for it, but there was a desperation about a forty-something man playing someone who was supposed to be twenty years older. And at the end of his life. And as the title says, it was about “Death”. Willy Loman kills himself at the end of the play. It was oddly prescient like Phillip KNEW something.

There was a tremendous rough, urgency to his performance. Like he had to do that part, and he had to do it NOW. Like he knew there was no time left. And it turned out, there wasn’t.

He had played the part in High School, too, according to published reports. He was kind of obsessed with it. Willy Loman is certainly one of the great roles in one of the great plays of American Theater.

And for the record, in all my encounters with him over the many years I was covering him as a critic and entertainment journalist, I never saw or even THOUGHT of anything drug related in reference to him.

He won the Oscar the year of “Brokeback Mountain” when many said that Heath Ledger should’ve won it. And then Heath died in an equally tragic way in similar circumstances.

I wonder if that bothered him. It bothered me.

And then he went on to play even MORE gay roles…Guilt over “Brokeback” and Heath not winning? Who can say?

But the point is he played them all brilliantly, and with a range that we have almost never seen in an American actor.

His agent, whom I mention in the interview, Sarah Fargo “found” Phillip right as he was graduating from NYU UNDERgrad it should be noted. And not their illustrious Graduate Acting Program.

And it was Sarah, who became one of his life-long friends, who jump- started his career by getting him seen and into roles and projects where someone who looked like him would normally not have been seen and seen so quickly. He was a character actor, not a leading man, and I think he always saw himself that way.

He always gave himself 200% to any part. And EVERY part. How different was he in “Boogie Nights” and as the baseball manager in the baseball movie, whose name escapes me at the moment? ETA: “Moneyball”

Or in the indelible preppy monster/alcoholic Freddie that Matt Damon dispatches so abruptly in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”? Or the creepazoid/charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd in “The Master”?

And now that I think back on it the role that he was only moderately effective in was perhaps the role that was closest to him in real life as events have shown,the alcoholic Jamie Tyrone, in the incredible revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Starring Vanessa Redgrave as the tornado/virago of a drug-addicted mother who terrorized her hapless family, she blew on to the stage with hurricane force and pretty much stayed at that unbelievable level of performance throughout the plays three acts.

She was like a demon unleashed and she frightened the wits out of her family and CHANGED THE BLOCKING every night, though not the lines, which I could hear with crystal-clear clarity even sitting in the rear of the orchestra. Phillip shrank from her as his character was supposed to. And she throttled the living daylights out of Robert Sean Leonard every night, but you never knew WHEN she was going to attack him. I saw it twice. I’ll never forget it.

Phillip’s untimely death is such a shock and an incalculable loss to American film and American theater. Maybe leaving us soon so was his way of saying “I’m done now. I’ve nothing more to give. I’ve said what I had to say.” And now he’s gone. In the most lurid way possible. With a needle in his arm.

That small detail will haunt all of us who knew him, and the many millions who knew him through his work. But to know him that way or any way was to love him.

His great, hungry spirit will always be with us. Our hearts go out to his surviving family and friends.

That he will be missed is an underestimate.

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