GRAVES REGISTRY: Blaming the business


In case it hadn't occurred to you, we are right smack dab in the middle of the movie business' annual orgy of self-congratulation for the marvelous entertainments they have turned out like overstuffed animals on an assembly line. That isn't entirely bad news because it means we are roughly halfway to that truly magical moment when the Best Picture Academy Award is handed out and the circus folds its garish tent for another year.

Leonardo DiCaprio won't have to assume the demeanor of Rightfully Annoyed Sophocles when he's questioned about his history of dating supermodels while he hustles shamelessly for his own statuette.

No one ever said it wasn't a tough business. As a matter of fact, the denizens of the movie industry reiterate the "tough business" line almost as often as they stroll down those plush red carpets. The rest of us might reasonably wonder what is so tough about committing a few months time to something for which you will be paid enough money to maintain a small African nation for a decade.

Trying to support two kids by waiting tables in the evening is tough work. Providing medical care to poor residents of an inner city ghetto is tough work. Plowing snow during a blizzard is tough work. In the movie business, however, the line is frequently offered more as an apologia than as something an actor might commit to needlework and place strategically close to his Oscar. We have heard it most recently when one of its stellar lights cast a very dark cloud over filmdom's annual sunburst of self-approbation.

Drug addiction knows no economic perimeters and it has no respect for celebrity. I recently watched the BBC's dramatization of the evolution of the 1983 Broadway revival of "Private Lives." Noel Coward's bauble of a play assumed elephantine dimensions because its two stars were Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Taylor (sharply played by Helena Bonham Carter) was smitten with the stage after her well-received run in "The Little Foxes." Burton (an understandably sullen Dominic West) approached the project with the same enthusiasm with which Marie Antoinette must have beheld the guillotine, but he needed the money ($70,000 per week).

Despite his stature as a stage actor with very few peers, Richard Burton had no illusions about who the public wanted to see. Taylor didn't either. (Burton played one performance for 50 people after it was announced to a sold-out theater that Taylor's understudy would replace her that night.) He had given up alcohol. She was hardly ever without her can of Coke to wash down the prescription pills. She could barely manage to navigate a straight corridor without one hand on the wall for support.

Their affection for each other, despite a few pitched battles, lingered. Burton was incapable of dealing with the magnitude of Taylor's celebrity. She accepted, finally, their inevitable final parting. More importantly, she heeded his plea for her to "get some help."

Elizabeth Taylor's struggle with drug abuse had a relatively happy ending after her highly publicized stay at the Betty Ford Clinic. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's end was tragically different.

Hoffman was a consummate actor, ascending easily into that rarefied realm that Richard Burton once inhabited. He didn't trade on looks or charm or quirky appeal or a bad boy fascination. He won an Oscar, but he hardly needed it to convince anyone of the extent of his monumental talent. You only have to watch a few minutes of his performance in "The Master" to realize how pedestrian and boring most film actors really are.

But, he said that acting was torture for him. He was compelled to do it for the sake of his art. It is easy to speculate that his perception of his art as a personal torture played a role in his death, which has been endlessly recounted in all of its inglorious detail since Hoffman's body was discovered in a Greenwich Village apartment. The indelible work in "Capote" and "Doubt" was suddenly eclipsed by the image of a man lying on a bathroom floor with a needle stuck in his arm.

The fault of a tough business? I don't really think so. As difficult as being a public figure might be -- the extent of which will remain unknowable to most of us -- the lucrative rewards it offers provide options not enjoyed by the aforementioned waitress trying to put food on the table for her kids. Money buys options.

I am sorry that the world has been denied the opportunity to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman expand his breathtaking talent. Brilliant actor, devoted father of three, and wealthy man that he was, he alone is responsible for chosing the path that led to that sad fade out in Manhattan.

Alden Graves is a regular Banner columnist.


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