An Actor Who Makes Me Hear Stradivarius and See Mark Rothko

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It's difficult to think about any other American actor whose premature death created such an avalanche of tributes to his unique talent. Philip Seymour Hoffman was only 46 years old when he died a few days ago, but the sheer number and variety of the roles he played – both on screen and on stage – are enough to make an actor twice his age proud of such accomplishments.

I fell under the spell of Hoffman's voice for the first time in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the movie where his character confronts the pathological liar played by Matt Damon. And the tool with which his character virtually tears apart Mr. Ripley is his voice, the unique sonorous voice that Philip Seymour Hoffman used as if it were a priceless Stradivarius.


Philip Seymour Hoffman
Photo by Wolf Gang


His voice and his appearance changes dramatically from role to role. When I saw him play Truman Capote, for which he won an Oscar in 2006, I could have sworn that he shrank down to half of his usual bulky frame. And his voice… It felt like he replaced his Stradivarius with the whining, nasal sounds of the banjo.

Being a great character actor, Hoffman was blessed with a rather ordinary appearance, which allowed him to change his look and character drastically from role to role. His opposite would be a very gifted actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, who is both blessed and cursed with great looks, which doesn't permit him to venture beyond the expectation.


Mark Rothko
Photo by monkeytypist

Lucky for us, Philip Seymour Hoffman and his challenging characters will continue to live through his movies. Somehow, his magic ability to make these moody characters endlessly interesting makes me think of the genius of Mark Rothko, whose iconic paintings enthrall and seduce us with their colors, so deep, so moody, and so endlessly beautiful.


Roger Fenton, "The Prince and the Queen," 1854
Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
Photo courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum

Attending the opening of the new exhibition at the Getty Museum, A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography, reinforced the sense of melancholy that set in after I heard the news of Hoffman's death. There are more than a hundred photographs in this exhibition, most of them portraits of Queen Victoria, her beloved Prince Albert, and their princely children. It was intriguing for me to learn that the beginning of Queen Victoria's long reign coincided with the invention of the new medium of photography, and subsequently both she and her husband became avid collectors of photography.


Installation View of "A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography"
at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014
Photo by Edward Goldman


Seeing this exhibition feels as if you are travelling leisurely back in time, getting up close and personal with the long decades of the 19th century. This exhibition gives us a chance to see a number of rare images on loan from The Royal Collection.


Installation View of "A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography"
at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014
Photo by Edward Goldman


And here's an exhibition that promised a much-needed boost of energy, but somehow failed to deliver. I am talking about the newly opened exhibition at LACMA, Fútbol: The Beautiful Game. 50 works by about thirty artists tells you about the game much celebrated and adored throughout Europe and Latin America. I am not a big sports fan, but when I grew up in the Soviet Union, the name of famous Brazilian player, Pelé, was a household name even there, in spite of the Cold War and total isolation.


(L) Andy Warhol, "Pele," 1978
University of Maryland Art Gallery, College Park, MD
© 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo Courtesy LACMA
(R) Stephen Dean, "VOLTA," 2002-2003
Collection of William and Ruth True, Seattle
Courtesy of the artist and Baldwin Gallery, Aspen
© Stephen Dean. Photo Courtesy LACMA

There is a portrait of Pelé by Andy Warhol in the exhibition, but it's rather bland and uninspiring as a work of art. The large color photograph by Andreas Gursky is far from his best as well. And so it goes... There are photographs, videos, and paintings by well and less known artists, but it feels like most of the works were chosen on the basis of fútbol being their subject, and not because of their originality and artistic merit. I also wonder why the exhibition installation is so proper, so rigid instead of being appropriately over the top, noisy, and exciting – the way the whole world adores fútbol, the very game this exhibition was meant to celebrate.

Banner image: (L) Philip Seymour Hoffman, photo by Wolf Gang; (R) My Grandfathers Violin, photo by josémaría