Second Fiddle: Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Late Quartet

Ahead of the five-year anniversary of the talented actor's death, Abe Beame dives into one of his many storied roles.
By    January 30, 2019

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Abe Beame would do anything for The Cause.

February 2nd will mark the five-year anniversary of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. If you are a straight white male of a certain age, calling Hoffman your favorite actor is like saying your favorite movie is The Godfather, but what can I say, I’m a straight white male of a certain age and some days The Godfather is my favorite movie. Aside from Biggie, Hoffman’s death shook and saddened me more than the death of any other stranger in my life. I think it’s sad when any young person dies, and this might make me a sociopath, but there’s a particularly selfish sadness I get from the death of great artists. To his friends and family, I’m sure they’d prefer he’d retired at 46 and had him around for another 50 years, and I would too. But there’s the added loss of all the great movies he’ll never make, the performances we’ll miss on screen and stage. I never got to see Michael Jackson in concert and I never got to see Hoffman in a play.

To commemorate his loss a few months ago, I started an incredibly ambitious project to rank and write up his performance in each of the 50-odd films he’d ever made. It was fun more than anything else. Hanging out with an old friend I didn’t realize I’d missed so much. But I stopped about ¾ of the way through for two reasons. The first was there’s already been multiple lists doing the exact same thing, not to mention an awesome podcast I discovered whose sole mission is to watch and discuss Hoffman’s performance in every film in depth. And the other is I didn’t enjoy being critical about the performances I ranked towards the bottom. I fucking loved the guy. Do you really need to hear me dissect the weak points of his performance in Love Liza, Patch Adams or Owning Mahoney?

But I’ve seen every movie he’s ever been in (Except for Szuler, an early 90s Polish film about plague-ravaged 18th-century Europe). And as I started ranking the films I came to a realization that surprised me. My favorite Hoffman performance ever is the often overlooked, and even for die hards ranking his filmography, the unloved A Late Quartet. It’s an ensemble piece from 2012. I get why it’s an unlikely opinion not many people share. It’s far from the aching weirdos and scumbags Hoffman made a career out of breathing humanity into. It probably doesn’t even crack the top 20 in terms of quality of the films he’s been in.

Its director is an Israeli whose only prior credit was a documentary about a Jewish women’s swim team in in Austria in the 1920s. The main inciting drama of the film is squirmy. You’ll never believe this but a brilliant Israeli violin player has an affair with a much younger woman, the daughter of the husband and wife team he’s in a string quartet with.

Hoffman gets the least rewarding role. He’s an angry, petty egotist who acts out professionally and in his marriage. He’s not particularly slimey or explosive, he’s a middle-aged medium talent frustrated in his marriage and by his ceiling. On a surface level he’s basically Andre Roberson on the Thunder: a thankless glue guy who makes the machine hum. But dig in and there are so many wrinkles and grace notes that make it classic Hoffman, it’s a textbook example of what made him great, a performance you could use to explain him to someone with genuine curiosity and enough time and patience for a few re-watches.  

For starters, I love the world of this movie. It’s not based on a New Yorker short story but it should be. It’s an idealized, intellectual New York where little kids read Ogden Nash on the subway. Juilliard, Lincoln Center, The Met, the Upper West Side townhouses, it’s eternal fall and everyone has an impeccable collection of half zip sweaters, pea coats and scarves. It’s a serious movie about a tight knit group of incredibly passionate people pursuing a dying art. I find the film admirable in its patience and nuance. It is writerly in its detail-mad exploration of an incestuous dynamic, it’s maybe a tad soapy but a great script in how the personal is constantly bleeding into the professional, how the life informs the art and how the art can destroy the lives pursuing it.

The IMDB is an all-timer: Catherine Keener as Hoffman’s spouse, a young Imogen Poots as their daughter, this Russian/Israeli Jew Mark Ivanir as a pompous talented lead for the string quartet at the film’s center, fucking Wallace Shawn randomly shows up, Christopher Walken plays against type as a human being and not a sentient SNL impression and actually ends up as the soul and emotional core of the film. It’s not something I’d recommend for everyone but if you like quiet, serious movies about grownups it’s fucking fantastic.

Hoffman is an open wound, having played literal second fiddle to Ivanir’s lead violin, throughout the Quartet’s storied 25-year history until he decides he doesn’t want to play second fiddle anymore. His wife hooked up with Lerner before Hoffman’s Robert Gelbart got her pregnant and they settled down. He wants to take a turn as lead violin but is summarily shut down by Ivanir and his own wife because they believe his skill set is better suited to playing a support role. Hoffman takes this as an insult to his talent and his manhood. He acts out in infidelity, is immediately caught. Then he basically rampages through the rest of the film burning a series of one on one confrontations to the ground.

Throughout his career as a character actor Hoffman was most often just that, a character, a gallery of misfits, eccentrics, douchebags and weirdos. I always get the sense that Robert Gelbart, a successful passionate New York artist, was as close as he got to playing himself on screen.

There’s the aforementioned scene where Hoffman gets caught cheating and tries to justify his hurt and why he’s acted out, why he needs to assert his ego in an impulsive, ugly way. But I love a quieter scene in the aftermath where he and Keener go to an auction to pick out their daughter’s first violin. It’s given the feel of parents surprising a child with her first car (And at $25,000 it ends up costing quite a bit more, for normal people anyways). They set aside their grievances to lovingly and rigorously marvel at the quality of the instrument, the perfection in its craft, Hoffman takes it for a test drive with a look of exquisite pain on his face as he plays.

They transition into discussing his infidelity and the future of their marriage and Hoffman lays out a brilliant, succinct portrait of his fear and insecurity. He caps it with a seething punctuation.  “Do you really love me, or am I just convenient? Good father, good husband, good second violin player.” Keener says everything without saying anything, guarded and wary and hurt, but Hoffman takes words it would be so easy to play up and is measured, still, forceful as he defends his one night of physical infidelity against 25 years of her emotional infidelity. It’s devastating stuff.

I had a hard time ending up with this as my favorite performance. What I find is when people make career-spanning lists the only real point is whatever is ranked first and whatever is ranked last. You start with the idea that, “X is the best/worst song/film X ever made” and then build a list around that premise to start the internet equivalent of a bar fight but I didn’t have that when I started working on the list you’ll never had to read. I didn’t know how the chips would fall but here is where I ended up. All lists are arbitrary but if you really want arbitrary take a brilliant artist with an incredible body of work and start attempting to order a stacked deck.

Ultimately, this is my favorite performance of his (And I emphasize performance because again, it’s far from his best movie), not just because it’s great, because they’re all great, but because it’s so thematically perfect when you consider the body of work. He’s in this small, great, imperfect film few people have seen, surrounded by an equally talented cast and he’s the best thing on screen by a wide margin. It’s not a flashy role, he’s not the talented charismatic lead, he’s not a bad guy. He’s an antagonist, flawed, kind of a dick, and as an actor he’s just there doing the fucking work in every scene, bleeding and killing everything but not in a way that disrupts tone.

In the film, Hoffman plays second violinist in a quartet. As second violinist his job is to support the ensemble, to paraphrase a character in the film, he adds color, texture, and rhythm. He’s always enhancing his lead, always lifting him up but he’ll never outshine him. The second violin adds the quality. It’s what makes the quartet stand out. This is the very definition of what made Philip Seymour Hoffman special over two decades of work in 51 films, besides one crucial thing. He was the greatest second violin player I’ve ever seen, but he routinely outshone his lead in a way that only lent itself to whatever film he was in. He was a true fucking genius and I’m sad the man is dead, but I miss his talent even more.


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