02/02/2014 02:53 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1968-2014): So Great in the Now Ironically Titled A Late Quartet

Philip Seymour Hoffman, dead of an apparent drug overdose, was one of my favorite actors. And in A Late Quartet -- and how ironic does that title seem now? -- he gave a great performance. It was a crowd-pleaser at film festivals. In the theaters, it grossed an infinitesimal $1.5 million. And disappeared. It certainly did not vanish in the arts cinema near Lincoln Center. We saw it in a packed theater. With a reverent, knowledgeable audience. There was an ovation at the end. Perhaps you'll look at it now.

The title is a pun.

The music that anchors the film is Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, opus 131. Half an hour long, played straight through, it is a bold, original composition that sets the bar extravagantly high for the musicians. Schubert's comment: After this, what is left for us to write? Beethoven agreed; it was his favorite of his late quartets.

There's another pun, and it's much heavier. The Fugue String Quartet has played together for 25 years. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the second violinist, and Catherine Keener, who plays viola, are married. Mark Ivanir, the first violinist, seems like the group's natural leader. In fact, it is Walken, the cellist, who founded the group. ("I'm the dad," Walken told an interviewer.) Playing hundreds of concerts a year, incessantly traveling, tamping down ego for the sake of the group --- few quartets can stay together for a quarter of a century.

So, yes, a quartet in late life.

As the film begins, Walken has just confirmed his darkest suspicion --- the trembling in his hand is the first sign of Parkinson's. Rather than hang on, he wants to retire. Will he be replaced? Or is his exit the sign that the Fugue has run its course, that it is dead? Thus: literally late.

His colleagues are so unhinged by Walken's news that their lives --- all their lives --- are knocked off-center. Watch:

As you'll see, Hoffman wants to share the first violin seat. Ivanir plunges into an ill-advised romance. And when Hoffman doesn't come home one night, Keener wants to end more than the quartet.

Don't think this is an artsy, pretentious movie. It's about people fighting --- clawing --- for meaning in their lives.

I like emotional movies, and I'm an easy cry. But this film gutted me. Mostly because of Walken. His performance is exquisitely dignified, admirably private. He's not chatty, but he doesn't have to be --- his face says it all. And what a face! There's no vanity here. He's 30 years older than his colleagues, and he looks it.

Here's the thing: the more ravaged and tortured Walken looks, the more beautiful I find him. His face is the face of an artist; you can imagine the statue. And in every frame, you can see and you can love the depth of greatness --- of the character and the actor.

And, now, the greatness of Hoffman.


Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, opus 131. 

[Cross-posted from]