Into a Black Hole of Happiness


Every year, from the end of January to late February, MovieFanFare turns its attention to the Academy Awards, with polls and articles on past winners (and losers) and predictions for which stars, creators and movies will be taking home the coveted statue. The 2014 Oscar spotlight was noticeably dimmed, however, by the loss of two previous Best Actor winners within 48 hours of each other. On February 1st Maximilian Schell, who took home the 1961 award for his electric turn as a German defense attorney at the Nuremberg War Trials in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, passed away at 83 in his native Austria. This announcement was–sadly, but not surprisingly–overshadowed by the following day’s news that Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose on-target portrayal of author Truman Capote in 2005’s Capote earned him the Oscar the next March, had been found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 46.  

Much has been written about both men and their Academy Award-winning roles, as well as their other nominated performances (Schell as Best Actor in 1973’s The Man in the Glass Booth and Supporting Actor for Julia in 1977, and Hoffman’s three Supporting Actor noms for Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007, 2008’s Doubt, and The Master in 2012). For me, though, while I’m a fan of both Judgment at Nuremberg and Capote, it’s a pair of less talked-about, typically idiosyncratic turns from the duo that I will most remember.  

The 1979 Disney sci-fi thriller The Black Hole is not held in particularly high esteem by most film buffs, and critics at the time thought it an uneven mix of the studio’s ’50s adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, deep space metaphysics à la Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cute robots to cash in on the Star Wars craze of the time. A big factor that held the movie together, however, was Schell’s performance as fanatical scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt, the spaceship commander who refused to let anything–including a rebellious crew or two–stand between him and getting up close to the title cosmic phenomenon. The part was certainly reminiscent of 20,000 Leagues’ crazed Captain Nemo (as well as Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius from Forbidden Planet), and was ripe for overacting and scenery chewing, but Schell managed to keep things under control and gave the character the gravity (no pun intended) he needed.

A very different type of obsession drove Hoffman’s Allen–the sad-sack porn addict who tells his therapist he’s too dull to ever live our his sexual fantasies, then goes back to his apartment and makes obscene phone calls to women–in Todd Solondz’s preternaturally dark 1998 seriocomedy, Happiness. It’s definitely not a role–or a movie–for the squeamish, but for filmgoers whose first major impression of Hoffman came from seeing him as the T-shirted PA hopelessly smitten by Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights the year before, Allen was a logical progression of sorts for the actor. And while his fantasy females may have always been out of reach (which is not to say that he doesn’t wind up reaching elsewhere), Allen does in the course of the film get to experience the touch of a woman, courtesy of infatuated neighbor Kristina (Camryn Manheim), and the two have a scene together that will leave you unable to listen to Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” in the same way again.

Schell and Hoffman were talented stage and screen artists (both also tried their hands at directing, the former with the 1973 drama The Pedestrian and documentaries on his actress sister Maria and ’30s screen siren Marlene Dietrich, Hoffman co-starring with Amy Ryan in a 2010 comedy/drama, Jack Goes Boating), and each could easily play characters whose behavior and actions set them against the grain of society. Their backgrounds may have differed, but their shared gifts were undeniable, and each will be missed.

MovieFanFare would like to hear to you on which performances by Maximilan Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman you’ll most remember. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.