An underappreciated genius.
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When the world suddenly and tragically lost Philip Seymour Hoffman this week, journalists scarcely knew where to begin in summarizing the actor’s work. No wonder – prolificacy is one of the surest signs of genius.
Many thought first of his Oscar win for the biopic, Capote. (“My friends, my friends, my friends,” he uttered from the stage, covering his eyes with a trembling hand.) Others would recall his five collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia, and most recently, The Master. (About Magnolia, Hoffman declared: “I think Magnolia is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I can say that straight and out. And anybody that disagrees with me, I’ll fight you to the death.”)
Each of these performances deserves a book, and in PTA’s films alone, Hoffman’s unbelievable range is on full display. But between 1992’s Scent of a Woman to 2014’s God’s Pocket, there is so much more to see. He made us howl with laughter as the schlubby best bud in Along Came Polly (“Let it rain!”) and the uptight assistant in The Big Lebowski (“This is our concern, Dude.”) He made us cringe as a hopeless widower in Love Liza and a hapless gambler in Owning Mahoney. He shined as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous and Father Flynn in Doubt – two of my personal favorites.
Doubt – an adaptation of a stage play by John Patrick Shanley – was for many the only glimpse they’d ever get into Hoffman’s stage work. He acted in classics like True West, A Long Days Journey into Night, and Death of a Salesman, and directed Jesus Hopped the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot for the Labyrinth Theatre Company.
Jesuit priest, author, and “Colbert Report” chaplain Fr. James Martin was asked to be a theological advisor for both Judas Iscariot and Doubt. In a recent Facebook post, Fr. Martin shared his memories of the noble man behind so many ignoble characters: “He was a lovely person, who instantly made me feel welcome and never, ever, put on airs… Phil was so devoted to his work, took pains to get every aspect of his performance as a priest correct, and, as such, it was a real grace to watch him work. Seeing him act was a reminder of what it means to have a real vocation.”
Because of his roles in intense dramas both on screen and off, Hoffman will always be remembered as a serious character actor. But the man also knew how to lighten up and deliver some good old fashioned entertainment. He starred in Twister, Mission Impossible 3, and The Hunger Games – big, fun movies all. “There’s certain jobs that you can take on sometimes that are fun and visceral… but they don’t have the emotional depth,” Hoffman explained in one interview. “You just have a lot of fun playing it, and people have a lot of fun watching it. And I’m all for that.”
Yet we still feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface. What about Moneyball? The Ides of March? Charlie Wilson’s War? Synecdoche, New York? The list goes on and on.
In short: Philip Seymour Hoffman was everywhere, but it also felt like he was nowhere. Some moviegoers probably felt like they had seen that pallid everyman in dozens of films without really knowing which ones. (“Oh yeah, that guy. What was he in again?”) Some probably passed him in Greenwich Village without knowing it; it was often said that he walked and rode around the neighborhood just like anyone else, unconcerned with his own celebrity. What mattered to him was clearly the stories, the characters; the rest was just details.
Now a media storm is descending with its loveless curiosity, turning up more questions than answers, reducing his life to a platform to talk about heroin. But whatever haunted Philip Seymour Hoffman and drove his addiction is in God’s hands; what matters most is what he did with his time on earth despite it.
From the Broadway stage to the silver screen, Hoffman made it his life’s work to plumb the depths of dozens of unique personalities and figure out what made them tick. Lechers, losers, loners, robbers, jesters, clerics, addicts: he knew them all, and knew them all too well. Nothing human was alien to him.
But the true measure of his genius wasn’t in playing outcast characters with honesty and depth – though he undoubtedly did that. Instead, it was in finding the outcast in everyone, and reflecting the outcast in each of us. What he showed us time and time again was that we’re all in the same boat – and we’re all seasick. “If you're a human being walking the earth,” he once observed, “you're weird, you're strange, you’re psychologically challenged.”
Or, as Pascal put it centuries earlier, “Man does not know the place he should occupy. He has obviously gone astray; he has fallen from his true place and cannot find it again.”
That is the human condition that Philip Seymour Hoffman spent his life exploring with indefatigable passion – and thank God he did.
Matthew Becklois a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.