Hoffman, All Too Human

Hermann J Knippertz

An underappreciated genius.

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.”

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