The Arty Semite

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jewish Role

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share

I’ve been reading the many pieces remembering actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead at the age of 46 of an apparent drug overdose on Sunday morning. Everyone is praising him for his memorable performances in movies such as “Capote” (for which he won an Oscar in 2006), “Moneyball,” “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” and “The Master.” Some writers are even pointing out that many of his best performances were in really bad movies, like “Patch Adams” and “Along Came Polly.”

But no one seems to be recalling his title role in the award-winning 2009 Australian clay animation film, “Mary & Max.” Hoffman voiced Max (full name: Max Jerry Horowitz), a lonely, obese middle-aged Jewish man with Asperger Syndrome living in 1970s New York. He was raised Orthodox, but is now an atheist. He continues to wear his yarmulke, but only because it keeps his brain warm. Max has a penchant for chocolate hotdogs (his own recipe), playing the lottery and the Noblets, characters in an animated television show.

Max becomes pen pals with a little girl in Australia named Mary, who has troubles of her own. She, too, loves the Noblets and chocolate. The film, expertly done in all respects, chronicles the ups and downs of Mary and Max’s relationship over the years, as Mary grows older and Max grows fatter. It’s a brutally honest film, and it makes me cry every time I watch it.

By chance, I happened to re-watch it for the first time in a long time just this past week. My youngest son, who is 12 years old, suddenly recalled something about the movie, so we decided to watch it together one evening.

When the credits rolled, I pointed out Hoffman’s name to my son, mentioning what an incredible actor he is (and now, sadly, was). My son asked whether Hoffman was an old Jewish man, and I said no. “Then, how could he know exactly how to make Max sound so much like Max?” my son wanted to know.

That was Hoffman’s genius and gift. He could fully become Max, just as he could completely embody every other character he played in his far-too-short career.

Max, although he was made of clay, was like most of the other characters Hoffman played on screen. “Sad specimens” is what A.O. Scott called them today in the New York Times.

“The point was to make us believe them and to recognize in them — in him — a truth about ourselves that we might otherwise have preferred to avoid. He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Obituaries, Mary and Max

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.