I was a sophomore in college when I first watched Phil play Phil.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman's untimely death this week has the news abuzz and fans saddened. I've seen over half of the films he starred in not because of him but because he starred in films worth watching. When I came across an online poll to vote for "your favorite Phillip Seymour Hoffman character," the choice was easy.
In Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film, Magnolia, Hoffman plays a nurse named Phil Parma who tends to a wealthy, dying, and regret-filled millionaire named Earl Partridge. Before you load your Netflix page and add the movie to your "queue," please hear this warning. This movie deserves its R-rating. The subject matter is rough. Much of the language is foul. Tom Cruise's eyes are so creepy that you'll want to look away when he stares into the camera. The movie runs for an exhausting three hours as we follow dozens of characters around Los Angeles.
At the same time, it's a magnificent story of different people's stories. Magnolia is a work of art, but that art is downright difficult to watch.
Phil Parma is a shining piece in the puzzle. We learn about Phil not by what he tells us about himself but rather by how he treats Earl. He cares for the dying man's physical needs, measures his medicine, and monitors his vital signs. He also reads between the lines of Earl's spiritual and emotional health. He learns that there is an estranged son named Frank, played by the previously-mentioned Tom Cruise. Phil senses the resentment and unforgiveness. He realizes that the dying man will never rest in peace unless there is an attempt to make peace with his son. Phil spends most of the movie trying to be that instrument of peace.
Once Phil embarks on reuniting father and son, nothing can stop him. In the scene shared above, he has made numerous phone calls and met resistance at every turn. He finally reaches someone who listens him. As his voice breaks and tension swells, he begs for someone else to care. In Hoffman's performance, we witness a caregiver consumed with wanting his patient to be whole-- in body, soul, and spirit.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.*
Phillip Seymour Hoffman's struggle with, relapse into, and subsequent death from addiction are tragic. No matter how much the character named Phil lovingly cared for someone else, the actor named Phillip succumbed to a disease that kept him from caring lovingly for himself.
Sometimes we find the gospel in R-rated films. We learn to love one another from the performance of a troubled artist. And we learn to love the troubled artists, for we are all flawed, creative beings. Phil Parma is the kind of guy who would want Phillip Seymour Hoffman to be made whole. Christ desires that we all be made whole in Him. Will you embrace his love by embracing one another?
all good things to each of you,
* John 13:34 (New Revised Standard Version)