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How Philip Seymour Hoffman elevates the human drama 'Mary and Max'

When the late Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away on February 2nd, 2014, cinema lost one of its very best leading actors of all time. Lacking the stereotypical good looks, slim build, and the sharp jawline of a classic American star, Hoffman’s enigmatic personality and naturally affable charm would breathe life into any role he depicted, offering an effortless sense of humanity no matter what type of project he was working on. 

At the turn of the 21st century, Hoffman had a stranglehold on cinema, with his stature so inescapably grand after the success of Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski and The Talented Mr. Ripley, that he could change the fortunes of any contemporary film. Though he is rightfully remembered for his transformative Oscar-winning performance in 2005s Capote and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2012, one cannot ignore the invigorating energy and unpredictability that he brought to his multiple supporting roles, with the voice acting lent to the 2009 movie Mary and Max being one of his most unsung successes. 

A bleak Australian stop-motion adult animation written and directed by debut filmmaker Adam Elliot, Mary and Max told the story of two unlikely pen-pals who supported each other’s personal issues from across the globe. Mary, voiced by Toni Collette, is a lonely Australian girl who struggles to make friends at school, with bullies teasing her because of her prominent birthmark and her home life featuring a distant father and alcoholic mother offering little in support. 

For Mary, her life comforts are limited to her favourite food, condensed milk and her pet rooster named Ethel, this is until she discovers a telephone book at the post office and randomly selects a name from the list to write to. Max, voiced by Hoffman, a morbidly obese man living with Asperger’s syndrome, is the lucky recipient of her letter though this wouldn’t be so obvious at first, with the surprising air-mail giving him an anxiety attack upon delivery.

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Sparking a friendship, mostly thanks to their shared love of the TV show The Noblets, the pair begin to regularly write back and forth, helping one another through the nuanced difficulties of life through their remarkable connection. Though often optimistic, Mary and Max deal with some weighty ruminations, exploring the intricacies of mental health issues, including addiction and loneliness, as well as the acceptance of one’s true self. 

Himself struggling with depression and addiction throughout his life, the context of Hoffman’s difficult personal life no doubt adds texture to Elliot’s intricate animated drama, with the actor’s voice performance providing added depth to the film’s layered male protagonist. Gruffled, raspy, heavy, Hoffman’s performance sounds little like the actor himself but is weighted with all the history of his own past, bringing Max to life with tones that seem weathered by the raucous winds of life. 

For Max, who has long struggled with mental health issues and his inability to embrace that which makes him different, Mary is his only lifeline, with her character also brilliantly brought to life by the effervescent Toni Collette. Though, just as the title suggests, this movie hinges on the symbiotic relationship between the two characters themselves, exploring the near-ethereal moral lesson that is created as a result, with Hoffman’s inspiring performance as Max bolstering the true eloquent significance of their connection.

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