Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman: His 8 Best Performances

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Philip Seymour Hoffman was a powerhouse actor of the screen and stage, a man of tremendous depth and emotional versatility and a dynamic presence who brought gravitas to virtually any project he was involved in. He inhabited a vast array of indelible characters, including real-life journalists Lester Bangs and Truman Capote (in an Oscar-winning role) and some very sleazy, insecure and repulsive men who felt just as true to life.

Many of the parts he took were characters who were not pretty or decent in any way, from the bullish gambling addict in Owning Mahoney to the magnetic cult leader in The Master to an obscene phone stalker in Happiness. However, he brought to these flawed men a humanity that made these characters more than what they seemed. Now dead from an apparent drug overdose at 46, Hoffman’s life was cut far too short.

His exceptional body of work, which spans more than 60 acting credits within 25 years, contains many of the finest American films in recent memory. It was no wonder he drew the attention of so many terrific directors, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet. Hoffman leaves behind a legacy as one of the most dedicated and eclectic actors of his generation, if not the very finest. We anticipate his final films – recent Sundance premieres God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man, and the final two installments of The Hunger Games – with a heavy heart.

Join us, as we take a look at some of the late actor’s most essential performances.


Phil Parma In Magnolia

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No director was a bigger help to Philip Seymour Hoffman than Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast the actor in five of his six features (all except for There Will Be Blood). In Boogie Nights, one of Hoffman’s earliest breakthroughs, he brought shades of sorrow to his small role as a meek porn filmmaker. With Punch-Drunk Love, Hoffman flipped 180 degrees and played a royally pissed-off supervisor of a sex phone line.

However, it is his performance in Magnolia, small but nuanced, that leaves a bigger impression. He plays one of the few decent souls in Anderson’s three-hour opus about family, neglect and misplaced love. As Phil Parma, the gentle nurse tending to a dying Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), Hoffman stands as Partridge’s last resort to connect him with his long-lost son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise).

In one of the film’s most devastating pieces of acting, Hoffman nervously calls the hotline of Mackey’s company and pleads with them to find him. Here, the actor moves away from some of the lunacy and perversity of his earlier roles and delivers a plea that is both impassioned and human. It’s one of the only times when he was one of the calmest presences onscreen, but Hoffman finds courage and humanity in the person on the other end to ensure this connection happens.

Few actors could have sold this indulgent line with the conviction and vulnerability that Hoffman did:

“I know this sounds silly and I know that I might sound ridiculous, like this is the scene in the movie where the guy’s trying to get a hold of the long lost son, you know. But this is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, because they really happen.”

He may be a small part of an enormous ensemble, but with that role, Hoffman proved he was no small actor.

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Lester Bangs In Almost Famous

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Hoffman will always be remembered for his dramatic range, but he was also a versatile comedic actor. His droll turn as a smooth-talking CIA agent in Charlie Wilson’s War (seen below) was that film’s highlight and earned him his second Oscar nomination. However, it was his performance as Creem editor and critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous that’s as iconic as it is iconoclastic.

It’s quite amazing that the coolest character in a movie about rock and roll is the rock and roll critic. But Hoffman is a head-banger and a thinker, a man who embraces music to the extent that he empowers others to feel rock’s groovy, thrashy licks as much as he does. He loves to slam Jim Morrison and christen Iggy Pop, and in that regard, he thinks of himself as a rock star. He criticizes “the industry of cool” but also tries to be a part of it.

We see a bit of that humanity behind his self-effacing critique when he becomes the mentor to the budding journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit). Under a shaggy hairdo and sunglasses, Bangs makes for a wonderful guide, teaching the chaste young writer some good techniques to help him from becoming starry-eyed on the road. The two share a touching bond that makes Bangs like a father figure for Miller.

One of the pieces of advice Bangs gives to Miller is that, as a journalist, it’s necessary to “make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful.” Through the rest of his career, Hoffman made his impact on the industry by being those very two things. But he never looked as glamorous or as approachable as when he got under the skin of one of music culture’s foremost, most fascinating voices.

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Jacob Elinsky In 25th Hour

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Philip Seymour Hoffman rarely took the spotlight or leading role, but he was usually a pivotal part of big ensemble projects. Another terrific role of his was Jacob, a shy, tightly wound high school professor trying to prove that he is a competent, confident man, in Spike Lee’s masterful drama 25th Hour.

Hoffman provides the yin to Barry Pepper’s hotshot stockbroker yang. Pepper is Frank, who boasts about his money, power and sexual prowess to a disgruntled Jacob. Frank believes that Jacob is in the “62nd percentile of men,” which sinks the teacher’s boat. Emasculated, Jacob decides to make a move on the high-school junior (Anna Paquin) he has a thing for.

As the petrified, timid teacher, Hoffman has to swallow his pride and walk a bit on the wild side. He gives a character a great arc, shifting between what is proper and the pressure to prove himself as more than the sum of his parts. With a big frame and wounded face, Hoffman had to play many roles that were more humiliating than vindicating, as souls tortured by addiction, depression and obsession. As Jacob, he brings a fierce vulnerability to the screen as a timid New Yorker trying to make an impression. It is one of the most understated but memorable roles of his career.

At the end of his Great Movies column on the film, Roger Ebert finishes his review with a coda to Hoffman’s strengths:

“I’ve seen a lot of people drinking in a lot of movies. I’ve seen them sobering up the morning after. But I don’t remember anyone starting out sober, getting drunk and then returning to sobriety quite like Hoffman does it here. We know exactly where he’s at during these transitions, but we never see them happening.”

Considering the tough circumstances surrounding his loss, it is quite terrifying to know that much of his pain related to past addictions probably coloured and informed much of his best work, including this stellar turn in one of Spike Lee’s finest joints.

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Lancaster Dodd In The Master

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Perhaps the final great performance of Hoffman’s illustrious career is his mesmerizing turn as the leader of a devout cult in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a film that both describes his character and his clout as one of American cinema’s most esteemed contemporary actors. Dodd is, as he tells erratic drunk Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher… above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man – just like you.” The cult leader is both revolted and riveted by his new friend, who is looking for his own salvation. Mighty and merciless, Hoffman arrests the viewer with a multi-faceted performance.

This is not a mere lambasting of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who inspired the character to some extent, but a flawed, fully-dimensional man with two very different sides. He is mixed up between faith and lust. As a spiritual leader, Dodd is a comforting presence to others, hoping to tame the negative influences of one’s life and send their soul back to a state of perfection. However, he has difficulty taming his own lust for power and the drink, as he becomes Quell’s close friend. He may be a compelling, commanding leader, but Dodd has a repressed rage that can consume him.

Hoffman has rarely been so commanding in any form. In one of the film’s most arresting moments, he confronts a man skeptical of his cause’s mission. Slowly, as the man breaks into Dodd, Hoffman starts to disintegrate, revealing layers of rage and disillusionment until his demure façade is gone and a growling preacher remains. It is bitter, terrifying, exceptional acting and one of the actor’s finest scenes. Filled with discipline as well as desperation, Hoffman’s portrayal as Dodd takes the audience on a journey with as much range and colour as the actor himself.

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Caden Cotard In Synecdoche, New York

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Few films in the 21st century have challenged an audience as much as Synecdoche, New York (heck, even most of the people in the box office line could not even pronounce its title correctly). However, audiences who found Charlie Kaufman’s drama confounding were still likely riveted by Hoffman’s gigantic, uncompromising turn as a mad theatre director whose life becomes the focus of a most ambitious staging.

It is hard to think of another actor who could have brought Caden Cotard, a theatre director battling with his own misery, to life with such depth and luminosity. As the tortured artist, Hoffman is a revelation. Moving between states of reality and deranged fantasy (or is it a fallacy?), he keeps the film grounded and the viewer absorbed in the character’s mental madness. Cotard has his regrets and dismays and hopes that the plays he stages can teach others how not to screw up as much as he did. He keeps on casting new women to be his leading lady (i.e. his wife). He feels that his body is betraying him and he can only use his mind as a weapon to combat the oppressive feelings he has toward everyone. The saying goes that art imitates life. And so, a man unhappy with life is filled with a dizzying ambition to tell a play about the people and problems in his life.

In his character’s magnum opus that unfolds in the second half of the film, Hoffman injects the bruising, painful, melancholy bursts that makes us admire and pity Cotard at once. As the deranged but not defeated director, Hoffman mines both sadness and hope in the portrayal, creating something staggering and infinitely heartbreaking. It is one of the actor’s most defiant, daring performances, and one so essential to the success of Kaufman’s film that it is hard to imagine this incomparable drama without him.

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Owen Davian In Mission: Impossible III

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It takes quite a bit of skill to steal a Tom Cruise movie out from under Tom Cruise, but Philip Seymour Hoffman damn near made you root for the villain when he took up the role of Owen Davian in J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. Although Davian was pursuing a MacGuffin of unexplained scope and significance called the Rabbit’s Foot, what was crystal clear was that he was willing to do anything, and kill anyone to get it. Spy movie bad guys are usually tuned in a way that’s ludicrous and over the top, but Hoffman played up the menace and the ruthlessness to create a cold and calculating power broker that gives Cruise’s Ethan Hunt a real run for his money.

So what makes Owen Davian stand out amongst bad guys? Well, as another famous villain once said, he’s a man of his word. Upon being captured by the IMF, Davian threatens to get back at Ethan by killing the woman he loves, his fiancée Julia, right in front of him, and later he does exactly that.

Granted, it was a decoy wearing one of those face mask deals, but the effect was just as real, and it certainly shook Ethan in a way no other baddie in the previous two Mission: Impossible movie had. You have to admire a character that can tear down the perfectly chiselled exterior of Tom Cruise, and make him sweat. You also have to admire a character that can be hung out of a plane mid-flight and keep his cool and even manage to come back with a threat of his own. Considering that Michael Nyqvist’s villain Hendricks barely makes a blip in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hoffman’s Davian still stands as the franchise’s best bad guy.

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Father Flynn In Doubt

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Arguably, the sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic priests is the worst incident to erode the moral authority of the Church in its 2,000 years. The scandal has provided numerous “ripped-from-the-headlines” inspired stories, but few movies have dealt with the power of the suspicion that comes from these allegations, and the dangers of living in a culture of reckless distrust in quite the same way that Doubt did.

The plot centers on Sister Aloysius (played by Meryl Streep), who is single-mindedly determined to prove that her parish’s priest, Father Flynn (Hoffman), is abusing an altar boy. Aloysius finds the attention Flynn pays to the boy, the school’s only black student, suspicious, but Flynn’s reasonable explanations only emboldens her further to find dirt on him.

The viewer is dared in equal measure to suspect Flynn and believe him innocent, and Hoffman works hard to make sure he doesn’t lead us one way or the other. Though the actor has often played bad men, and done so to tremendous acclaim, Flynn seems quite likeable. He’s got humor, and kindness, and seems genuinely engaged and concerned with the people of his parish, especially young Donald Miller who may be getting abused at home. How can this man be doing the horrid things that Aloysius thinks he’s doing we ask ourselves. But there’s something there. Something in the way he responds to Aloysius’ examination, something in the look on his face when she confronts him with “allegations” from his old church. Like Aloysius, in the end, we all have our doubts about our well-worn perceptions.

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Truman Capote In Capote

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I heard somebody say that you can’t do a caricature of Truman Capote because he himself was nearly a caricature of Truman Capote. Playing up the famous author’s ticks and mannerisms is easy, but getting under the surface to explore what drove the man to write what might be his best known work, and what was definitely his final book, required an actor of incredible skill.

Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for playing Capote in the film of the same name, directed by Bennett Miller. Sure, we get to see Capote for all his quirks and quarks, but we also get to see the author less composed, struggling with the secrets and lives and half-truths he’s peddled in order to complete In Cold Blood, and whether or not he had enough of a conscience to care.

Throughout the breadth of the film, Hoffman keeps in mind the many facets of Capote’s personality. On the one hand, there’s Capote the self-promoter, always talking about this book he’s working on and about how it will be break the mould of previous crime novels published by being a true crime, crime novel.

Later, after he reads excerpts to a New York audience, one his subjects, Perry Smith (played by Clifton Collins Jr.), asks about the title “In Cold Blood,” feeling his confidence betrayed by Capote with such an inflammatory name for the novel. Capote assures him that the title was slapped on prior to the reading by his publisher. It’s a flat out lie though, as we see the author brag about his title selection to Kansas Bureau of Investigations detective Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper).

Capote is so determined to keep his access to Smith and his co-conspirator Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) that he’ll tell them anything to get his “ending.” After Smith and Hickock have been hanged for their crimes, Capote asks his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) if there was anything he could have done to save them from their fate. “Maybe not; the fact is you didn’t want to,” she says. It’s a cold drink of truth, and in the end, through Hoffman, you realize that Capote knew it too.

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    And anybody could name another 10 that match up with these. That’s how good he was.