Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Retrospective


Early Sunday afternoon, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was discovered dead in his Manhattan apartment. He was just 46 years old.

Unequivocally one of the greatest character actors to ever grace the screen and stage, Philip Seymour Hoffman possessed an expansive range and skill that allowed him to create memorable characters from all walks of life, whether it be a priest, a chronic masturbator, a major league baseball team manager, a rock n’ roll journalist, a nurse, a CIA operative, a washed up child actor, or a phone-sex line supervisor/mattress store owner. Every scene Hoffman was in, he owned. While he could effortlessly command the attention as the film’s focal point, it was his extensive work in ensembles that proved to be Hoffman’s wheelhouse; his interplay with his co-stars was poetry in motion, feeding off their energy to make for a memorable cinematic experience. He never made it about him. He relished in being a key component of a well oiled machine whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

With a career that extends over 20 years, Philip Seymour Hoffman gave us iconic characters in films such as Moneyball, Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Big Lebowski, Red Dragon, Almost Famous, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Doubt, The Savages and even Twister. And those are just some of the movies *left off* this list (also not including his widely heralded theater performances and the two films he stars in that debuted at Sundance in January)! You could ask a group of random strangers what their favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman role was, and they’d each give you a different answer, yet they’d all make sense. That is a powerful and influential legacy to leave behind. A true master of his craft.

Below are 5 of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s most outstanding performances:

5. Jacob Elinsky, 25th Hour
Equal in both gravitas and shame, 25th Hour finds director Spike Lee centering on the seductiveness of the American Dream, the cultural climate of a nation in mourning, plus themes of identity, legacy and reinventing oneself in a sobering, gloomy post-9/11 New York landscape. While the narrative is focused on Edward Norton’s fatalistic Monty as he reflects on his life the day before his 7 year prison bid on drug charges starts, it is Jacob Elinsky (played by Hoffman) as Monty’s insecure, emotionally conflicted best friend who provides the much needed air of gentleness and innocence to contrast the brash, aggressive nature of Norton, Barry Pepper and Rosario Dawson’s characters. Hoffman deftly balances the acceptance of his friend paying for his crimes with the sadness and pain of having that happen to someone so close. The real brilliance in his portrayal, however, is his interactions with one of his much younger students, played by Anna Paquin. What could’ve easily devolved into a “creepy old guy” predatory pursuit, Hoffman conveys Jacob as fascinated– not obsessed- with her because she represents everything he is not: brave, confident and sexually liberated. Hoffman was a powerfully quiet scene stealer, which is no easy feat with fellow actors of this caliber.

4. Scotty J., Boogie Nights
The second film (Hard Eight being the first) of a monumental collaborative relationship that would span over a decade, 1997’s Boogie Nights united director Paul Thomas Anderson with a brilliant, gorgeous ensemble cast that included Hoffman, Mark Whalberg, Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Burt Reynolds, Heather Graham and William H. Macy in an epic full of interweaving story arcs about the porn industry in the late 1970s. The film provided Mark Whalberg the breakout role he deserved as well as two Oscar nominations for Moore and Reynolds in supporting roles. Still relatively unknown at the time, Hoffman may not have gotten the most time on screen as the homosexual film-crew member Scotty,  but whenever he was the camera’s focus, his presence radiated. One of the most memorable scenes is a fumbled attempt at making a move on Whalberg’s Dirk Diggler, and although Dirk denied him as politely as one could, Scotty flees to his car and cries alone while repeatedly calling himself “a fucking idiot”. You immediately sympathize with the harmless fool, but not in a condescending way. It remains a testament to Hoffman’s prowess; very few actors could inspire such pathos within such a truncated screen time.

3. Owen Davian, Mission Impossible III
General consensus tells us that MI:3 was a weak installment into the Mission Impossible franchise both in story and in box office language, as it grossed the least amount of money domestically and worldwide out of them all. The easiest scapegoat would be Tom Cruise, as MI:3 was released at the apex of his looney public meltdown and nauseating Scientology promotional campaign. Safe to say there was Cruise-fatigue as audiences grew completely turned off by the off-screen persona of the biggest movie star of all time. What you couldn’t blame the film’s failures on was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was piercingly cold (freezing would be a more appropriate description) in his first blockbuster villain role, Owen Davian. He was no-nonsense and took no prisoners (well, he took a couple… and they wound up with a bullet or tiny explosive device in their head), and actually caused the usually stoic Ethan Hunt (Cruise) to completely unravel and crack his cool, calm and collected code. It was a delightfully evil performance. I will go out on a limb and say Owen Davian belongs in the pantheon of all time best action movie villains with the likes of Hans Gruber.

2. Lancaster Dodd, The Master
Another Paul Thomas Anderson concert that netted Hoffman his fourth Oscar nomination, The Master displayed each intricate layer of Mr. Hoffman’s acting range as he assumed the role of brilliant but manipulative cult leader Lancaster Dodd: compassionate and unassuming, confident and captivating, volatile and teeming with frightening rage. We want to hate Dodd for his charlatan behavior and for preying on the emotionally vulnerable, but Hoffman’s gift has always been evoking empathy and intrigue, even in the most disgraceful of characters. There was a rhythmic quality to his performance, delivering eloquent speeches so full of gusto and intensity that it was like watching Hoffman conduct a symphony. This role would unfortunately be one of his last, and what tour de force it was.

1. Truman Capote, Capote
Who would’ve thought that it would be the work of a bulky, cherub-like actor to perfectly embody the dainty, petite frame and complex personality of famed author Truman Capote. Adopting the nasally high pitched voice and effeminate mannerisms, Hoffman could’ve allowed it to be a one-note caricature. Instead, he masterfully surpasses merely imitating Mr. Capote — it’s a fully realized performance that feels more like real-life footage of the man rather than an actor in makeup. It was a sensitive portrayal of a tortured artist whose personal life was completely undone by fully immersing himself into his craft; Capote conflated his personal and professional lives in a completely distressing way, falling in love with a convicted killer who was the subject of his latest literary assignment. I’d like to think this reflected Hoffman’s own ethos: a fully committed actor who brought every ounce of his own personal existence (demons included) to each character’s shoes he stepped in, humanizing them and adding a depth we couldn’t think was possible.

His role as Truman Capote won him the Academy Award for Best Actor, and rightfully so. His acceptance speech remains one of my favorites in Oscar history in all of its graciousness and pure humility. He thanks his mother for raising four kids all on her own, and credits her for taking him to his first play. “Her passions became my passions”, he declared. We should also thank Mr. Hoffman’s mother, for as her passions became his passions, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passions became our entertainment. And what a pleasure it was and will continue to be as we revisit his immortalized work.

Erik Abriss
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles. He knew when he was voted "Adam Sandler Look-Alike" for his 7th grade yearbook superlatives his movie nerd personality was solidified. Follow him on twitter (@Jew_Chainz) for more incendiary views on all things film. Goonies never say die!

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