In general, I’m not inclined towards being especially emotionally involved in the life and death of celebrities, but the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman on 2 February at age 46 rattled me to my core, as it seems to have done for a great many people. Part of it is because his death wasn’t merely tragic, but useless in its tragedy; a much greater part is that it wasn’t until hearing those words “Philip Seymour Hoffman has died” that one becomes keenly aware of just how easy the man was to take for granted, and what a titanic force in screen acting we’ve lost. Perhaps because his impeccable run of top-level film performances was so consistently great, with few enough missteps that you can count them on one hand (besides Doubt, was he ever even just mediocre in anything?), it became easy to judge him on a curve, where gestures, line readings, and moments that would seem like career-defining genius for most actors just came off like Hoffman doing his thing. At any rate, looking back over some of his very best performances, I’m astonished by how many of them didn’t seem like anything special to me until a second viewing or a few years had passed, and I suddenly realised just how deep and complex his character-building could be, and virtually always was.
He was a master of little moments buried in rich, burly figures, finding meaningful notes to play in parts as small as Brandt in The Big Lebowski (where his attempt to play off acute embarrassment as amusement when Bunny offers to prostitute herself is one of my favorite beats of physical acting in a Coen movie) or as large and all-encompassing as Lancaster Dodd in The Master, a grandiose figure made up entirely of his moment-to-moment actions and reactions. Simply put, he was one of our most reliably interesting actors, always able to find smart, deep routes into his characters that were at once comfortably familiar and totally unlike what anyone else would or could have done with the part. He was a national artistic treasure, and we are not likely to see his breed again soon.
In his honor, may I present a list of
My 10 Favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances
10. Almost Famous – “Lester Bangs”
The film where, I suspect, he finally emerged from That Guy status to actor and movie star of note to most viewers. It’s a role that relies to great extent on its iconic “uncool” scene, but Hoffman’s gift was in laying the seeds for that moment in every one of the character’s previous appearances. He’s a generous mentor and spirit guide whose function in the film is entirely to flesh out another character, but Hoffman’s work made it clear that Lester has a deep and full-lived history all his own behind his sage advice.
9. Synecdoche, New York – “Caden Cotard”
A character I wish I liked more in a movie I wish I liked at all, but most of the problems I have with Hoffman’s work are rooted in the director’s treatment of the script, and not with himself. Indeed, the actor gave one of his most technically astonishing performances of all time here, grounding a fanciful and highly symbolic scenario in rough, earthy, low-key emotions, aging an entire lifetime and managing to express that as both physical realism and metaphor. It is an astounding portrayal of introspective yearning, something we all feel and something the movies don’t usually deal with.
8. Mission: Impossible III – “Owen Davian”
One of my favorite acting exercises is when a great actor takes a stock role and does something with it that basically nobody else in the whole world would have ever been capable of imagining. There is a theoretical version of this spy thriller bad guy that finds Hoffman spitting and fuming and chewing the scenery, and I’ve loved that. But not have as much as I love how bored Hoffman played Davian, an evil mastermind and bureaucrat whose behavior is infinitely more terrifying because of how matter-of-fact it is.
7. 25th Hour – “Jacob Elinsky”
At heart, though he anchored his fair share of movies, Hoffman was a great character actor first and foremost, whose most impressive work involved taking roles that didn’t “matter” and imbuing them with a depth and lifeforce that made real people out of thinly-sketched figures on the page. Here, Hoffman’s low-key, shy schlub (a surprising and moving contrast with the actor’s big frame) was a major standout in a rich social realist melodrama that’s not even remotely about him, turning a C-plot about misaimed desire into a flawless diorama of human feeling.
6. Magnolia – “Phil Parma”
Making Jacob in 25th Hour look like like the height of complexity, Phil Parma is an absolutely functional element in a script that gives him no inner life at all; I suspect that’s why Paul Thomas Anderson (easily Hoffman’s most important director) cast this actor in this role, knowing that Hoffman was able to to imbue the character with psychological depth that came in how he rolled through the basic actions and lines given to him. He nailed one of the best scenes of acting in the jam-packed film solely by sitting next to a dying man and just listening.
5. The Talented Mr. Ripley – “Freddie Miles”
This would have been the fifth Philip Seymour Hoffman performance I ever saw, but I clearly recall it being the first one where all I could think about afterwards was Who was that amazing actor and When can I see him in something else? And that in the less-than-showy role in a film dominated by gorgeous people and psychopaths. It’s a cunning, wily performance that doesn’t add to the character as written so much as bring him to life with maximum personality and energy; and Hoffman’s line deliveries are miles above everyone else’s.
4. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – “Andy”
At least partially a triumph of casting: Hoffman’s career is dominated by quiet men, by men stuck in their own heads. Certainly never by the bombastic bully that he played here, and part of what makes this such a standout in his career is the unique chance it gave to see him in that register. Novelty only goes so far, though, and what lands this in the upper echelon of Hoffman performances for me is the focused human truth that the actor uses as the basis for his loutish behavior.
3. Capote – “Truman Capote”
One of the most electric cases of biopic mimicry in recent memory, in part because 5’10” Hoffman was a bear of a man while 5’3″ Capote was more of an elf, and the actor’s soft, lilting vocal inflections tend to emphasise rather than diminish that gap between performer and role. It’s one of the many things that causes Hoffman’s Capote to seem like such a potent figure even in a movie that has already been handed to him on a platter; that and the the casual way that Hoffman introduces Capote’s most unsavory characteristics with subtle flashes, after having wallowed in his more surface-level intellectual charisma.
2. The Savages – “Jon Savage”
He’d already be high on the list just for playing one-half of one of the most lived-in sibling relationships of modern cinema, affecting a chemistry with Laura Linney that never for an instant betrays any doubt that these two people have decades of shared and sometimes acrimonious history with each other (his reactions to her reactions to his living space are perfect). But there’s a remarkable act of creation of a nuanced, difficult human, expressing his bleakest emotions in terrifically raw, direct moments; Hoffman’s physical performance of sorrow and regret is gorgeous and heartbreaking.
1. The Master – “Lancaster Dodd”
A performance I was indifferent if not hostile to the first time I saw the movie; only upon re-watching it, and thus able to pay attention to other things than Joaquin Phoenix’s pyrotechnic display of focused opacity, was I blown completely away by Hoffman’s sheer range of minor-key tricks and gestures. Any performance that includes his blunt delivery of the processing scene, his snappish, immediately-regretted impatience at Laura Dern’s earnest questions about his philosophy, and his melancholic performance of “Slow Boat to China”, is a performance firing on every imaginable cylinder, and it’s a real blessing of the performance that it only gets deeper and more mysterious the longer one thinks about it.