A day has passed since beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman tragically passed away in his Manhattan home; even so, it’s difficult to register the fact that he’s gone, and far too soon.
But while the loss is immense, Hoffman left behind a vast, impressive array of performances in an equally vast range of films dating back to the early 90s – from game-makers to drag queens, US spies to arms dealers, compulsive gamblers to cult leaders.
Today, we mourn his passing, and also celebrate his contributions to his craft in our list of 10 Essential Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances.
Happiness may be the most uncomfortable movie Todd Solondz has ever made, which is saying something in light of how uncomfortable most of his movies are.
In that same vein, Hoffman’s role in the film – that of sniveling pervert Allen, would-be suitor to sisters Helen and Joy Jordan – might be one of the most discomfiting roles of his entire career.
Viewers are used to seeing Hoffman play complicated, self-disintegrating men. Allen at least partially fits that bill, and yet the character has an unnerving menace in him that isn’t often seen throughout Hoffman’s filmography.
Sidney Lumet’s final film, an intricately made, smartly told story about the complications of family relationships, puts Hoffman front and center as the driving force behind the entire plot.
Here, Hoffman plays Andy, a drug-addicted payroll executive in dire need of cash; to that end, he schemes to rob his parents’ jewelry store with the help of Hank (Ethan Hawke), his younger brother. It’s a perfect crime that ultimately goes spectacularly wrong.
We’re left to watch Andy slowly go down in flames as he tries to put the pieces back together, and Hoffman brilliantly ratchets up his desperation as he tries to cover up his guilt.
Hoffman wasn’t known for being a big genre star, yet he made an appearance in J.J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible 3 to give the film its villain, the thoroughly dangerous Owen Davian.
Davian could arguably be the best bad guy in the franchise to date; he’s an unassuming threat at first glance, but he’s brutal, ruthless, cunning, and willing to go to any lengths to punish his enemies.
Hoffman gives an enormous amount of gravitas to a character that, on the page, reads like a fairly boilerplate megalomaniac; through his work, Davian becomes a genuine terror, a man to be feared and respected for his lethal tendencies.
An interesting bit of trivia: Hoffman has had a part in almost every single one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, from Hard Eight (1996) all the way up to The Master (2012).
Magnolia marks Hoffman’s third appearance in the acclaimed auteur’s filmography; he portrays Phil Parma, a nurse caring for dying producer Earl Partridge, who asks Parma to search for his estranged son, Frank Mackey.
Phil’s a rarity in Hoffman’s career: he’s a straightforward character defined by decency, compassion, and warmth. He doesn’t track down Frank because he’s told to; he does it because he’s just a good human being.
Doubt is an actor’s film, one that exists foremost to showcase the talents of its excellent cast, but this parable of clerical paranoia is never better than when Hoffman clashes onscreen with Meryl Streep.
In the film, Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier; Hoffman plays Father Brendan Flynn, the object of her suspicions. She believes Flynn is guilty of child abuse, though she has no proof to support her claim as she pursues him.
Their conflict comes to a head in one of Doubt‘s final scenes, where the two explode in a volcanic confrontation that leaves us weaving between Streep’s conviction and Hoffman’s indignation. When all is said and done, only that titular uncertainty remains.
Boogie Nights – another Anderson film – is littered with damaged, lost souls trapped in the machine of the adult entertainment industry, but none of them is as profoundly pitiable as Scotty.
He’s not a performer like Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler; he’s a man of almost no consequence in the porno pecking order. But that doesn’t stop him from reaching out to Dirk as the New Year’s Eve countdown commences in the misguided hope of forming a connection.
The result of their exchange is heartbreaking. He hunkers down behind the wheel of his new prized possession, weeping uncontrollably; he’s wracked with self-loathing, humiliated by his own actions.
Hoffman wasn’t just a master of theatrics – he also knew how to fire off a punchline and crack a joke. Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War, boosted by an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, lets him do just that.
But it also lets him do what Hoffman did best: dramatize. Charlie Wilson’s War tells the story of Operation Cyclone; Hoffman plays Gust Avrakotos, a CIA agent recruited by Tom Hanks’ titular character to help figure out how to increase mujahideen funding.
While the film doesn’t quite hit the mark as a fictionalized retelling of history, it’s always made better whenever Hoffman’s alternately blustering and insecure character makes his presence felt.
There’s a running sub-theme here: some of Hoffman’s most iconic turns were those where he had only a precious few minutes of screen time to his name.
None of those roles embody his knack for making the most out of a little than that of Almost Famous‘ Lester Bangs. Bangs, an uncompromising rock critic working in a field littered with hack journalists, shows up only briefly in the film, but he has a huge impact on the plot regardless.
The character walks a fine line between jaded, bitter pessimism and a genuine, deep-rooted passion for rock music; Hoffman manages to pull off that balancing act effortlessly.
Hoffman’s fifth venture with Anderson, The Master, could also be his last great performance; he’s at the top of his game here, commanding, authoritative, and yet shockingly insecure all at once.
As Lancaster Dodd, leader of a philosophically inclined cult known as The Cause, Hoffman strays more toward quieter pronouncements than not; Dodd maintains an oft-calm exterior that belies the swirl of emotions beneath.
When that exterior snaps, he’s a force to behold, most of all when he faces off with a skeptic who openly questions The Cause and Dodd’s beliefs at an extravagant New York party. Hoffman’s build to Dodd’s resultant, vulgar outburst is acting at its best.
Among Hoffman’s many and varied roles, none quite so perfectly makes use of every single one of his gifts as a thespian as Bennett Miller’s Capote. There’s a reason he won an Academy Award for this performance, after all.
Hoffman doesn’t simply “play” American author Truman Capote – he sinks into the role, fully becoming the man with the high, lisped voice and a biting sense of wit. He invites us into his portrait of Capote, allowing us to understand who he was and what drove him.
Most of all, he lets us see the ways in which Truman connives and manipulates his subjects while writing his true crime book, In Cold Blood, and yet keeps him sympathetic and human all the same.
All of this only scratches the surface of Hoffman’s body of work; in just over two decades, he appeared in over fifty films (such as Owning Mahowny, pictured left), dabbled in directing, and still found the time to put in time on Broadway in productions such as Death of a Salesman.
In other words, he had a prolific artistic output. And though he’s no longer with us, he still has a few more films up his sleeve – notably, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and the Sundance hit A Most Wanted Man.
Hoffman left us before his time, but he didn’t leave us without. Farewell, Philip – you will be missed.