By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 24, 2014 at 3:05PM
This Friday should have been a cause for celebration: the release of "A Most Wanted Man," an adaptation of John Le Carre's novel by one of our favorite working filmmakers, Anton Corbijn ("Control," "The American"), and starring one of our finest working actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Instead, it's a bittersweet occasion: as we all know, Hoffman heartbreakingly passed away in February, only a few weeks after the film premiered at Sundance (as well as "God's Pocket," which was released a few months back). It was the last film that Hoffman saw to completion: he was in production on what will turn out to be his very final pictures, the two-part finale to "The Hunger Games" series, when he passed.
It's all too easy to get choked about one of our final opportunities to see Hoffman do what he did best—Lord knows, every time we've caught a trailer or similar, we've felt the kick of his death all over again. But we thought we'd rather celebrate the work of one of the greatest performers of our lifetime than mourn the absence of any more of it, and so to mark the release of "A Most Wanted Man," we've assembled a dozen of Hoffman's finest turns.
An easier answer to the idea of the "Best Performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman" would have read, simply, "all of them," so this isn't to diminish the quality of the performances that won't be found below, as the actor was incapable of giving a bad one. But these are the twelve that ensure his place in history. Any actor could retire having given one of them and feel like they'd made a mark. Hoffman gave twelve of them.
So, take a look below, let us know your own favorites in the comments.
Allen in "Happiness" (1998)
"Boogie Nights" finally brought Hoffman to the attention of the people who mattered, and the following year was a good one, with five jobs, from everything from Brad Anderson's indie "Next Stop Wonderland" to a small but memorable turn as attorney Brandt in "The Big Lebowski" (that he never worked with the Coens in a more substantial part feels like a titanic oversight) to sickly mainstream comedy "Patch Adams." But the definite highlight was Todd Solondz's deeply fucked up, wildly compassionate relationship comedy "Happiness." The film's rejection from Sundance (it ended up premiering at Cannes) was just the first stage of a wave of controversy that followed a movie that took in suicide, teen masturbation, and most notably, Dylan Baker's character, a pedophile rapist. Hoffman, in his largest and most notable role up to this point, was stuck with plain old phone sex: his character Allen (self-described as "a boring person... people think 'I have never before met anyone so boring'") has a crush on a beautiful neighbor, but believing himself (correctly, from her point of view) to be unworthy of her, resorts to obscene phone calls ("I'm gonna fuck you so hard you're gonna be coming out of your ears"). Particularly in the early stages of his career, Hoffman was never afraid of dialing down his natural charisma and playing pathetic, and this might be the platonic ideal of that. And like everyone in Solondz's remarkable ensemble, he finds the humanity behind the shock value. The director made a semi-sequel a decade later with an entirely different cast, and despite the great Michael K. Williams taking over the role, it just wasn't the same without Hoffman.
Scotty J in “Boogie Nights” (1997)
Hoffman graduated from Tisch in 1989, and was soon racking up screen credits, turning heads in films like 1992's "Scent Of A Woman" and 1994's "Nobody's Fool" alongside his theater roles. But it was in "Boogie Nights" that he really started to become someone to watch. The actor had cropped up briefly in Paul Thomas Anderson's debut feature "Hard Eight"/'Sydney," and clearly impressed, as he became a key part of the outstanding ensemble for Anderson's follow-up, the '70s porn epic "Boogie Nights," the director's first masterpiece. Hoffman plays Scotty J, the boom operator in the happy film family presided over director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). It's not a massive part, certainly in comparison to future collaborations with PTA (with whom he'd work three more times), but the actor does a huge amount with it, particularly in terms of Scotty's heartbreakingly unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg's oblivious Dirk Diggler. Anderson gives him one great showcase that essentially single-handedly launched his career: the scene where he makes a pass at Dirk, with the excuse of showing him his new car. The way he brandishes his football-player-gone-to-seed physicality, invading Wahlberg's personal space, verges on the creepy, or at least the drunkenly over-familiar, but even as Dirk sweetly knocks him back, you can see him be crushed, leading to him sobbing in his car, repeating "I'm an idiot." But the idiot would be anyone who watched the scene and didn't recognize the immense talent on show there.
Father Brendan Flynn in “Doubt” (2008)“Doubt” shows Hoffman at the height of his powers and prestige, squaring off against Meryl Streep, herself at the peak of her abilities, and while it helps that the roles are among the best-written of their careers, their commitment to their characters elevates the film and rids it of any trace of its stage-bound origins (director John Patrick Shanley adapted it from his own play). And Hoffman is extraordinary, pulling off the almost impossible task of making Father Flynn human and real and rounded while preserving a knife-edge ambivalence over the film’s central question: did he do it? When the “it” in question is an issue as hot-button as pedophiliac abuse within the Catholic church, the performance has to be sure-footed indeed, and yet Hoffman delivers in such a way that every single moment, every gesture and reaction rings perfectly true whether viewed through the prism of his guilt or his innocence. With Viola Davis’ perfectly modulated but deeply shocking role rightly turning heads, Amy Adams showing the quiet goodness and generosity that almost defines her as a performer, and Streep in blistering, towering form as the utterly rigid, impossible Sister Aloysius, it feels wrong to single out any one of the four central actors for special praise. But to look at it a different way, we certainly cannot imagine anyone else doing as much with Father Flynn amid this trio of powerhouse female performances. Hoffman sells every shade and nuance of this complex, charismatic but fundamentally unknowable man, preserving his secret, and the film’s, right to the end.
Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous” (2000)
One thing we’re coming to realize over the process of writing this feature: Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the all-time great phone actors. Even the best can be undone by having to do a scene solo to a handset, but many of the actor’s most memorable scenes are done over the phone, and that’s summed up beautifully by “Almost Famous.” Playing legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, Hoffman really only shares one scene with Cameron Crowe’s surrogate protagonist William Miller (Patrick Fugit), sitting down for a coffee with the kid who he’ll become a sort of mentor for. The rest of the time, he’s delivering advice over the phone, and yet his presence in the movie is utterly indelible. As ever, Hoffman had the bravery to not play Bangs as exactly likable: he’s smug, abrasive, and totally in love with the sound of his own voice, and with the adulation that comes from young William. He's the ultimate on-screen music nerd, in other words (unseating Jack Black in “High Fidelity,” who’d debuted just a few months earlier). But he’s also a speaker of truth, and a genuine friend, and in his famous "uncool" monologue delivered over the phone near the film’s end, he lets that confident, nay, arrogant, mask slip somewhat, showing both Lester’s loneliness and his genuine gratitude at the connection that arrives with finding someone just like him. He may only be a fleeting presence in the film, but it’s proof that everything was made significantly better with Hoffman.