The worst thing that could have happened to the film community did on February 2, 2014: Philip Seymour Hoffman, the great actor who transcended every project he graced, died alone of a drug overdose in Manhattan apartment. Everyone remembers where they were when the news broke. His death was a shock to the system of all his collaborators and everyone in the creative community, but he left behind an Oscar-winning, untouchable body of work that, whenever revisited, gives the consistent feeling that he’s still among us.
Though Hoffman won his Academy Award for his etched-in-stone portrayal of a great American writer in “Capote,” Bennett Miller’s film is hardly the best work he ever did. The mid-’90s saw Hoffman begin a too-short of a lifelong collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, working together on films like “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights,” and “Magnolia” before playing a charismatic cult leader who sings “On a Slow Boat to China” to a weeping Joaquin Phoenix in 2012’s “The Master.”
But also in those early days, he cemented his range, playing a stormchaser in the blockbuster “Twister.” There was also his 1999 role as Creem and Rolling Stone journalist Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” whose young co-star Patrick Fugit he made a deep impression on. Hoffman went on to bring extraordinary range and depth to so many characters, from a misanthropic, overambitious playwright in “Synecdoche, New York” to a murderous sad sack in “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” and the villain of “Mission: Impossible III.”
You could tell from his celebrity-packed funeral how adored he was by all — Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Mike Nichols, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Michelle Williams among them. And he seemed to wear his personal struggles against addiction and despair on his sleeve in every performance, as his characters were often at the gulf of some terrible crossroads, but not without a restless search for hope.
It may seem crass to celebrate Philip Seymour Hoffman on the anniversary of his death when all he did merits celebrating every day. Here, though, we look back on his best performances.
With editorial contributions by Christian Blauvelt, Wilson Chapman, Alison Foreman, and Christian Zilko.
“Twister” (dir. Jan de Bont, 1996)
Who Hoffman plays: Dusty, a Deep Purple-listening Oklahoma storm chaser who lives life with F5 intensity.
What makes it memorable: Dusty in “Twister” shows off Hoffman’s true genius, as he takes what could have been a generic University of Oklahoma fratboy/meteorology student and elevates him into a character so memorable he helped turn the entire film into more than just an early CGI extravaganza. Really, he helped turn it into a film that people are oddly obsessed with almost 30 years later, and so much so that it’s finally getting a sequel, due out this year.
Behold just one moment that any true child of the ‘90s would have recreated over and over: When Dusty demands they raid Helen Hunt’s aunt’s kitchen — “Red meat, we crave sustenance,” he says, with the affect of a Valley Guy surfer dude who happened to take up storm chasing. “Food. Food! FOOD!” he shouts, while doing some unreplicatable gesticulation with his hand.
When Hoffman died, one of the terms that was immediately trending on Twitter alongside his name was “Twister.” Sure, it was the first movie where most people remember seeing him. But it was also that rarest example of an actor truly making his own of a massive Hollywood blockbuster, and leaving behind something incredibly distinctive — when so many of even the most talented actors get lost in the biggest tentpoles. No conglomeration of pixels could ever drown out Philip Seymour Hoffman. —CB
“Boogie Nights” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
Who Hoffman plays: Scotty J, an insecure porn set sound guy who develops a painfully unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler.
What makes it memorable: Hoffman and Paul Thomas Anderson had one of the most fruitful actor-director partnerships of the past quarter century. And while their collaboration technically began with Hoffman’s brief appearance as Young Craps Player in “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights” is where the real magic started for both men.
Despite playing a small role in a large ensemble cast, Hoffman serves a key function that he would repeat in future Anderson films: adding a dose of pure humanity to a film filled with dysfunction. He mines plenty of physical comedy from his obvious attraction to the well-endowed leading man, but the sincerity of his attraction and his failed seduction attempts (which culminate in an ultra-relatable scene where he chastises himself for his own stupidity) serve as painful reminders that this tableau of adult film debauchery is comprised of real people with real emotions. —CZ
“The Big Lebowski” (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)
Who Hoffman plays: Brandt, the buttoned-up personal assistant to Mr. Lebowski (David Huddleston) and the easily flustered go-between for a ransom negotiation involving the esteemed businessman, his promiscuous wife Bunny (Tara Reid), a pack of German nihilists, and Los Angeles’ own The Dude (Jeff Bridges).
What makes it memorable: Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place — and that’s Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Big Lebowski.” Whether Brandt is scuttling around the mansion explaining his boss’ outdated accolades, or bearing witness to cinema’s most shocking would-be foot fetish incident since Mia Wallace got Tony Rocky Horror thrown out of a window in “Pulp Fiction,” Hoffman brings preening specificity to the Coens’ already brilliantly written character that makes the minor part exponentially more memorable.
The late Oscar winner commits to an over-the-top performance the whole way through, stealing scene after scene with exquisitely stilted line deliveries (“This is our concern, Dude…”) that never undercut the air-tight logic of the filmmakers’ singularly strange crime world. —AF
“Magnolia” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
Who Hoffman plays: In Paul Thomas Anderson’s messy and beautiful San Fernando Valley epic, Hoffman is Phil Parma, the stressed-out caretaker of famed gameshow producer Earl Partridge, played by Jason Robards.
What makes it memorable: Hoffman is extraordinarily moving as he desperately watches a man die in bed. Phil goes to such great lengths to reconnect Earl to the son, a misogynist motivational speaker played by Tom Cruise, he’s estranged from. Arguably the film’s most strangely touching scene finds Phil tethered to the phone, trying to reach Cruise’s character by ordering adult magazines that may have his contact information. —RL
“Almost Famous” (dir. Cameron Crowe, 2000)
Who Hoffman plays: Lester Bangs, the legendary real-life rock critic who gives Cameron Crowe stand-in William Miller his first music journalism gig.
What makes it memorable: “Almost Famous” strikes a delicate balance that blends real autobiographical details from Crowe’s life with fictional characters designed to invoke ‘70s rock legends without explicitly naming them. Hoffman’s Bangs is one of the few characters in the film that’s actually based on a real person, which only adds to his gravitas as he sets the film’s entire plot in motion. Hoffman embodies Bangs with the blend of poetic brilliance and sloppy hedonism that made 1970s rock journalism so compelling, simultaneously honoring the real man’s legacy while seamlessly matching the tone of Crowe’s fictionalized film. —CZ
“Punch-Drunk Love” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
Who Hoffman plays: Dean Trumbell, the phone sex king of the Great Basin.
What makes it memorable: Had Hoffman played a truly menacing character before mattress-salesman and phone-sex hotline kingpin Dean Trumbell? At least not one like this: This is the venal, sleazy side of Hoffman that we’d see again in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and given a blockbuster polish in “Mission: Impossible III.” Most of Dean Trumbell’s threat is a remote one, as he threatens Adam Sandler’s lovable blue-suited schlub Barry Egan over the phone, trying to extort money out of him and ultimately sending goons to collect. But to his surprise, Barry travels all the way from California to Dean’s homebase in Provo, Utah for a mattress-showroom showdown. Only the magic words “that’s that” can end this beef. —CB
“25th Hour” (dir. Spike Lee, 2002)
Who Hoffman plays: Jacob, a high school teacher and friend of main character Monty (Edward Norton). “25th Hour” focuses mainly on Monty as he spends his last 24 hours of freedom before going to prison for dealing drugs, but Hoffman gets a subplot as Jacob, focusing on his introversion and crush on his student Mary (Anna Paquin).
What makes it memorable: Yes, Jacob’s crush on his student has not aged particularly well, and it was a bit cringeworthy even at the time. But if you can put that aside, “25th Hour” features one of Hoffman’s warmest performances, as a gentler voice of reason to his brasher best friends. His low-key work is perfectly attuned to the film’s quiet but vibrant portrait of a post-9/11 New York City, and in the small supporting role, he finds shades of longing that are overwhelming and unbearably sad. —WC
“Capote” (dir. Bennett Miller, 2005)
Who Hoffman plays: Truman Capote, the famous novelist and screenwriter known for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and other literary works. Bennett Miller’s biopic focuses primarily on the writing of “In Cold Blood,” about the murder of an entire family in the small town of Holcomb, Texas, and particularly his interviews with the men convicted of the murders, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hicock (Mark Pellegrino).
What makes it memorable: “Capote” was where Hoffman received his only career Oscar win, in the Best Actor category. And although it might not be the best work of his entire career, it’s still very much worthy and great work from the typically exemplary actor. It would be easy to play someone like Capote as a stereotype — mincing, bitchy, and flamboyant — but Hoffman’s performance is impressively accurate to the real man’s public image, channeling his voice and shrinking his body to match Capote’s small stature. But his performance goes beyond mere mimicry, cleanly conveying Capote’s vulnerability and sadness behind his selfish persona. It’s one of the most impressive biopic performances of all time, almost a how-to of how to make the role of a real person your own. —WC
“The Savages” (dir. Tamara Jenkins, 2007)
Who Hoffman plays: Jon Savage, an inward-looking performance-studies professor — the theater of social unrest is his remit.
What makes it memorable: There are so many different Philip Seymour Hoffman personas, many of them indexed on this list: One that doesn’t get as much attention is when he’s a quiet intellectual, not given to overly flourishy actors-showcase kind of moments. In that way, “The Savages” is almost a companion film to “Synecdoche, New York,” with Hoffman as a fussy intellectual who spends possibly a little too much time contemplating the sadnesses of life and dealing with the indignities of physical infirmity.
There’s nothing particularly heroic or tragic in his Jon Savage here, just a deeply human portrait of someone trying to do his best alongside his sister (Laura Linney) as their aged father takes his final steps toward death. “The Master” and “Capote” got all the awards attention — showy displays of virtuosity that they are — but it’s possible Hoffman was at his greatest when he just tried to slip into someone else’s skin the way he does here, when he disappears into a character in a more subtle way. Watching “The Savages” hammers home all the more the magnitude of Hoffman’s loss. —CB
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (dir. Sidney Lumet, 2007)
Who Hoffman plays: He plays Andy Hanson in Sidney Lumet’s mean and lean final film “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead,” a drug addict who schemes with his brother (Ethan Hawke) to rob their parents’ jewelry store, but then it goes all wrong.
What makes it memorable: Hoffman’s performance in “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” is a deeply sad one, as Andy is pathetic inside and out. The actor’s appearance and physical carriage almost suggest Method-level dedication to the role, made all the more tragic once you know what was going on behind the scenes in Hoffman’s life. Tragically the film often finds Andy all alone, strung out and nodding off on heroin in a blank hotel room. Hoffman finds a way to bring humanity into the most callous of roles. —RL
“Charlie Wilson’s War” (dir. Mike Nichols, 2007)
Who Hoffman plays: Gust Avrakotos, who would die a little over two years before “Charlie Wilson’s War” hit theaters. The real-life spy for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency worked for the national intelligence network for more than 30 years and was a pivotal player in Operation Cyclone, a precedent-breaking effort to arm the Afghan mujahideen during the decline of the Soviet Union.
What makes it memorable: Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols, this 2007 historical drama is a cold war of heavyweight acting talents with Tom Hanks starring as the titular Texas congressman and Julia Roberts playing lobbyist Joanne Herring. Hoffman, who would nab the film’s only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, shared an especially sparky chemistry with Hanks. (“Don’t be an idiot, I bugged the scotch bottle!”) But the late actor’s best moments as Varakotos come opposite John Slattery in a combative argument scene between the two CIA operatives. Sorkin provides Hoffman with a knockout monologue (“I’d like to take a moment to review the several ways in which you are a douchebag… “), but his performance — hanging somewhere between Lester Bangs and “A Most Wanted Man” — elevates the material to glass-shattering levels. —AF
“Synecdoche, New York” (dir. Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
Who Hoffman plays: Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s mind-melting masterpiece about the psychic and emotional tolls of the creative process. Caden is a misanthropic, hypochondriac playwright obsessed with sifting through the ruins of past relationships while mounting the biggest show of his career — one that is finally never finished.
What makes it memorable: “Synecdoche, New York” is life reconfigured as a searching free-fall into the creative process, always limping in circles — and here used a metaphor for what it means to build a life, from beginning to end, restless until you die. Hoffman’s turn as a writer granted a MacArthur Genuis fellowship is one of his finest, and so full of sadness. Watch the way he pleads for his estranged daughter, now a stripper behind a trick pane of glass, to remember him: “Olive, it’s Daddy.” Devastating. —RL
“Doubt” (dir. John Patrick Shanley, 2008)
Who Hoffman plays: Father Flynn, a congenial, liberal priest at a Catholic church and parish school in the Bronx. John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own Tony-winning play sees Flynn clash with the strict and authoritarian Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Although the audience’s sympathy is initially with the much more likable priest, things become murkier when Aloysius begins to suspect that Flynn is sexually abusing a male student in the church.
What makes it memorable: Father Flynn is a difficult part, a character whose entire morality is left entirely up to actor interpretation. It’s a testament to what a great actor Hoffman is that he threads the needle so well. His Flynn is so charming that you want him to be innocent, but Hoffman adds just enough shades of darkness that it’s impossible to dismiss the accusations wholesale. Particularly against Streep, he’s dynamite and deservedly received his third Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. —WC
“Moneyball” (dir. Bennett Miller, 2011)
Who Hoffman plays: Early 2000s Oakland A’s manager Art Howe who, for what it’s worth, didn’t like this portrayal, nor how he was written in Michael Lewis’ book of the same name.
What makes it memorable: Here’s another quiet, internal role for Hoffman, though his silences in this one may be a kind of coiled menace in their own way. He plays Art Howe, the manager of the Oakland A’s and an avatar for traditional, pre-sabermetrics baseball that relies on gut instinct more than numbers in player assessments. (The kind of logic like, if you don’t think his girlfriend is attractive, then that must mean he doesn’t have confidence, and you shouldn’t sign him!) Much of the role allows Hoffman simply to stare daggers into Brad Pitt, as forward-thinking general manager Billy Beane, but it’s a unique flavor for the actor: his other quiet characters are usually deep-thinking neurotics, not confident, hidebound traditionalists. —CB
“The Master” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
Who Hoffman plays: Hoffman reinvents the archetype of the Charismatic Cult Leader as Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” a man who thinks he can correct lost soul Freddie’s (Joaquin Phoenix) aberrant behavior and straying path of life.
What makes it memorable: I mentioned in the intro the beautiful climax of “The Master,” in which Dodd sings “On a Slow Boat to China” to Joaquin Phoenix in close-up. But there is such range to his performance here, careening from making Dodd quite terrifying to quite small (literally in the hands of his wife, played by Amy Adams). The actor-director chemistry Hoffman and Paul Thomas Anderson share is here at its pinnacle. —RL