Intelligence, dignity, compassion, self-loathing: These are some of the characteristics you associate with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one of the great character actors of the past two decades in American film, who was found dead in his New York apartment on Sunday.
Shortly before he won the best actor Oscar for his role in the 2006 film Capote (Hoffman was also nominated three times in supporting roles), Hoffman, told CBS’s 60 Minutes that he would be rather known for his roles than his life, and felt that celebrity interfered with credible performances. Like Spencer Tracy from an earlier era, Hoffman was heavy-set, square-jawed and not typically handsome, but his performance cut through the celebrity racket on the breadth of his humanity and force of talent. He became the go-to actor for a generation of American independent film directors who celebrated quirkiness and wounded sincerity of their characters, including the Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski), Todd Solondz (Happiness), Spike Lee (The 25th Hour) and particularly, Paul Thomas Anderson, with whom he worked five times. While it’s impossible to find a bad Hoffman performance, here are five that are unforgettable.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Hoffman’s breakthrough role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s showbiz epic of the adult entertainment industry, where he played Scotty J., a socially awkward, overweight, menial crew member, who has an intense crush on the star, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). In a key scene, Scotty tries to kiss Dirk one drunken New Year’s Eve, and goes into a spin of self-loathing, calling himself an idiot repeatedly.
In Anderson’s subsequent film, Hoffman played Phil Parma, the nurse to the dying television producer, Earl (Jason Robards), who asks him to get in touch with his estranged son Frank (Tom Cruise). Anderson asked Hoffman to play a “really simple, uncomplicated, caring character,” who becomes one of the moral touchstones in a film where almost everyone has lost his or her moral bearings. It remains one of Hoffman’s most moving performances.
Bennett Miller, whom Hoffman had known since his teens, directed Hoffman’s most acclaimed performance as Truman Capote, focusing on the story of how Capote wrote his true-crime book In Cold Blood, and his emotional attachment to the murderer Perry Smith. Physically, Hoffman was all wrong for the part of the famous dimunitive, acid-tongued author and talk-show celebrity. But he studied and mastered Capote’s anxious mannerisms, while presenting the story as a personal tragedy of a writer whose greatest triumph came at the cost of his self-respect.
In John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own hit play, Hoffman plays a progressive Catholic priest who has a special bond with a 12-year-old boy at a school. One of the nuns, Sister Aloysisus (Meryl Streep), accuses him of being a pedophile. As the two great actors go head to head, the viewer is left in a state of uncertainty – is he a predator or mentor? Hoffman said that, of course, he knew the answer or he couldn’t play the part. But no one else, including the other cast members, knew which was true.
The Master (2012)
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliantly original movie of a post-war cult leader, apparently modeled on Scientology founder Ron L. Hubbard, Hoffman plays the title character, Lancaster Dodd, a figure reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, given to grandiloquence and self-delusion in equal measures. The film follows his relationship with a recently discharged soldier (Joaquin Phoenix) suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The two form a father-son, Ego-Id pair. Dodd’s introductory speech resonates with Hoffman’s legacy, as a man of many parts, who found the common humanity in all: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man – just like you.”