One of my fondest memories of Philip Seymour Hoffman is the night he attended the 2009 Oscars. Like the other men at the ceremony, he was clad in the traditional tuxedo, except that his straw colored hair exploded wildly from beneath a black beanie. Brazenly disheveled, he looked a bit like Steve Zissou or someone who had wandered in off the street, ambushed George Clooney and stolen his suit.
I mean, who attends the Oscars in a beanie?
That is exactly the sort of actor Hoffman was – immune to vanity, deeply committed to melting into character, respected by his peers for his dedication and craft, but existing outside the shallow Hollywood circus that tends to consume more self conscious performers.
Hoffman died of a suspected drug overdose on Feb. 2, but he won’t be remembered for weird tabloid exploits or even for his struggles with addiction. Already, as we mourn his demise, we’re celebrating his work and the fact that when his name popped up in a film’s credits, you knew you were about to see something memorable. Even when the movie wasn’t all that great – “Along Came Polly” comes to mind – Hoffman was never less than electrifying.
Pasty and portly with a sardonic grin and a voice like pebbles rolling around in the surf, Hoffman was the rare character actor who could shoulder the weight of a lead role and make it look easy. After his 1991 debut in an episode of “Law & Order,” the native New Yorker made his name by embracing challenging and eccentric roles on the big screen and the stage.
His early work included small but significant parts in “Scent of a Woman,” “Twister,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Big Lebowski.” He was nominated for an Oscar on four occasions, winning in 2006 for “Capote,” the role that would come to define his career. He was most comfortable inhabiting the skin of lonely misfits (“Synecdoche, New York”), tortured souls (“Doubt”), unapologetic crackpots (“Charlie Wilson’s War”), clever schemers (“Mission: Impossible III,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) and men as passionate as they were stubborn (“Moneyball”).
It’s nearly impossible to condense Hoffman’s sublime repertoire into a Top 5 list, but in honor of this great actor’s life and life’s work, I offer up a handful of the roles I will always look back on with fondness. They’ll remain worthy of repeat viewings for years to come.
“Magnolia,” 1999: Hoffman first came onto my radar playing the compassionate nurse to Philip Baker Hall’s dying television producer in frequent collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson’s mesmerizing and perplexing magnus opus, a film that famously ends with a plague of frogs. I saw this movie alone in a nearly empty theater in Westwood and sobbed my way through most of it. It boasts a killer ensemble cast, including Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and Tom Cruise in an eye opening role as a misogynistic motivational speaker, but it is Hoffman’s hushed performance that still haunts me.
“Almost Famous,” 2000: My hands-down favorite of Hoffman’s roles, the character of Lester Bangs is one for the ages. As the acerbic music critic who serves as mentor to Patrick Fugit’s budding rock writer in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical coming-of-age story, the actor oozes wisdom and cool authority. If Fugit’s wide-eyed William is the heart of Crowe’s love letter to those who eat, breathe and live rock ‘n’ roll, Lester is the soul, mourning the passing of one of music’s great eras. His advice to young William — “Be honest and unmerciful” — delivered with Hoffman’s trademark blend of sarcasm and sadness, should be every journalist’s motto.
“Capote,” 2005: Taking on the role of Truman Capote was a bold move for Hoffman. Given the “In Cold Blood” author’s distinctive voice and eccentric mannerisms, the part could have easily devolved into caricature. Hoffman’s performance is so layered and so human, he coaxes us into empathizing with this strange little man and the dark and conflicted impulses he wrestles with as he connects with a suspected killer. Shortly after the release of “Capote,” Toby Jones offered his take on the character and did a perfectly decent job, but the film seemed utterly superfluous after Hoffman had so fully inhabited the part.
“Charlie Wilson’s War,” 2007: Hoffman’s gift for milking madcap laughs is on full display in this Aaron Sorkin-scripted political comedy detailing the beginnings of the United States’ ill fated meddling in Afghanistan as the Cold War drew to a close. Playing eternally frustrated CIA chief Gust Avrakotos opposite Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the actor sports a furry mustache and tinted aviator sunglasses and radiates hilarious intensity as he spouts some of Sorkin’s pithiest monologues. The role earned Hoffman an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
“The Master,” 2012: Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent film is difficult to watch and many moviegoers found it even more difficult to love. It is, however, an excellent showcase for Hoffman’s unparalleled ability to tap into the charisma and power of ambitious, self deluded men. In the film’s showiest role, would-be disciple Freddie Quell, Joaquin Phoenix nabbed a nomination for the best actor Oscar, relegating his co-star to the supporting category, but Hoffman’s portrayal of a mysterious cult leader, inspired by Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard, is essential to the film. It’s a towering performance and it reaches its zenith in a scene in which Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd pokes into the dark recesses of Freddie Quell’s personal life in an uncomfortably intimate psychological interrogation. Dodd’s methods may be absolute quakery but the moment reverberates with naked truth.