The best part about highlighting Philip Seymour Hoffman for this column is that I (or you, or them) could pick most any five roles he’s done, and call them his best.
I typically like to take a few paragraphs to justify the inclusion of an actor in this column, but honestly, Philip Seymour Hoffman needs no introduction. The man is the character actor. And, if you’ve held an even moderate interest in film for any of the past 15 years, chances are you know exactly what I mean.
Boogie Nights (1997)
I could probably retype the line, “I’m a fuckin’ idiot,” a few dozen times and most would understand why Scotty J. is essential to Hoffman’s oeuvre.
As the confused, fumbling lackey of Jack Horner’s pornography production company, Scotty J. hangs around the set performing whatever gopher task the talent asks of him. This includes, but is not limited to, wearing his fantastically awful shirts a few sizes too small, trying not to stare obsessively at Dirk Diggler’s diggler, and, in the film’s most hilariously desperate moment, proclaiming his love for Dirk with a New Year’s kiss.
Scotty J. is a minor role, but one that Hoffman owns every step of the way. Next time you watch the film, pay attention to whenever Hoffman is on screen. Even when he’s mildly out of focus in the background, he’s completely on his game, grimacing with some perplexed, disheveled face. A perfect performance.
Love Liza (2002)
After his wife kills herself for unexplained reasons, Wilson finds what he assumes to be her sealed suicide note and instead of opening it, lets it sit idly as his life slowly begins to corrode. To fill the void of his longing and desperation, Wilson takes to huffing gas, and huffing it often. The beauty (and, it should be noted, rarity) of this performance is that, because it is laced with dark humor, it perfectly blends all of Hoffman’s best attributes together.
We sympathize with Wilson, but never pity him. We laugh at him, but never mock him. There is simply no other actor who could pull off the desperation and comedic timing of Wilson Joel than Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance that is played to excellence.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Dean, a.k.a. The Mattress Man
It’s all in the introduction. Jon Brion’s snares pound mercilessly as Robert Elswit’s camera pushes in from afar. The phone rings, and we quickly approach Dean from behind. He answers the phone while standing, and what follows is one of the very finest exchanges two movie characters have ever shared on screen.
Now, given the performances I’m not including as some of Hoffman’s five essential roles, the inclusion of Dean may seem like an unusual choice. To explain. I find Punch-Drunk Love to be as unique and tender a romance as anything released in the past decade. It’s whimsical, odd, and I completely adore it. And then there’s the Mattress Man. This silly, not-at-all imposing figure who barks so tremendously, but bites so pathetically. The phone conversation mentioned above is one of my favorite scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. It gets me everytime, and Hoffman is chief to thank for that.
25th Hour (2002)
Everything you need to know about Jacob Elinsky is in the way he dresses. It’s the last night before his best friend is sent to prison for seven years. Planned are cocktails at a trendy dive bar, before descending into the darkness of one of Manhattan’s most exclusive clubs. It’s a night of regret, goodbyes, and style. And what does Jacob wear? Cheap slacks, a lazy shirt, an old man's jacket, and a Yankee’s baseball cap. That says it all, and Hoffman fills the shoes of the character seamlessly.
Jacob is an honest, weak man who, when tested, makes the decision to enforce his morals rather loosely. There’s something about Jacob’s desperation that makes this character so unforgettable. He spends the entire film lecturing his friends (and students) about the poor decisions they’ve made, but when push comes to shove, he’s really no better then the rest of them.
We’re all familiar with Spike Lee’s infamous dolly shot, in which he places the camera and the actor on a dolly, creating a moving image of a floating character. It’s one of Lee’s most iconic devices, and the most telling dolly shot of Lee’s career may be Jacob Elinsky leaving the bathroom of a club, gliding across the floor, staring helplessly at the camera. Poor bastard.
Owning Mahowny (2003)
Dan Mahowny is Hoffman flexing his best, most subtle desperation. As a trusted bank manager based in Toronto, Mahowny is a guy who’s good at his job, but, unbeknownst to his employer, is skimming money from the bank to fulfill his gambling addiction.
Every weekend, Mahowny leaves Toronto a slightly miserable bank manager, and arrives in Atlantic City a god, treated like royalty by the staff of his favorite hotel. Now, a film like this could stick to formula and become a thriller of paranoia. Will Mahowny pay the bank back before they discover his scheme? But the movie, and Hoffman’s performance, is too wise for that.
Owning Mahowny, which is based on a true story, is an excellent character study that never begins to stray into sensationalism. It tells it like it is, in gritty, honest detail, and Hoffman carries it home.
The Best of the Best
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
A quick note about screaming. Screaming in movies is hard. Really hard. I don’t mean screaming out of fear. I mean screaming out of anger, or, especially, sadness. It’s such an animalistic thing, to scream. And to watch it on film, or rather, to watch it convincingly on film, is actually rather rare. Now, there is a scene in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character pulls his car over to the side of the road. He’s just buried his mother, and he is fully aware that it is his fault. But at this particular time, with his confused wife sitting in the passenger seat, Andy decides to verbally take his aggression out on his father, who is nowhere in sight. The resulting scene is the most fearless, gut wrenching moment of Hoffman’s career. Everything we need to know about Andy Hanson – his pain, his struggle, his jealously and regret – is packed into 30 seconds of primal furor.
And that’s just one goddamn scene from this movie.
Frankly, there are roughly a dozen roles that could be labeled as Hoffman’s best. I’ve seen them all, and none of them grab me quite the way his Andy does. From the moment we meet him (and, if you’ve seen the movie, you remember exactly how we meet him), we know that he’ll be trouble. Andy is such a tortured, layered character, that when his inevitable downfall arises, it should be damn near impossible for Hoffman to commit convincingly. Damn near.
Other Notable Roles
|In Almost Famous|
Scent of a Woman (1992)
Hard Eight (1996)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Almost Famous (2000)
State and Main (2000)
Cold Mountain (2003)
Along Came Polly (2003)
Empire Falls (2005)
The Savages (2007)
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The Ides of March (2011)
Philip Baker Hall
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly