Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In Character: Philip Seymour Hoffman

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.

Five Essential Roles
Boogie Nights (1997)
Scotty J.
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)
Wilson Joel
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)
Jacob Elinsky
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
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)
Andy Hanson
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)
Happiness (1998)
Magnolia (1999)
Flawless (1999)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Almost Famous (2000)
State and Main (2000)
Cold Mountain (2003)
Along Came Polly (2003)
Empire Falls (2005)
Capote (2005)
The Savages (2007)
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Doubt (2008)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Moneyball (2011)
The Ides of March (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
John Hawkes
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright

Listen to my podcast on Philip Seymour Hoffman


  1. I'm so ashamed that several of his films are on my watchlist and I have yet to check them out. I only hear great things about Pihlip, but still have not seen him perform. I will rectify that within a month.

    1. Oh so you've never seen a PSH performance? Man, you've got a world of talent waiting before you. Enjoy!

  2. Fuck yes! One of my favorite actors and some of his best roles on display here! That's really rad of you to highlight Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. Great film that is not talked about often enough. Lumet said of it "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story." Hoffman really comes out of the events happening and adapts. My favorite role of his is probably Allen from Happiness its just so creepy(odd who they replaced him with in Life During Wartime though) or Dean from PDL. I also like him in MI3. So fucking exited for The Master!

    1. Ha nice, glad you're such a PSH fan. That Lumet quote is fuckin' brilliant - dude was a master. I LOVE PSH's role in Happiness, just the ultimate creep.

      Sooo pumped for The Master!

  3. Boy, this one was inevitable, wasn't it, Alex?

    Among my top five performances of his are (in no order) 25th Hour, Capote, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

    However, the best performance of his in my opinion was not on the silver screen. It was on stage as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Hoffman has this sort of presence that's just greater when he's performing before an audience and boy, I felt it when I watched him in the play.

    1. I would have loved to have seen him on stage as Willy Loman.

    2. Great PSH picks. Man, I bet he KILLED as Willy Loman. Few can capture angst the way PSH can. In fact, I'd love to see him in any play. Someday.

  4. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors. I haven't seen all his movies, but I agree with your choice of his role in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. And damn, what a disturbing movie that was. My second pick would be Magnolia. I also thought he was great with Laura Linney in The Savages.

    1. All great picks. Really digging this BTDKYD love... I had no idea so many people dug that movie as much as me. Fantastic in Magnolia (his tears with Moore are a highlight of that film, to me). The Savages was a movie that I thought had great acting, but was extremely forgettable as a whole. Either way, great actor indeed!

  5. Surprised you hadn't done one of these posts on him already. I've been meaning to see Owning Mahowny, and I somehow overlooked Love Liza. (The best thing about reading other people's blogs is discovering more films to see. And, boy, do I here.) :)

    I love all of those other performances, but I actually prefer Hoffman's performance in Doubt to his in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Both are fantastic, but he does screaming even better in that role. And I honestly can't tell from his performance: did he or didn't he? Aww, it's maddening.

    Great post man!

    1. Ha, glad you find movie ideas on my site! I highly recommend those two indies - PSH is fantastic in them.

      He definitely screams something fierce in Doubt. I didn't care for that movie (at all), but I thought the four central performances were fantastic. Maybe I should watch it again...

  6. I love that you picked Before the Devil Knows You are Dead. That movie scares me.

    No doubt, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most talented actors in the industry because, as you said, just pick any 5 roles he did and they are damn near 5 best roles he did.

    1. Ha, it scares me too! PSH is definitely one of the best there is right now. Always delivers, no matter the genre.

  7. Hands down my favorite thing you wrote in the series! Brilliant choices. His work in Before The Devil...would probably be my pick too. There are two scenes that will never fade from my mind - the one that after his wife leaves he starts, seemingly peacefully trash the apartment - the moment when he gets the bowl and marbels fall on the glass table is amazing. Another is when he shoots the guy through a pillow. I also adore his work in Synecdoche and Doubt - for me he was the best part of the cast in the latter, such an amazing performance. Many people rave about Daniel Day Lewis but for me Hoffman is the most versatile and capable actor working nowadays.

    1. Thanks Sati! The slow trashing of the apartment is the antithesis of the screaming scene I mentioned, and it is fucking amazing. I love what he does with that moment. You just want him to slam that bowl into the glass table, but no... so painful the way he plays it.

  8. I can never understand people who hate PSH. He's so consistently great. I can't even pick a top 5 for him, but my favourite is definitely Doubt.

    1. Me and you both - PSH is the man. Glad to see so much Doubt love here. not a movie I'm particularly fond of, but love him in nonetheless. Have you seen Before the Devil Knows You're Dead?

    2. Yes, I've seen it. Don't like it that much, but again he's great in it.

  9. I love Philip Seymour Hoffman. Definitely one of the best actors working today. My favorite performance from him is and always going to be Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. It's been on Cinemax lately and I just can't help but watch that film whenever it's on. It's one of my favorites and will be a subject of my favorite film series later this year.

    "The Doors? Jim Morrison? He's a drunken buffoon posing as a poet. Come on, give me the Guess Who. They have the courage to be drunken buffoons which makes them poetic. Give me some White Light, White Heat. Iggy Pop! Amen!"

    1. Fuckin' love him in Almost Famous.

      "Who are you listening to?"
      [Slams phone]

  10. Heh, you finally did this post. Started reading, thinking, "heh, I love me some Philip Seymour Hoffman, gonna be great reading about all these movies I'll definitely have seen and nodding along to the righteous opinions on display." I've seen two of the six. Fuck you, Alex!

    In all seriousness, more great roles of Hoffman's:

    The Big Lebowski - his deadpan delivery of "No, Dude, that had *not* occurred to us" gets me every time. Awesome character. Classic subversion of a time-honoured noir cliche (the butler) by bringing the sycophancy to the forefront.

    Happiness - When he cumshots on the wall...pretty horrifying mental image there. Could spend all day listening to PSH screaming sexual abuse down the phone.

    Magnolia - Such a lovely and caring character.

    Almost Famous - I was reading some Lester Bangs and, seriously, the dude was an utter madman. No modern-day rock publication would publish that stream-of-consiousness shit he wrote. Pretty cool guy, though, one of the first guys to praise the Stooges, and they ended up more-or-less inventing punk rock. Hoffman is great as him. I think I just enjoy hearing characters discuss rock music, though.

    Synecdoche, New York - Not a particularly fantastic movie, but his centric performance is a spectacular hit. I mean, he puts everything he's got into it, made me think of '70s De Niro or Pacino. A character study needs a great character actor.

    Hard Eight - Saw this for the first time the other night and his cameo is fuckin' hilarious.

    When I'm a big-shot director (which will definitely happen), I'm gonna make sure he's in all my stuff. Totally versatile and brilliant dude. And, yeah, you should definitely watch Four Lions! That film would probably be even better if they'd've managed to squeeze Hoffman in there somewhere. I'm sure he can do an English accent.

    1. Haha, you got some work to do then brother!

      Love all your picks for the reasons you mentioned. His cameo in Hard Eight is priceless, the way he throws those damn dice... dude is a maniac!

  11. Pleased to see Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as the Best of the Best. Excellent performance by Hoffman and a very underrated movie as well. Totally took me by surprise the first time I saw it.

    1. Also excited for his part in The Master. I cannot wait any longer for that movie to come out.

    2. Oh yeah, I think he's going to kill in The Master - can't wait for that one either. Glad to hear you like his BTDKYD as well!

      Thanks for commenting!

  12. Superb list. I love the choices of Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The latter I just saw very recently for the first time, and Hoffman's performance blew me away.

    For me, one of his essential roles is Synecdoche, New York (which is also one of my favourite films). Hoffman was born to work with Charlie Kaufman, and the result is nothing short of incredible. Synecdoche is a fucking amazing movie and Hoffman shines in it.

    1. Thanks man. I do like his work in Synecdoche, but that's a flick I've given two gos at and am left wondering what I'm missing. I appreciate parts of it, but it just doesn't click for me.

      Maybe I'll have another round with it here soon.

  13. Before the Devil Know's You're Dead at #1. Word. Love Hoffman. He is great in everything, but Devil is one of my personal favourites.

    1. Nice man, a rare agreement between you and I haha.

  14. This was great. I featured Hoffman on two lists last august, happily none of your picks were on my "Bottom Five."

    But I did pick Love Liza as a "most unseen" of his great roles, typically amazing performance from him there.

    1. Awesome, glad to hear some Love Liza love. That movie definitely deserves a wider audience. Glad none of my picks were on your bottom!

  15. I've come to realize lately that Hoffman may be my favorite actor. And what's funny is I used to hate him. I'm not sure what happened.

    And now that I've said that, I have to admit that there are quite a few of his films that I still need to see.

    Hoffmann is awesome in Punch Drunk Love. The confrontation scene at the end will be a Favorite Scene Friday someday for sure. "That's that!"

    He's great in The 25th Hour. I always did love that he was wearing that cap in the club.

    Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is such a devastating movie. I might never watch it again.

    The great thing about Hoffman is how he can play both a schlubby guy/jokster like in Along Came Polly (or Twister! No Twister love??) and a crazy, evil bastard. I actually thought his performance in Mission Impossible 3 was pretty great.

    Remember his scene with Fiennes in Red Dragon. *shiver*

    Awesome In Character!!!

    P.S. So stoked for The Master!

    1. Thanks man! I get how you weren't initially a PSH fan. I actually hear quite a few people say they couldn't stand him at first but eventually saw the light. All good either way.

      I LOVE him in Twister haha. Groovy little role. He's a perfect creep in M:I-3: "And then I'm gonna kill you right in front of her."

      Love it!

  16. Wow, it's really hard to narrow down Hoffman's career to six performances. I think you did a very good job. I'm not a huge fan of Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, but he's excellent in it. Even though it's a small performance, it would be tough for me not to include Almost Famous in there. I also like his understated role in Magnolia, though it's hard to argue with your picks. You've already got two PT Anderson movies in there, so you have to mix it up. Nice job!

    1. Thanks Dan! He's absolutely perfect in Almost Famous and Magnolia. Have you seen Love Liza and/or Owning Mahowny? Really good in those two.

  17. Quite possibly my favorite actor working today. Dude is awesome in everything he's in, and I am very happy that you included Owning Mahowny as an essential. Very underrated film.

    1. Yes indeed! Glad to hear you're such a PSH fan. Can't wait for The Master!

  18. My sentiments are in alignment with the person above me, Hoffman is brilliant in everything.

    1. Nice Sam, glad you like his work. Have a favorite PSH performance?

  19. I'm so happy to see him in this series, he is a fantastic actor, I love him. Although I will always love him in Boogie Nights, there are other outstanding parts, like Capote or Magnolia. I have to see Before the Devil knows you're dead soon!

    1. Glad to hear you like him. And yes, BTDKYD is a must!

  20. Personally, I'm partial to his performance in Magnolia, although the fact that I think that's one of the best movies ever made might be slanting my opinion a little.

    1. Oh he is so good in Magnolia. I love the moment with Moore after she hits the phone away from him. Lot going on there. Very well played.

  21. I have nothing to add to this except to say:

    I love this. Awesome dude, awesome post. Between your post and the great comments, I'm basking in the glow of Philip Seymour Hoffman right now, and I'm enjoying the hell out of it.

    1. Ha, thanks man! I was thrilled that people dig PSH so much. Dude rocks.

  22. I love PSH - he's probably one of my favorite actors working right now. He never seems to put a foot wrong in any of his movies (even the one's I'm not crazy about, he's always great in them). This is a great post and it's great to see some love for some more underappreciated PSH films. A personal favorite of mine would be his role in Happiness - it's just such an odd performance that suits him to a T (imo).

    1. Thanks so much for the compliment, really glad you dug the post!

      PSH is incredible, isn't he? I really wanted to include his Happiness performance in the essential roles, but if there was ever a difficult career to break down, it was this one. He's perfect in that film.

  23. And just like that...he's gone.

  24. I still can't believe he's gone. He was one of my all time favorite actors and i always looked forward to what he did next. I have never seen him give a bad performance or just phone it in for a paycheck. Even in that awful Ben Stiller comedy he did he gave it everything. He was a true professional and that always showed on screen. I'm really looking forward to seeing his last movies, even if it's gonna be really hard to sit through them now. This is one of those times it's just impossible for me to choose a favorite. I recently re-watched The Master again and he is absolutely fantastic in that one. That performance is definitely up there among my favorites of all time.

    1. Me too man, me too. You know, I almost did include his work in Along Came Polly here, just to prove that he was always so good. And obviously, if I wrote this today, The Master would most definitely be included. What power.

  25. I had a little trouble commenting on this post, because, you know, I'm not sure I've really come to terms with the fact that this otherworldly actor is not longer with us, but, my God, I just felt the need to be among the people here writing a few words about his phenomenal (and by this I mean PHENOMENAL) talent. Whatever you write or say of course for this marvel of an actor isn't going to come across to his greatness, but whatever, I believe I had to write a little something. Well, I will say this: When I watched "Synecdoche, New York", I think I couldn't speak for a few seconds after the credits started to roll. And that hadn't to do only with the film being so utterly brilliant (to me, this film is at the Top 10 films of all time if we make a list with the 1000 films of all time or something), it mainly had to do with Philip Seymour Hoffman's almost unbearably haunting performance. I can't think of many films and many actors in my life having that kind of impact on me. I mean, seriously, the last scene of the film is pure genius from both Kaufman and Hoffman. The latter touched the ultimate here I believe. I think his performance in this film should be what any aspiring actor had to see again and again to prepare properly for what we call "acting". It's the kind of performance that shatters the wall between playing a role and transforming into the role completely. It's almost disturbing to watch. And yet, so beautiful. I can't praise him enough for his astonishing body of work and obviously his masterclass in "The Master" (which I know you couldn't possibly include in a post dating in August 2012) and his terrifying tour de force in "Capote" come pretty close, but his portrayal of Caden Cotard marks his quintessential performance for me. Everything that made him so damn incomparable as an actor, from his unbelievable technical skills and his emotional rawness to his trademark desire for rich, uncompromising characters is here. It's like he decided to put the whole acting toolbox in one performance of something. In my humble opinion, it's just the best of his of his best of his best of his... It's a performance "bigger than life" in a film that is "bigger than life". So the list with my Top 10 performances of his would be the following:

    1) Synecdoche, New York
    2) The Master
    3) Capote
    4) Before the devil knows you're dead
    5) Doubt
    6) Magnolia
    7) Flawless
    8) Happiness
    9) Charlie Wilson's War
    10) The big Lebowski

    I've seen all of his films and I think in each one of them he commands the screen like only a handful of actors (male or female) can claim they ever did. It's another great list of yours, man. Keep up the good work.

    1. I’m still not over this one either man. Was just watching 25th Hour last night, and the way he bumbled and fumbled his way through that movie is ingenious. He was so damn good, in everything.

      Love your list, and Synecdoche is something I really need to give another go. I feel like, now that I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ll appreciate it more. Probably give it a rewatch this weekend. Also love that you ranked Flawless so high. I adore him in that film.

  26. I saw BTDKYD last week, and despite being a colossal Lumet fan- I didn't really take to it.

    That being said- WHAT A PERFORMANCE. Such a shame we lost such a man so early- when he had so much more left to give. Its been a while, but I can say I still mourn his loss. So many memorable and outstanding roles.

    Interesting that Capote didn't make the list ;) but these are certainly better.

    1. This is the only In Character I've actually thought about going back and updating. I looked at it a few weeks ago, and I don't agree with my assessment now. Plus The Master would definitely make the cut today (it hadn't been released when I wrote this).

    2. Oh god yes. He was excellent in it. His final scene was just... Such a fine actor.