Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Essentials

It seems unimaginable. Almost as if Ron Burgundy were reading a headline with a question mark at the end. Philip Seymour Hoffman, dead?

A few weeks ago I was engaged in a little debate with a friend over the acting caliber of different actors. I made the mistake of saying Brad Pitt was a better actor than Johnny Depp. Okay, so Depp may be the better actor, but I’d argue that Pitt has the better filmography. Then my friend had the gall to to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman is the same character in every film he’s in. Then I contended that he wasn’t, citing both Capote and Twister as examples. The response I got was simply, “He was in Twister?”

While Twister may not rate as one of the essential PSH movies, or performances for that matter, it is akin to seeing Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli before he was a Dead Man Walking.

A success on stage as both an actor and director, it would be in cinema where he would leave a lasting impression. I remember seeing him in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman in a supporting role as George Willis Junior, friend to Chris O’Donnell’s Charlie Simms. It wasn’t a noticeable performance, where Al Pacino’s Oscar-winning Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade overshadowed everyone, but if you needed a young actor to personify a spoiled rich kid with a frumpy countenance, PSH was your man. The look he gives in the late proceedings is comparable to looking at an image of Grumpy Cat.

In looking over his filmography, Hoffman seems like he would be a director’s greatest acting asset. Besides being a regular collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, appearing in five of PTA’s seven films, including most recently The Master – for which he received a third Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination – PSH worked with a who’s who list of notary filmmakers. There are far too many to list, but near the top would be Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead), Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley), Spike Lee (The 25th Hour) and the Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski).

Upon winning his first and only Oscar for Capote, Hoffman would venture out to the world of blockbuster movies, much like Nicolas Cage did post-Leaving Las Vegas when he became Jerry Bruckheimer’s golden boy, appearing in The Rock, Con Air and National Treasure. For Hoffman, his blockbuster was playing the heavy to Tom Cruise’s hero in Mission: Impossible III. More recently, his meditative work on The Master led to escapist fare in the form of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Hoffman’s untimely death is a major loss to the film community and theater world. Immensely talented, and with what I can only imagine would have been many more great performances, at least his legacy will remain immortalized on film. Here are some of his best characters.

Six years after appearing in Scent of a Woman, basking in the glow of Al Pacino’s acting presence, PSH got the chance to work with Robert De Niro in Flawless. Far from a memorable film, it did however allow Hoffman to show his range as Rusty, a drag queen neighbor of De Niro who he helps overcome his speech impediment after a stroke. Much like the tolerance that grows in Matthew McConaughey’s character towards Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, here is yet another example only this time it is a New York cop befriending a drag queen.

A year later, Hoffman’s true emergence would begin as Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. While this drama may be a Jeopardy question about Kate Hudson’s Oscar nomination, it was PSH as rock journalist Lester Bangs who delivers some sound advice when it comes to journalism.

As one of his underseen performances – and films, actually – Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal as Dan Mahowny, a Toronto bank employee who, in 1982, embezzled millions to fuel his gambling habit, is a master class in the downward spiral of what happens when you get in over your head. If you’ve never seen the Canadian drama Owning Mahowny, make sure to put it in your Netflix queue ASAP.

One can argue that the best way to win an Oscar is to play a historical figure of some merit. Two of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Best Actor wins came from playing real-life figures. Jamie Foxx won for playing Ray Charles. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, well, he won for his performance as Capote, author of Breakfast of Tiffany’s and pioneer of the true crime novel with In Cold Blood. If ever anyone doubts PSH’s acting ability, just watch his chameleon-like transformation into Truman Capote.

Not to underestimate PSH as one of the villains in Mission: Impossible III, which rates as one of the better movie archenemies of recent memory, but for my money you can’t go wrong with Hoffman as cranky Cold War C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War. A biographical drama in which a Texas congressman would launch a covert operation to arm the Afghan people against the Russians in the 1980s, the film would essentially be a template for what Ben Affleck would do with Argo. Hoffman may be in a supporting role this go-around, but he makes the most of his screen time, stealing scenes from the likes of Tom Hanks. Here’s a great one.

For those that saw Pirate Radio (or The Boat That Rocked as it was called in the UK), you got to experience a film brimming with musical ecstasy. Much like Almost Famous, Richard Curtis’s follow-up to Love Actually was a cinematic tribute to the power of music. As the title(s) imply, the comedy was about a pirate radio station that transmitted rock and pop music that BBC Radio would not. The lone American character in the cast, Philip Seymour Hoffman fits right in with his fellow pirate DJs, including Nick Frost and Chris O’Dowd. Here’s PSH on using one of those seven words George Carlin once did a comedy routine about.

Finally, we arrive at PSH’s last collaboration with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master. In the film Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause.” Dodd is an intellectual charlatan, yet charismatic in his ways when it comes to spreading his methods of philosophical pursuit. While he may be a supporting character to Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, both are on an even playing field when it comes to delivering in their performances.

It pains me to think that Philip Seymour Hoffman is no longer of this earth. Forty six years of age is way too short of a lifespan. For him to overcome his demons of drug abuse only to relapse twenty-three years later is saddening, especially since he leaves behind a wife and three children.

Bruce Weber, in his obit piece for The New York Times nails it with his opening:

Philip Seymour Hoffman [is] perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation.

Can’t say that I disagree. Rest in Peace, Philip.

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