The Grim Reaper has been especially cruel this year in his dispatching of Hollywood legends. Less than two weeks ago, we lost the beloved Robin Williams to the ravages of depression. Only one week prior to Williams’s passing, TV and film legend James Garner died of natural causes. And just one day after the media reported on the unfortunate death of Williams, it was revealed that another legend had died – the beautiful Lauren Bacall, also of natural causes.
But as regards acting titans, this past February we lost someone whose screen legacy may have towered over all of theirs. Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, passed away in his New York home. Depression-related accidental drug overdose was the cause of death. I mention the cause of Hoffman’s death merely as a reminder that genius – as was also the case with Williams – is so often tortured.
As I wrote about Williams’s passing (read about it here), I said to myself, “I should have written something similar after Philip Hoffman died.” I mentioned this to a few friends who commented on my Williams blog post, and they encouraged me to write about Hoffman anyway, even if several months had passed. And here we are. I hope, Loyal Reader, that you’ll find this a good piece of nostalgia.
Top Ten Films Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman
A consummate Method actor and star in movies mainstream and independent, with roles leading and supporting, Hoffman was a force to be reckoned with. His 20-year career netted him three Tony Award nominations and four Oscar nominations, with a win for his first nod, 2005’s Capote. During those 20 years, Hoffman appeared in a lot of movies. Most of them were supporting roles, but he often stole the movie away from his co-stars no matter who they were or how long he was on screen.
His “big break” came with a small role in the 1992 Al Pacino/Chris O’Donnell-starrer Scent of a Woman. Although he only appeared at the beginning and end of the movie, his performance attracted the attention of numerous filmmakers, most notably writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who directed three movies on my list below. He had a supporting role as a storm-chaser in the forgettable Twister (1996), and his career took off into the stratosphere. Just last year he appeared in one of the year’s biggest movies, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. He played Gamesmaker-turned-revolutionary Plutarch Heavensbee. We still have two more Hunger Games movies to go. But will seeing his work there be sweet…or bittersweet?
Here – better late than never – are my top ten favorite movies starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Thanks for reading.
- Boogie Nights (1997): The best movie of 1997 wasn’t Titanic; it was Boogie Nights. This exhilarating drama about the late ‘70’s – early ‘80’s San Fernando Valley porn industry marked the arrival of a director to be reckoned with. I’m talking about Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s one of those filmmakers who enjoys repeat collaborations with a small group of regulars. This was Anderson’s second time employing Hoffman, and the finished product features one of Hoffman’s most beloved performances. He breaks your heart in his supporting role as Scotty, the overweight boom mic operator hopelessly in love with Mark Wahlberg’s wide-eyed, coke-addled Dirk Diggler.
- Almost Famous (2000): Jerry Maguire writer-director Cameron Crowe’s delightful period dramedy chronicles the slow rise of 70’s rockers Stillwater. The band’s funny – and honest – inner bickering and ego mania is chronicled by a wunderkind teen journalist, nicely played by newcomer Patrick Fugit. Hoffman nearly steals the movie in his two great scenes as Lester Bangs, an uncompromising rock critic who strikes up a friendship with Fugit’s naïve character. Almost Famous is about as close to perfect as a movie gets; with more Hoffman on screen it might have gotten there.
- Magnolia (1999): Magnolia is, simply put, the most daring movie in Hoffman’s filmography. His third collaboration with the aforementioned Paul Thomas Anderson, Hoffman plays one of nine or ten miserable Angelenos during a particularly rainy 24 hours in the San Fernando Valley. His nurse, Phil Parma, exists in the film to alleviate the suffering of cancer patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), and – after witnessing one of Earl’s rare moments of clarity – to help the dying Earl reconcile with the man’s angry, male-chauvinist son (a career-best, Oscar-nominated Tom Cruise). Strange things happen all the time, and so it goes, and if thou refuse to let them go, I will smite thy borders with frogs. Or something like that.
- The Big Lebowski (1998): I fully grant it that the Coen Bros. are very divisive filmmakers. Only half of Fargo’s viewers, for example, got the joke that their 1996 Oscar-winner was a comedy, not a drama. But about The Big Lebowski, there is no argument: this is one of the most delirious, off-the-wall comedies of the decade. If you didn’t laugh out loud at least once, you should probably check your pulse for a beat. Hoffman plays Brandt, the fiercely-loyal assistant to the larger-than-life title character, a tireless, paralyzed Korean War vet and multi-gazillionaire (David Huddleston) whose young bride has run amok. Oh, did I mention that Jeff Bridges is the star? The Dude abides.
- Doubt (2008): The crackling verbal fireworks between Hoffman’s progressive New York priest and Meryl Streep’s finger-wagging Mother Superior-type reminded me of another, very different movie: A Few Good Men. Both movies have impressive roots, as acclaimed Broadway plays-turned-into gripping, topical movies by their playwrights-turned-screenwriters (AFGM: Aaron Sorkin and Doubt: John Patrick Shanley). Doubt‘s plot specifics were ripped from the headlines, and all four leads (Streep and Hoffman as well as Amy Adams and Viola Davis) received well-deserved Oscar nominations.
- Capote (2005): In this quiet biopic, author/debutant Truman Capote (Hoffman, in a rare leading role) forever questions his role as an observer/participant in the legal process after getting too close to a pair of condemning Death Row inmates while doing research for his latest book, In Cold Blood. Hoffman’s mannered performance and diction is something of a change of pace for the actor, who is simply outstanding as Capote. He won his only Oscar (Best Actor) in a crowded field that also included Brokeback Mountain’s Heath Ledger and Walk the Line’s Joaquin Phoenix. Director Bennett Miller, himself an Oscar nominee for Capote, went on to even bigger success with 2011’s Moneyball (which also featured Hoffman, albeit in a supporting role).
- The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): There are pacing problems with this Mediterranean-set, nourish mystery about sexually-ambivalent identity thief Tom Ripley (an in-demand Matt Damon). But ultimately it’s a winner – an edge-of-your-seat, cat-and-mouse thriller in which Ripley seduces, murders, and impersonates Euro-snob Dickie Greenleaf (Oscar nominee Jude Law) in a conflicted display of misguided emotion. Hoffman plays Freddie Miles, Dickie’s contemptuous, trust-fund buddy who immediately suspects something isn’t right in Tom Ripley’s head. I hated Hoffman in this film after my first viewing but have since come to love his work here. Indeed, Freddie Miles is insufferable American snobbery personified.
- Happiness (1998): This delightfully unhinged, ironically-titled, misanthropic indie comedy by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse) features an ensemble cast of lowlifes, including – most memorably – Dylan Baker as a father who sexually abuses the male classmate of his 11-year-son during a sleepover. Hoffman is Allen, another sexual degenerate, this one making obscene, crank phone calls to neighboring women. These are fearless performances. Happiness probably doesn’t rank high on anyone’s “rewatchability” list, but – like Magnolia – it is a daring film. Interesting note: Happiness was slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, then released “Unrated.”
- Charlie Wilson’s War (2007): This Mike Nichols vehicle, which detailed real-life U.S. Representative Charlie Wilson’s (a lively Tom Hanks) commitment to getting Congressional approval to arm the Afghan mujahideen against the 1980’s Soviet Union, earned Hoffman his second Oscar nomination. He played Gust Avrakotos, a hot-tempered, window-breaking CIA ops man. I wish the film would have been politically-braver, documenting in some way the collateral damage of the Reagan Doctrine. But back to Hoffman: once again, he was the most interesting person in the movie, providing smarts and comic relief.
- The Master (2012): This polarizing Paul Thomas Anderson film (his fifth with Hoffman) is a triumph of acting, with career-best performances by both Hoffman and co-star Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman commands the screen in Super 70 mm as Lancaster Dodd, the enigmatic leader of a Scientology-esque religious movement, while Phoenix chews delicious scenery as Freddie Quell, the disturbed WWII vet who becomes one of Dodd’s most devoted – and troubled – disciples. Alas, The Master seems an appropriate entry to close out this list as it is rumored to be the movie that drove Hoffman back to addiction following his committed portrayal of such a dark character.
So many great roles in so many great movies! Which ones spoke to you? Have I omitted any worthy contenders? Comments are welcome below…better late than never!