Philip Seymour Hoffman – A Legacy In Film

The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman at 43 was a shock and a blow to many. Hoffman left behind a substantial legacy in film. In memory of Mr. Hoffman here is a retrospective of some of his best performances. Some are obscure, some are well known, but in each Hoffman showcased his considerable talents, often alongside some of the biggest stars of his generation.


When people die the hidden things come out, those actions or vices that they never wanted shared become known. For Hoffman his battle with drug addiction was one that he lost and one that we are all now familiar with. His death was a shock to many but to his friends it arrived in perhaps the manner they had warned him about.

Famous folks however leave behind a very public legacy and for Hoffman that legacy is considerable. Much like when Heath Ledger died there have been many retrospectives written detailing the highlights of Hoffman’s career. This speaks volumes about his influence on the film industry.

The impressive Mr Hoffman left behind a plethora of films and each one had his personal brand and stamp of acting. It is easy to dismiss many of Hoffman’s roles as merely supporting ones but within those periphery characters that he inhabited he often stole the show. From minor lines in Twister to the stately, almost pathetic elegance of The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman left us with a career that is breathtaking in its diversity.

This feature then is not about the man himself but the many men that he embodied and made familiar to viewers the world over. Mr Hoffman died at the young age of 46 but his filmic career shows more than just one lifetime. So here it is then, Mr Hoffman, the character actor and Oscar winner, who breathed life into many, and who was taken much too soon. Here is a list, in no way definitive and of course personal, of his top performances.

Boogie Nights (1997)

This was Hoffman’s second role in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Boogie Nights is about the adult entertainment industry in the 70s and 80s. Hoffman played Scotty J. a gay boom operator with a crush on Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). Scotty was a sad character full of unrequited love and Hoffman’s portrayal of him was touching. The heartbreaking scene where Scotty begs to kiss Dirk on the lips really showed Hoffman with his heart on his sleeve. Boogie Nights is considered by many as Hoffman’s break out role and the tears and emotion at the end of that scene felt uncomfortably real.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

In the Coen brother’s film The Big Lebowski ,Hoffman played Lebowski’s butler. He was given very few lines but the scene with the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a memorable one. The butler’s obvious sycophantic pride when describing Lebowski’s achievements serves to create the butler’s character. The back and forth conversation with the Dude flows easily and Hoffman serves as an effective foil to move the narrative forward. But it is the Butler’s laugh that rings in the memory of those who have seen the film. At once comic but also a put down to the Dude, the laugh functions almost as a monologue in itself.

Happiness (1998)

Tod Solonz’s dark drama Happiness saw Hoffman playing Allen, a sex pest who bombards a female neighbour with obscene phone calls. Happiness, already a disturbing watch, became even more so with Allen’s heavy breathing and threatening phone calls. In a barely restrained performance Hoffman carries Allen’s warped perspective through his tone of voice alone.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

It is easy to pick Hoffman’s biggest roles to define his career but as a character actor that Hollywood found hard to define there are many smaller roles that are just as powerful. In The Talented Mr Ripley (directed by Anthony Minghella) Hoffman stars alongside some big names such as Jude Law and Matt Damon. However it is his turn in this movie that really highlights just how diverse he is. His character is initially a brash, wealthy American but as the film moves towards its finale he becomes deadly and perhaps even heroic. In a tense scene with Matt Damon, Hoffman shows that he is as much a star as the other actors in the film.

Almost Famous (2000)

In Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, a film about journalism set within the heady world of celebrity, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, Hoffman plays Lester Bangs. Lester is perhaps the voice of reason in this film and it is a touching and heartfelt performance from Hoffman. Lester is a jaded, drug-taking, journalist who mentors the young protagonist. In a touching phone conversation Hoffman’s laconic drawl illustrates the world and character of Lester Bangs. “Be honest and unmerciful,” says Lester as the scene ends. Those are fitting words perhaps for Hoffman himself.

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

In his third film with Paul Thomas Anderson Hoffman stars alongside Adam Sandler in an unusual drama about a man (Sandler) who gets extorted by a fake sex phone line. Hoffman is the man behind the scenes running the con. In a tense phone call between Hoffmen and Sandler both men raise the acting bar and force each other into better performances. Hoffman however steals the scene, as he often does. This is an interesting film and one where Sandler is cast outside of his normal roles. Hoffman’s smarmy phone voice is resolute and he somehow manages to say the f-word in a variety of creative ways. The scene is batted back and forward with Hoffman eventually shouting Sandler down, “Shut up, shut, shut, shut, shut up!”

Along Came Polly (2004)

This was a mid noughties rom com starring Jennifer Aniston and Ben Stiller. It was directed by John Hamburg and was nothing very original or unique. Hoffman plays a middle-aged actor, starring in a community performance of Jesus Christ Superstar and his acting elevates the otherwise mundane proceedings of the film. His character, Sandy Lyle, was a child actor with one film credit to his name. Due to this small claim to fame he attempts to control the stage production. This role is played with humour and a touch of bitterness and without him Along Came Polly would be completely forgotten. Hoffman somehow always managed to inject creativity and perhaps even uniqueness to many of his roles. Sandy Lyle, a slightly over weight, definitely over the hill actor, who dabs grease off his slices of pizza, out acted and saved Ben Stiller and Jenifer Aniston from a complete flop. Don’t watch the whole film, just the scene where Sandy plays basketball. His arrogance and misplaced faith in his ability to play the game load the scene with humour.

Capote (2005)

Hoffman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Truman Capote. This was a role that seemed incredibly suited to Hoffman’s acting ability. His quiet tone and deliberate speech reflected Capote very clearly. It is a powerful performance and one that shows the power of character acting. Hoffman plays Capote as he researches his book In Cold Blood. Capote becomes morally ambiguous as he develops a friendship with convicted murderer Perry Smith. Many of Hoffman’s roles are as a supporting actor but in Capote he truly steals the show with his powerhouse performance and the viewer really benefits from his increased presence on screen.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

This was a film directed by the late Sydney Lumet and it cast Hoffman as a sweaty, nervous, white-collar criminal. This is a dark, sad movie and Hoffman stars as a drug addicted criminal who devises a plan to rob his parent’s jewellery story. Laden with pathos this performance further cemented Hoffman as the embodiment of white middle class down trodden masculinity. An intriguing film then, full of violence and betrayal and one that Hoffman caries. All of Hoffman’s performances are so diverse and varied and in The Devil Knows Your Dead his character is ultimately unforgiveable. However Hoffman somehow makes the viewer care and although the character is unredeemable Hoffman conveys his humanity.

Synecdoche New York (2008)

Writer Charlie Kaufmann’s directorial debut is an absurd movie about a playwright struggling to contain an ever-expanding story. Hoffman plays a writer experiencing an existential crisis. In this highly unusual film, baffling and confusing, Kaufmann directs a movie within a movie creating a strange visual experience. Scenes bleed into each other and the reality of the filmic world becomes ever more transient and ill defined. This is perhaps Hoffman’s strangest role with life and the nature of time being scrutinised under a philosophical microscope. This was a film that bombed at the box office, divided critics and yet somehow it remains in the memory of those who watched it. At times bizarre and at others heart-breakingly sad, this is perhaps the role that in many ways defined Hoffman’s eclectic career. Roger Ebert hailed it as the best film of the decade and to many this odd film challenged their understanding of the traditional filmic formula. This movie, not Hoffman’s best, was a moment in his career where he eschewed good sense and perhaps logic and made a film that sticks in your throat and is ultimately unforgettable. A line that stands out in the movie, hauntingly perhaps, relates to Hoffman, “Death comes faster than you think.”

The Master (2012)

In another film helmed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is loosely based on L Ron Hubbard, the founder of scientology, and the plot follows Dodd devising and developing his new religion and followers. Hoffman stars alongside Joaquin Phoenix who plays a WW2 veteran recruited by Dodd to join his new religion. In a very metaphorical and poetic performance Hoffman portrays the multi faceted perspective of Dodd who struggles with the prophetic mantle he has given himself. This is a powerful film and one that again shows Hoffman playing a very different character. As Dodd puts it, “I am many things…but above all I am a man.” So many of Hoffman’s roles seem self-reflexive, at least in retrospect, and it seems hard to separate him from his performances.

Perhaps the greatest movie actors don’t need to say anything. Perhaps they don’t even need to do anything. Instead they seem to fill the screen, transform, and metamorphosis into something else. Their acting is still; their emotions displayed are more through repose than in any clear action. For those character actors there is a special kind of role, a performance that becomes them and they in turn become no longer themselves. For Hoffman that role was arguably the Master where he lost himself to Lancaster Dodd and Hoffman, in this role, surpassed anything else he had done.

There are of course questions to be posed and asked about the nature of method acting. For Hoffman, Heath Ledger, and a number of other casualties it seems that by putting their all into the character’s they played they lost themselves. For the audience that loved them, it is a loss felt very keenly.

Perhaps the saddest thing about a person’s death is the things that they leave unfinished. Those unsaid things are a clear reminder that that person is no longer with us. For Hoffman his unfinished projects had his unique stamp of character acting all over them and now perhaps should be left as a reminder of what could have been. A TV series on Showtime (Happyish) and his return as a director with Ezekiel Moss starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhall will never be completed. It is these promises of future work that show just how much Philip Seymour Hoffman’s influence will be missed.

Hoffman left behind a young family and to them his legacy in film is likely meaningless, for now at least, but there is something special in the fact that Hoffman left behind parts of himself in the characters he embodied. For Hoffman his legacy is more than the sum of its parts and stands as a reminder of the diverse performer he was. Hoffman was a troubled actor who put everything he had into every role he took. For his audience they will never be able to truly separate the man from his performances.

Let’s leave the final word to Philip Seymour Hoffman, after all he always managed to steal the show, “I think you should be serious about what you do because this is it. This is the only life you’ve got.

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