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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s 12 Best Performances

Philip Seymour Hoffman's 12 Best Performances

This Friday should have been a cause for celebration: the release of "A Most Wanted Man," an adaptation of John Le Carre‘s novel by one of our favorite working filmmakers, Anton Corbijn ("Control," "The American"), and starring one of our finest working actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Instead, it’s a bittersweet occasion: as we all know, Hoffman heartbreakingly passed away in February, only a few weeks after the film premiered at Sundance (as well as "God’s Pocket," which was released a few months back). It was the last film that Hoffman saw to completion: he was in production on what will turn out to be his very final pictures, the two-part finale to "The Hunger Games" series, when he passed.

It’s all too easy to get choked about one of our final opportunities to see Hoffman do what he did best—Lord knows, every time we’ve caught a trailer or similar, we’ve felt the kick of his death all over again. But we thought we’d rather celebrate the work of one of the greatest performers of our lifetime than mourn the absence of any more of it, and so to mark the release of "A Most Wanted Man," we’ve assembled a dozen of Hoffman’s finest turns.

An easier answer to the idea of the "Best Performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman" would have read, simply, "all of them," so this isn’t to diminish the quality of the performances that won’t be found below, as the actor was incapable of giving a bad one. But these are the twelve that ensure his place in history. Any actor could retire having given one of them and feel like they’d made a mark. Hoffman gave twelve of them.

So, take a look below, let us know your own favorites in the comments.

Allen in "Happiness" (1998) 
"Boogie Nights" finally brought Hoffman to the attention of the people who mattered, and the following year was a good one, with five jobs, from everything from Brad Anderson‘s indie "Next Stop Wonderland" to a small but memorable turn as attorney Brandt in "The Big Lebowski" (that he never worked with the Coens in a more substantial part feels like a titanic oversight) to sickly mainstream comedy "Patch Adams." But the definite highlight was Todd Solondz‘s deeply fucked up, wildly compassionate relationship comedy "Happiness." The film’s rejection from Sundance (it ended up premiering at Cannes) was just the first stage of a wave of controversy that followed a movie that took in suicide, teen masturbation, and most notably, Dylan Baker‘s character, a pedophile rapist. Hoffman, in his largest and most notable role up to this point, was stuck with plain old phone sex: his character Allen (self-described as "a boring person… people think ‘I have never before met anyone so boring’") has a crush on a beautiful neighbor, but believing himself (correctly, from her point of view) to be unworthy of her, resorts to obscene phone calls ("I’m gonna fuck you so hard you’re gonna be coming out of your ears"). Particularly in the early stages of his career, Hoffman was never afraid of dialing down his natural charisma and playing pathetic, and this might be the platonic ideal of that. And like everyone in Solondz’s remarkable ensemble, he finds the humanity behind the shock value. The director made a semi-sequel a decade later with an entirely different cast, and despite the great Michael K. Williams taking over the role, it just wasn’t the same without Hoffman.

Scotty J in Boogie Nights” (1997)
Hoffman graduated from Tisch in 1989, and was soon racking up screen credits, turning heads in films like 1992’s "Scent Of A Woman" and 1994’s "Nobody’s Fool" alongside his theater roles. But it was in "Boogie Nights" that he really started to become someone to watch. The actor had cropped up briefly in Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature "Hard Eight"/’Sydney," and clearly impressed, as he became a key part of the outstanding ensemble for Anderson’s follow-up, the ’70s porn epic "Boogie Nights," the director’s first masterpiece. Hoffman plays Scotty J, the boom operator in the happy film family presided over director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). It’s not a massive part, certainly in comparison to future collaborations with PTA (with whom he’d work three more times), but the actor does a huge amount with it, particularly in terms of Scotty’s heartbreakingly unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg‘s oblivious Dirk Diggler. Anderson gives him one great showcase that essentially single-handedly launched his career: the scene where he makes a pass at Dirk, with the excuse of showing him his new car. The way he brandishes his football-player-gone-to-seed physicality, invading Wahlberg’s personal space, verges on the creepy, or at least the drunkenly over-familiar, but even as Dirk sweetly knocks him back, you can see him be crushed, leading to him sobbing in his car, repeating "I’m an idiot." But the idiot would be anyone who watched the scene and didn’t recognize the immense talent on show there.

Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt” (2008)“Doubt” shows Hoffman at the height of his powers and prestige, squaring off against Meryl Streep, herself at the peak of her abilities, and while it helps that the roles are among the best-written of their careers, their commitment to their characters elevates the film and rids it of any trace of its stage-bound origins (director John Patrick Shanley adapted it from his own play). And Hoffman is extraordinary, pulling off the almost impossible task of making Father Flynn human and real and rounded while preserving a knife-edge ambivalence over the film’s central question: did he do it? When the “it” in question is an issue as hot-button as pedophiliac abuse within the Catholic church, the performance has to be sure-footed indeed, and yet Hoffman delivers in such a way that every single moment, every gesture and reaction rings perfectly true whether viewed through the prism of his guilt or his innocence. With Viola Davis’ perfectly modulated but deeply shocking role rightly turning heads, Amy Adams showing the quiet goodness and generosity that almost defines her as a performer, and Streep in blistering, towering form as the utterly rigid, impossible Sister Aloysius, it feels wrong to single out any one of the four central actors for special praise. But to look at it a different way, we certainly cannot imagine anyone else doing as much with Father Flynn amid this trio of powerhouse female performances. Hoffman sells every shade and nuance of this complex, charismatic but fundamentally unknowable man, preserving his secret, and the film’s, right to the end.

Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous” (2000)

One thing we’re coming to realize over the process of writing this feature: Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the all-time great phone actors. Even the best can be undone by having to do a scene solo to a handset, but many of the actor’s most memorable scenes are done over the phone, and that’s summed up beautifully by “Almost Famous.” Playing legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, Hoffman really only shares one scene with Cameron Crowe’s surrogate protagonist William Miller (Patrick Fugit), sitting down for a coffee with the kid who he’ll become a sort of mentor for. The rest of the time, he’s delivering advice over the phone, and yet his presence in the movie is utterly indelible. As ever, Hoffman had the bravery to not play Bangs as exactly likable: he’s smug, abrasive, and totally in love with the sound of his own voice, and with the adulation that comes from young William. He’s the ultimate on-screen music nerd, in other words (unseating Jack Black in “High Fidelity,” who’d debuted just a few months earlier). But he’s also a speaker of truth, and a genuine friend, and in his famous "uncool" monologue delivered over the phone near the film’s end, he lets that confident, nay, arrogant, mask slip somewhat, showing both Lester’s loneliness and his genuine gratitude at the connection that arrives with finding someone just like him. He may only be a fleeting presence in the film, but it’s proof that everything was made significantly better with Hoffman.

Caden Cotard in "Synecdoche, New York" (2008)
A great actor of course must be able to be both an “actor” and a “reactor,” and Hoffman was undoubtedly one such performer—seemingly equally at home in the more passive chorus of a large ensemble as he was front and center of a movie that revolved around his character. As rare a quality as that is, it’s rarer still to find a role written that requires the actor to switch seamlessly back and forth between these registers, but Caden, the lead character in Charlie Kaufman’s metatextual, impossible Escher drawing of life, death and the psychology of creative endeavor has to do just that. Half the time, as a playwright launching an ever-more-ambitious art-meets-life project, he’s the twisted, feverish, paranoiac intelligence causing the looping insanity around him; half the time he’s responding to that insanity the way any sane, ordinary man might, with the same bafflement and incomprehension the audience feels. Like so many other times on this list, it’s really hard to imagine that there can even have been anyone else on Kaufman’s shortlist to play the role—Hoffman is both the roiling ocean that buffets us, and the anchor that moors us in this wildly imaginative, dizzyingly complex film. And more surprising still, within this gargantuan thought experiment, he finds moments as emotionally satisfying as anything he’s ever done. Caden may be embarking on a grand folly—the ultimate expression of creative endeavor as a means of cheating death—but Hoffman takes the hubris of that intention and shows us all the humanity and pettiness and fear that lies beneath it. When nothing else makes straightforward, logical sense, the emotional state of Caden, as played by Hoffman, can always be understood, and always, despite the layers of artifice and artiness and artfulness on display here, feels true.

Joel Wilson in Love Liza” (2002)
In the wake of Hoffman’s tragic early death there are certain performances of his that take on added resonance, whether we want them to or not, and perhaps exhibit A in that regard is Todd Louiso’s underseen but deeply heartfelt “Love Liza.” Filmed from a script by Hoffman’s elder brother Gordy, the actor plays Joel, who develops a gasoline-huffing addiction in the wake of his wife’s unexplained death by suicide. It’s a small film, with moments of indie-film offbeat humor, especially in the odd-couple relationship between Hoffman and Denny (Jack Kehler) somewhat lightening the somber mood. But if the central conceit of Joel not being able to bring himself to open Liza’s suicide note feels a little dramatically manipulated, the performances from Hoffman and also the terminally undervalued Kathy Bates as the dead woman’s mother are nothing if not genuine and moving. Hoffman, be warned, will break your heart in this role, whether he’s uncomprehending, morose and depressive or belligerent and high on fumes, this is a portrait of grief and guilt (“I loved well!” he shouts at his mother-in-law) unflinching in its narrow focus. That does come with a downside, as the film sacrifices momentum and dynamism to stop and stare deeply at this one miserable moment in Joel’s life, but Hoffman’s performance is so searingly sad and seems to come from so deep within that that one moment, so honestly drawn and pitilessly mined, it’s almost enough. Hoffman often brought his particular empathy to ensemble roles, and could rise to the challenge of portraying towering, charismatic leading characters, but in “Love Liza” he brings a character actor’s sensitivity to bear on a big role in a small film, and delivers a beautifully raw portrait of an ordinary man trying to comprehend the unthinkable.

Phil Parma in Magnolia” (1999)
Hoffman was the ultimate utility player, as Paul Thomas Anderson was fully aware: the five roles that the actor played for the filmmaker were wildly, wildly different from each other, and nothing sums that up better than his turn in “Magnolia.” Up to this point, Hoffman was known for playing creeps, dicks, snobs and losers, and yet among the deeply screwed-up cast of characters in “Magnolia,” he plays the sweet, selfless figure who comes to symbolize goodness and hope. Anderson cast him as Phil Parma, the hospice nurse who cares for Jason Robards’ dying TV producer Earl Partridge. Given his prior reputation, and the characters we meet elsewhere in the film, one could be forgiven for expecting some kind of deviancy or tricksiness from Phil, but there is none: he’s simply a man who wants to do good, and in this case one particular act of good, reuniting Earl with his estranged son, self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise). He has minimal screen time, hardly interacts with anyone except his patient and his much younger wife (Julianne Moore), and isn’t really part of the tapestry created in the film as a whole. But Hoffman is able to paint such warmth, paired with such devastating loneliness, that it’s almost as shocking as Cruise giving a sexually explicit monologue, or anything else on screen. It was the first indication that despite his bear-like physicality, Hoffman was capable of doing pretty much anything.

Sandy Lyle "Along Came Polly" (2004)
So, yeah, Philip Seymour Hoffman could amaze us all in Paul Thomas Anderson movies, and Bennet Miller biopics and scorching Todd Solondz dramas, but those are astounding movies from astounding directors, and a very harsh and foolhardy detractor could point out that it’s not such a big deal to be great in a great film. To which we’d reply with BAM! “Along Came Polly” a completely formulaic, rote studio comedy from the hardly A-list John Hamburg in which Hoffman’s supporting turn is so funny as to make the film worth watching all by itself. Sandy Lyle, the endearingly idiotic, un-self-aware best friend of the main character Ruben (Ben Stiller) is a terrific comic creation, so much so that while initially the shambolic sidekick role might have seemed like a career step back for Hoffman, back to his “Twister” days almost, he dives into it so wholeheartedly and with such a liberating sense of fun that it makes a brilliant kind of sense. Just when Hoffman was establishing his credibility as a serious actor who could maybe carry a lead (this was just a couple of years before “Capote”) he also reminded us he could pratfall with the best of them. It’s an entirely forgettable film otherwise (something about the risk-averse risk-assessor Stiller trying to date a free-spirited Jennifer Aniston yada yada) but nearly every moment with Hoffman’s ex-teen idol character is a treat, whether he’s faceplanting on overpolished dance floors, dispensing terrible sex advice or playing enthusiastic and completely inept basketball. And amid all the heavy-duty dramatic roles that populate this list and for which Hoffman will be rightly long remembered, with Sandy Lyle in ‘Polly’ it’s uplifting just to see him having so much fun.

Truman Capote in Capote” (2005)
We said earlier that Philip Seymour Hoffman could do anything. The proof (as if proof were needed)? The actor played, firmly against type, the diminutive, fey, wildly charming author Truman Capote, despite minimal physical resemblance (Toby Jones, who played the same role in the simultaneously-filmed “Infamous,” was a much more obvious choice). And he won an Oscar for it. “Capote,” the debut feature of Bennett Miller, is a remarkable film, so it’s a sign of Hoffman’s titanic performance that he overshadowed the film as a whole to the extent that he did. Focusing on Capote during the research and writing of his famous non-fiction work “In Cold Blood,” and his relationship with suspect Perry Smith, it’s a process that breaks the author. The wait for Smith’s conviction and execution, without which his book can’t be published, tears him apart, in part because of his friendship with the killer, and partly because it’s keeping his greatest work away from the public. And the way Hoffman captures this change, from outgoing belle-of-the-ball to alcoholic, self-loathing shell is one of his most remarkable feats. That he does it while playing one of the most immediately identifiable and distinctive authors in 20th century literature makes it doubly so. All too often, the biopic (though that’s a slightly reductive way to describe “Capote,” given its tight focus on this particular story, and aversion to cliche) sees actors working to the point of flop-sweat to impersonate their target, but Hoffman, who could hardly be mistaken for the real-life Truman, wasn’t concerned with that. Instead, he set out to capture Capote’s soul, his essence. And he succeeded.

Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007)
Charlie Wilson’s War” should have been something remarkable. It had an amazing and timely true story at its center, following the colorful U.S. Representative of the title (Tom Hanks) who teamed with a socialite (Julia Roberts) and a CIA agent (Hoffman) to help fund the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion, which in turn inadvertently and indirectly caused a ripple effect leading to 9/11. It had a script by the great Aaron Sorkin, it was directed by the even greater Mike Nichols, and featured a stellar supporting cast also including Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Om Puri, John Slattery and Denis O’Hare. The end result, while watchable enough, couldn’t help but feel disappointing as a result: toothless and intent on charming you where it should have challenged you. But the film comes to life every time that Hoffman comes on screen. His disgruntled, asocial, foul-mouthed Gust Avrakotos is the best thing in the movie by a country mile. The actor’s given all the best material by Sorkin (most notably the killer, glass-smashing confrontation with Slattery’s CIA boss), and Hoffman relishes every syllable, with the sly humor that was sometimes overlooked in his repertoire. It’s maybe not the most textured performance in his canon (but picked up an Oscar-nomination nonetheless, in a year where the actor could also have picked up nods for “The Savages” and “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”), but it doesn’t need to be: it’s an essential burst of volcanic energy into a movie that’s all too lacking in it, and once more, a reminder that his presence was reason enough to buy a ticket for a movie.

Freddie Miles inThe Talented Mr Ripley” (1999)
One key role that showed the immensity of Hoffman’s range in the early-ascent period of his career was this supporting turn in Anthony Minghella’s version of Patricia Highsmith’s golden, sun-soaked tale of mimicry and Mediterranean murder. Hoffman had already proven time and again a facility for imbuing even highly unlikable characters with a streak of genuine pathos, that allowed us to glimpse, and even sympathize with, the sad, craven human within. But Freddie Miles is in a totally different register—an arrogant, classist snob who may be absolutely correct in his suspicions about Ripley (Matt Damon), but with whom it’s pretty much vital that we do not sympathize, in order for the film to work as well as it does. And Hoffman fits this seemingly atypical role like a glove, bringing an edge of sneering supercilious malice to all of Freddie’s dealings with Ripley that puts us in Ripley’s corner, right up to the point of murder. Freddie’s to-the-manner-born air of entitlement and wealth, the casual cruelty that informs his sharp assessment of the apartment in which Ripley is pretending to be Dickie Greenleaf as “so bourgeois,” the lazy, reptilian way he commands the room with his air of insouciant privilege—he is a detestable creature, but a frighteningly believable one. And his arrogance is also his own fatal flaw: he may have scraped at Ripley’s dark secret, but his ego somehow won’t let him believe that he could possibly be in any real danger from so pathetic and unworthy a creature. All of this Hoffman gives us in a just a few scenes, but they are crucial to the film’s greatest sleight of hand: maneuvering the audience into the position of rooting for a murderer.

Lancaster Dodd in The Master” (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s evolution toward an almost Kubrickian mastery of the craft of filmmaking continues with each new film, and his most recent was no exception. Hoffman, who’d been cast in every PTA feature film bar “There Will Be Blood” got his most pivotal role yet for the director with this magnificent portrait of hubris, self-deception and manipulation. And as Lancaster Dodd, an L. Ron Hubbard-esque founder of a faith system known as “The Cause” Hoffman gave a performance so titanic that in retrospect it feels like, of his final performances, the most fitting grace note to a remarkable career. But Anderson uses Hoffman with restraint, focussing on Joaquin Phoenix’s volatile, nervy Freddie Quell for most of the film and only really squarely gazing at Dodd on rare occasions, and that lends those scenes an even more mesmerizing quality as a result. Hoffman is everything in this role: bombastic and enormous and craven and small. And, surrounded by acolytes and lost souls desperate for any shred of redemption, it seems like even he no longer knows when he is fabricating and when he is not. This streak of doubt and fear, hinted at so subtly by Hoffman, separates out his Dodd from Anderson’s last towering leading man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in “There Will Be Blood.” In contrast to the Herman Melville-style grandiosity of that character, Hoffman’s Dodd is almost effete, and yet the effect that he can have on those around him is no less corrosive, no less dangerous. Is Dodd a monster? It’s a question we just can’t answer given Hoffman’s tremendous depth in the role—can anyone be a monster if they are so self-deceived as to actually believe their own advertising? Less a fabulist and a con man than a peddler of the narcotic comfort of certainty and faith who somewhere along the way started to get high on his own supply, Dodd’s may not be the biggest role in “The Master,” but he is the planet around which the entire, enormous film orbits. And it’s utterly impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. As a treat tinged with tragedy twice over, here’s the blistering confrontation scene from the film that plays out largely as a two-hander between Hoffman and the also now sadly deceased Christopher Evan Welch.

Honorable Mentions
It won’t surprise anyone to hear that our first version of this list was 20 films long, with about that number again of honorable mentions; in the vast majority of his output it feels like Hoffman delivered something special, even when the films were not so memorable. The roles of his that were the most difficult for us to exclude were: Andy in Sidney Lumet’s final film, crime thriller-cum-morality play “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”; Dan Mahowny in the underseen gambling addiction drama “Owning Mahowny”; Dean Trumbull in “Punch Drunk Love” (though we did feel that 3 PTA entries was probably sufficient); Jacob Elinsky in Spike Lee’s excellent “25th Hour”; ornery screenwriter Joseph Turner White in David Mamet’s fun and funny “State and Main”; Jon Savage in the solid indie “The Savages”; Rusty the pre-op transgender woman tasked with caring for a stroke-afflicted homophobic Robert de Niro in Joel Schumacher’s “Flawless”; and while purely for its negligible screen time we couldn’t really consider it for the main list, he’s absolutely hilarious and oddly poignant as the obsequious assistant Brandt in the Coens’ “The Big Lebowski.

More recently, he injected some life into the turgid, downbeatGod’s Pocket” as low-level hood Mickey Scarpato, was reliably sensitive and soulful as Robert Gelbart in the otherwise soapy and unconvincingA Late Quartet,” and his turn as Gunter Bachman in Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man” was one we singled out for praise in a slightly disappointing film overall.

And even beyond that there’s a lot that’s worth another look: he did sterling voiceover work on the great and little-seen animation “Mary and Max”; he was great as Charlie Mayne in TV two-parter "Empire Falls"; he popped up in memorable supporting turns in everything from “The Boat that Rocked,” “Red Dragon,” “Cold Mountain,” and “The Ides of Match,” to a great little role as Art Howe in “Moneyball.” His performance in his own sole directorial outing “Jack Goes Boating” is also a gently observed treat, while his forays into big studio tentpoles are also due a mention: he did his best to make an underwritten and anticlimactically dispatched villain in “Mission: Impossible 3” into something worth watching; was amiably rag-tag as one of the tornado chasers in “Twister” and most recently, of course, took the role of Plutarch Heavensbee in the “Hunger Games” franchise. It’s in that role, in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” that we’ll see the last of Hoffman on our screens, and if that seems a slightly ignoble way to cap a dazzling career, it still cannot take away from an extraordinary legacy.

In fact, compiling this list, and exploring his near-unprecedented hit rate has brought it home to us again in full force, just how much we lost when we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman in February. But also, of course, just what a wealth of great films and great performances he left behind. Rest in peace, and thank you.

— Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton

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His death still stings like hell. For me, it always will.


I love Hoffman so much. Great actor. When i heard the news of his untimely death it felt like as if i was struck by a lightning. I will always miss Philip Seymour Hoffman the Great.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the soul of the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.


25th Hour DEFINITELY should have been included and not an honorable mention

Daniel Delago

When I saw 'A Most Wanted Man' at a press screening, the most haunting aspect of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance is how tired he looks in the film. It's a compelling performance but you cannot help but wonder about his state of mind as he chain smokes and constantly drinks alcohol through it all. And maybe that's why he was such a great actor – he was a tortured soul.


Someone just make a "list" list please… so I can pick it to shreds. I'm inclined to agree with what PL wrote below, "Did he even have a bad performance ever?" … well, no that I think of it, maybe Hunger Games Catching Fire…ha! Maybe just phoned it in a tiny bit, knowing he was in such a piece of crap!


Did he even have a bad performance ever? That (short) list might be worth a read too.

His theater work might need a list too. He was superb on both levels, a true actors actor.

Thiago Lisboa

Miss Jacob Elinsky from 25th Hour on this (great) list.


Good list but, 'Before The Devil Knows You're Dead' is a must add. YouTube 'It's Not Fair'. 'nuff said.


Hoffman and Gandolfini are having a beer somewhere in the afterlife.


loved him in every film he appeared in


His performance in Flawless really ought to have been on the list. If not his best then certainly his most underrated. It not being in a particularly big or impressive movie often seems to cost it praise but it shouldn't. Not from anyone paying attention.


I still miss PSH.


When I first read the headline and saw you were doing 12 performances for the piece, I thought, that's too many, but after reading it, I now think, damn if this guy doesn't have a great filmography, you could've done more. Most of the honorable mentions could've easily been full write ups too.


This is such a good write-up, guys. I almost cried reading through it and remembering all of these performances. Thanks for this.

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