*** CONTENT WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS A REFERENCE TO SUBSTANCE ABUSE ***
On February 2, 2014, I got a notification on my phone that shook me to my core: Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment. I was aware that Hoffman had struggled with substance abuse in the past, but believed (as Hoffman’s friends did) that he had his addiction under control. His death was officially ruled an accident caused by “acute mixed drug intoxication”; an autopsy revealed Hoffman had heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines, and amphetamine in his system. He was just 46 years old.
My favorite actor ever, Philip Seymour Hoffman had a gift for finding the humanity in any character. Although Hoffman primarily played supporting characters, when he took center stage – as in Capote – he proved he could carry a film as well. No matter the size of the role, Hoffman was a commanding presence anytime he was onscreen.
Hoffman was born on July 23, 1967, in Fairport, New York. His primary childhood interest was sports (mostly wrestling and baseball) but at the age of twelve, a stage performance of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons put Hoffman on a path toward acting. At age fourteen, he suffered a neck injury that permanently ended his athletic aspirations, and his focus turned full-time to acting.
At the age of seventeen, Hoffman was selected to attend the New York Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga Springs. It was there that he met lifelong friends and collaborators Bennett Miller and Dan Futterman. After graduating high school, Hoffman was accepted to NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. While working toward his degree, he trained at the summer program at Circle in the Square Theatre in midtown Manhattan.
After graduating from NYU in 1989, Hoffman spent much of his time in Off-Broadway productions and supported himself by working odd customer service jobs. In 1991, he made his screen debut in an episode of Law & Order; that same year, film audiences were introduced to Hoffman in Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole (I don’t remember it either). At this point, to avoid confusion with another actor named Phil Hoffman, he adopted his grandfather Seymour’s name.
More movie roles followed, and in 1992, Hoffman got his big break when he was cast in the Oscar-winning hit Scent of a Woman. It was this role that caught the attention of an aspiring filmmaker named Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast Hoffman in his 1996 directorial debut, Hard Eight (Hoffman and Anderson would make four more movies together); that same year, multiplex audiences were treated to Hoffman’s performance in Twister (more on that in a minute).
Over the next eighteen years, Hoffman worked with some of my favorite filmmakers – the aforementioned Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Lee, Sidney Lumet, the Coen brothers, and Cameron Crowe (to name just a few) – and co-starred in three of my favorite films (Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski and Almost Famous). He was nominated for four Academy Awards and won the Best Actor Oscar for his mesmerizing performance in 2005’s Capote. He continued working in the theater, earning three Tony nominations as he went. He found love and had a family.
Then one day, he was just gone. His death impacted me in a way few celebrity deaths do. His performances over the years had given me so much, and though I found solace in knowing those movie roles would live on, I wept for the performances we’d never see and for the family and friends he left behind. Hoffman would have celebrated his 55th birthday yesterday; in honor of the occasion, here are some of his most memorable film roles.
- Dustin Davis – Twister
The beauty of a PSH performance is that every word, every gesture, and every nuance is authentic; in mere moments, you know exactly who this person is. And so it was when I was introduced to Dusty Davis. I’d already seen Hoffman in two movies – Leap of Faith and Scent of a Woman – but neither film had made much of an impression on me. The first time I asked myself, “Who IS this guy?” was Jan de Bont’s Twister. In a supporting cast of incredibly talented actors like Jeremy Davies, Alan Ruck, and Lois Smith – not to mention the awesome special effects – Hoffman upstages everyone, including the cows. Twister is one of my rainy day movies, a film that always makes me happy – and Hoffman is the key reason why.
- Scotty J. – Boogie Nights
Hoffman became my favorite actor the day I saw Boogie Nights for the first time. All of Scotty’s insecurities and repressed emotions play on Hoffman’s face; he doesn’t have to say a word and we know exactly what he’s feeling. When Scotty finally summons the courage to act on his crush, Dirk’s rejection is more than Scotty can bear. Sitting in his car, saying to himself “I’m a fucking idiot” over and over, Scotty breaks my heart every time. Boogie Nights had a massive impact on me, and it’s still in my all-time top three. Burt Reynolds, in a “comeback” situation, earned Boogie Nights‘ Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination; in this humble blogger’s opinion, the nod should have gone to Hoffman.
- Brandt – The Big Lebowski
There is so much to love about The Big Lebowski – the Coen Brothers, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, the endlessly quotable script, the amazing cinematography, that soundtrack! – it’s a testament to Hoffman’s talent that he still manages to steal every scene he’s in. As Brandt, the titular character’s uptight personal assistant, Hoffman beautifully toes the line between the character’s authenticity and the Coen Brothers’ idiosyncrasies. His line reading of “That’s marvelous” is just that – marvelous.
- Phil Parma – Magnolia
For his third feature, Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote a character so much like Hoffman, he was named Phil. An empathetic nurse caring for cancer-stricken Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, in his final film role), Phil Parma helps grant Partridge’s dying wish by helping him reunite with his estranged son Frank (Tom Cruise).
- Freddie Miles – The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley is such an anomaly: a studio thriller with the heart of an indie. One of my favorite films of 1999 (and 1999 was an outstanding year in film), The Talented Mr. Ripley is gorgeously shot and beautifully acted. Hoffman slays as Freddie Miles, expat pal to Jude Law’s Dickie. After Dickie disappears, Freddie – who never cared for Matt Damon’s titular character – is the first one to see through Ripley’s lies, and he pays the ultimate price for it.
Trying to decide which of the following clips to use, I realized the answer was “both”. The first clip is our introduction to Freddie; the second shows us his demise.
- Lester Bangs – Almost Famous
Lester Bangs (director Cameron Crowe’s real-life mentor and friend) is a part Hoffman was born to play. No one else could have captured Bangs’ chaotic energy and acerbic wit the way he did. Hoffman showed up for a few days – with the flu – and simply knocked it out of the park. Patrick Fugit, who played Crowe’s stand-in William Miller and was just sixteen at the time Almost Famous was filmed, shared a lovely memory of Hoffman:
- Dean Trumbell – Punch-Drunk Love
Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love provided Hoffman with a small but memorable role, as phone-sex-hotline-fronting-as-a-mattress-store owner Dean Trumbell. He made the most of his mere minutes of screen time, chewing up every piece of scenery along the way.
- Jacob Elinsky – 25th Hour
A Spike Lee joint, 25th Hour stars Ed Norton as Monty, a drug dealer enjoying his last twenty-four hours of freedom before beginning a seven-year prison stint. Hoffman plays Monty’s friend Jacob, a lonely high school teacher harboring a crush on one of his students, and once again, he killed it.
- Truman Capote – Capote
No words are necessary. Just sit back and behold every moment of this captivating performance, which earned Hoffman his only Oscar.
- Gust Avrakotos – Charlie Wilson’s War
For all the high-wattage star power involved with Charlie Wilson’s War – stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin – Hoffman’s role as CIA operative Gust Avrakotos earned the film its only Oscar nomination. It was his first of two consecutive Best Supporting Actor nods.
- Father Brendan Flynn – Doubt
Hoffman earned his second consecutive Oscar nomination for his performance as Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt. Flynn may or may not be a pedophile preying on his young male parishioners; he maintains his innocence but Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius is certain of his guilt. The audience is left to their own devices to decide Flynn’s guilt, but one thing is certain: Hoffman more than held his own against the GOAT.
- Art Howe – Moneyball
Moneyball reunited Hoffman with his Capote director (and good friend) Bennett Miller. Hoffman is note-perfect as Oakland A’s irascible manager Art Howe, who butts heads with Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane; Howe is a traditionalist who opposes Beane’s newfangled statistics-based approach to managing a baseball team. Howe was reportedly unhappy with the film’s depiction of him, but regardless of the film’s accuracy, Hoffman knocks it out of the park (sorry, had to).
- Lancaster Dodd – The Master
As the titular character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (their fifth and final collaboration), Hoffman earned his fourth and final Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Django Unchained‘s Christoph Waltz). Lancaster Dodd is based in part on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and Hoffman leans fully into Dodd’s charisma and idiosyncrasies. He and star Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Dodd’s acolyte/frenemy Freddie Quell, bring out the best in each other as their characters bring out the worst in each other.
- Plutarch Heavensbee – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and – Part 2
I was a fan of The Hunger Games, having read the entire trilogy and watched the movie adaptation of the first book in the series. There is no question I would have seen the second movie, Catching Fire, either way – but Hoffman’s presence in it was the icing on the cake. Hoffman’s final two film appearances, both of which were released posthumously, were the adaptations of the final book in the series, Mockingjay.
Some more memorable Hoffman roles:
3 thoughts on “Legend: Philip Seymour Hoffman”
Beautifully written. I knew how much you loved his work, but I must admit I wasn’t aware of some of his roles. I keep saying “I’ve got to see Big Lebowski one of these days” so I won’t say it again here. But now I need to find Twister!
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I mean, you definitely should watch The Big Lebowski!
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I’ll get around to it!
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