American actor, director and producer Philip Seymour Hoffman will always be remembered as one of the most versatile talents of Hollywood. Famous for working in cinematic masterpieces like Moneyball, The Master and more, Hoffman was fiercely original and was widely considered to be one of the best actors of his generation.
As a child, he was interested in sports but at the age of 12, he saw a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons which sparked a lifelong interest in the performing arts. “I was changed – permanently changed – by that experience. It was like a miracle to me,” Hoffman recalled in 2008. In an extremely successful career spanning 22 years, he appeared in 55 films and one miniseries. He won multiple major awards and nominations during that time, including an Academy Award for his captivating performance in 2005 film Capote.
Filmmaker Charlie Kaufman once said of Hoffman, “He can’t do anything that isn’t truthful. He won’t allow himself. He works really hard. His commitment is complete. If he doesn’t understand something, he won’t do it.” The world lost a great talent in 2014 when Hoffman was found dead due to a drug complication.
Here, we take a look back at some of the brilliant performances of his highly celebrated career.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s 10 best films:
10. The Savages – Tamara Jenkins (2007)
This 2007 comedy-drama by filmmaker Tamara Jenkins follows the story of two problematic siblings, Wendy Savage (played by Laura Linney) and Hoffman’s character, Jon. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as a self-obsessed college professor, one who writes extensively on obscure subjects while thinking he is doing significant work, is a revelatory portrayal of the painfully esoteric life of an academic.
Linney and Hoffman are both outstanding in The Savages, a film that conducts a brutal investigation of a dysfunctional family. When asked why he had been interested in the project, Hoffman replied, “Oh, I just read the script. The script had been given to me a few years ago and then it kind of went away, made it with another company, came back, Laura was with it by that point.”
Adding, “I just loved the script. I was always attracted to it. I always wanted to do it. So I was glad it came back around.”
9. Doubt – John Patrick Shanley (2008)
Doubt was originally a Tony Award-winning play that was adapted for the big screen by its writer, John Patrick Shanley. The 2008 drama boasted a stellar cast with some big names like Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Amy Adams and Hoffman himself, all of whom earned Academy Award nominations for their outstanding performances. Shanley’s highly intelligent film explores important concepts like faith and its relevance in a postmodern world.
Hoffman’s character is a charismatic priest called Father Flynn who is accused of being a child molester by Sister Aloysius (played by Meryl Streep), setting up an environment riddled with psychological and spiritual conflicts. Speaking of his experience, Hoffman said, “Well, I think I’ve known John for 10 years. I’ve known Meryl for 8 or 9 years and this is the 2nd film I’ve done with Amy. I’ve known Viola since my 20’s. So it was incredible.”
He continued: “I’ve worked with everybody. I knew. I had a rapport and a good rapport with all of them and so it was…as dramatic as the film is it was great fun that was had, I think. It was very serious-you know-the work was you know, but ultimately the minute we could have fun, we did. We had a lot of laughs and enjoyed each other’s company.”
8. A Most Wanted Man – Anton Corbjin (2014)
Anton Corbjin’s 2014 mystery thriller was one of the last films that Philip Seymour Hoffman ever worked in. It was also one of his best. He plays the role of a German agent called Gunther Bachmann whose job is to catch an escaped militant (Grigoriy Dobrygin). Hoffman delivers a commanding performance that single-handedly improves the over-all quality of the film.
“He’s an artist and he looks at everything in a very unique way,” Hoffman said of Corbjin. “And you just kinda trust he’s going to make something special.”
The filmmaker was also extremely impressed with Hoffman’s performance. Corbjin reminisced, “He was fun to be with. During editing when he was sitting next to me, I’d look at him and think, It’s not possible, this is absolutely not the guy onscreen.”
7. Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead – Sidney Lumet (2007)
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is a unique rendition of the heist genre. Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play the Hanson brothers, two desperate individuals who plan to rob their parents’ jewellery store and flee to Brazil. However, their plan starts spiralling towards a chaotic mass when the brothers begin to fall out.
Hoffman’s engaging performance won him several nominations, including the Critics’ Choice Movie Award and the National Society of Film Critics Award. “Philip played so many second guys to the left or the third cop or waiter number four,” Ethan Hawke said. “I never played those parts. But what he learned to do was maximize every opportunity, maximize every line. He didn’t let one line go.
Hawke also noted, “Phil didn’t take one line for granted. He was ferocious, and I started thinking [early in my career] I need to play more character parts because of that.”
6. Moneyball – Bennett Miller (2011)
Undoubtedly one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of Hoffman’s illustrious career, Moneyball earned six Academy Award nominations but Hoffman failed to land one. Nevertheless, Hoffman’s character is an indispensable part of the ethos of the film. He is the main antagonist to Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane and establishes an interesting dynamic between the two.
“We had a great time. I got to do batting practice, it was really something. I’m a baseball guy, I grew up playing baseball. It was a treat for me,” Hoffman reflected.
Speaking of his role and Miller, he said, “It’s more of a character study, really. The human aspect of it said a lot, I think. If anyone’s seen Bennett Miller’s work, he really knows how to break down and explore the character and the human nature of the person.”
5. Almost Famous – Cameron Crowe (2000)
Based on true events, Almost Famous is director Cameron Crowe’s wonderful attempt to document his experiences as a teenager, still in high school but on the road with a rock band and writing for a prominent music magazine. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the role of Lester Bangs, an American music critic who wrote for magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone and was called “America’s greatest rock critic”. Yet again, Hoffman managed to give a poignant performance.
Cameron Crowe iterated the importance of the role of Lester Bangs: “From the very beginning, the part of Lester seemed like the key to getting the movie right, because Lester was such a huge personality and a major guy in my life.”
Adding: “He was a forceful presence with a big heart. Both those things collided magnificently in Lester and in Phil,” Crowe said of Hoffman. He remembered telling his casting director Gail Levin, “It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman — if we can get him.”
4. Boogie Nights – Paul Thomas Anderson (1997)
Hoffman had a very minor role as Scotty J, a sexually confused boom operator, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 cult classic film. Even though Hoffman had a small part to play, it was a memorable one that launched his brilliant career. Boogie Nights was full of remarkable scenes but Hoffman’s self-loathing meltdown on screen was a powerful one that stands out.
“We were both young and had only made a couple of movies,” Wahlberg remembered. “I had a scene where [we] had to kiss. It was one of those times when I was kind of uncomfortable with the part, but Phil made me comfortable.”
In fond remembrance, Wahlberg also said, “He was such a generous actor. Phil was fearless and selfless. We spent quite a bit of time together. We had a barbecue at my apartment in L.A., and Phil and all of us were running around having beers and lighting fireworks. The next day, I had an eviction notice on my door.”
3. Capote – Bennett Miller (2005)
Bennett Miller’s 2005 film about the prolific American writer, Truman Capote, provided the platform for Philip Seymour Hoffman to reach the dizzying heights of artistic achievement. Hoffman does not impersonate Capote, he truly becomes the famous writer in his passionate and forceful performance. Hoffman was rightfully awarded an Oscar for his brilliant role in Capote.
“The main thing is the character’s interior and without getting too deep into it, there are lots of parallels in Phil’s life,” director Bennet Miller said. “Which I knew and only became more evident with time. There was something about that character that he could own that nobody else could.”
Miller added, “Phil couldn’t imitate. He couldn’t say ‘Oh I have to do this and hit that mark.’ He had to tell himself what Capote would have told himself, just to bring himself to where he would have been in that moment.”
2. Synecdoche, New York – Charlie Kaufman (2008)
In this bizarre and beautiful exploration of the artistic process, Charlie Kaufman launches a fiercely experimental excursion into the bowels of meta-fiction. Even though it had a polarizing critical reaction, Kaufman’s film is the epitome of what the American New Wave is trying to achieve, pushing boundaries, breaking down the fourth wall and enshrining it in a celebratory funeral of fictionality. Hoffman is equally mesmerising in his role as Caden Cotard, a theatre director who continuously tries to build his masterpiece but is forced to watch everything fall apart. Hoffman grows disillusioned along the way, losing everything he had and is finally replaced by a minor actor in the drama of his own life. We can no longer tell what is real and what is fiction.
Praising the wonderfully absurd script, Hoffman said, “Yeah, it is different. It’s a challenge set out before you that’s really exciting, you know? There’s a lot to do in that film. You know, there’s a lot of things that happen in that film.
“And to go through all those – to really go through a man’s life like that – I mean, it was really something. To really experience everything in such a full scope. It’s intense.”
1. The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)
The most powerful role of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s distinguished career is his performance as the infinitely charming cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 masterpiece, The Master. In a world that has just been through World War-II, the character of Philip Seymour Hoffman provides meaning and structure to the people who have stopped believing, like Freddie (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Such is the quintessentially arresting quality of his talent that even though the audience is aware of the real nature of Hoffman’s character (a con-man), his irresistible charisma pulls us in and punishes our instincts to follow blindly.
In a 2012 interview, Anderson said of Hoffman, “There is just nothing he can’t do”… Growing up, all I wanted to do was make films… Never in my fantasy did I see anybody that looked like Phil Hoffman being a part of that picture.
He reflected, “But here we are, and somewhere along the way I found this actor who I just think can do anything. He’s capable of so much that you can throw anything at him.” Philip Seymour Hoffman will always be a vital part of the discourse whenever someone talks about the greatest acting talents of all time.