Philip Seymour Hoffman was a prolific actor, director and producer, starring in over 55 films and one mini-series over his 22-year career, which sadly ended in 2014 after a battle with drug and alcohol misuse. Hoffman left a huge legacy behind him due to his incredible ability to transform into such a vast range of memorable characters, and, here, we explore it.
From cult leader, to aristocrat, to revolutionary, Hoffman encapsulated every role perfectly. David Fear once argued that “no modern actor was better at making you feel sympathy for fucking idiots [and] failures” whilst simultaneously, Hoffman could play the complete opposite with just the same fervency.
Hoffman’s interest in acting was sparked after he saw a stage production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, aged just 12. Recalling the moment in a 2008 interview, Hoffman stated that “it was like a miracle to [him]”. From then on, he frequently attended theatre productions, leading him to join a drama club aged 14. By 1989, he had received a drama degree from NYU’s Tisch School of Arts and was on his path to stardom.
The first professional acting role featuring the star is an episode of Law and Order from 1991, however, by the following year, he had starred in his first feature film production; Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole. Later, Hoffman found mainstream success after starring alongside Al Pacino in the Oscar-winning film Scent of a Woman, which he auditioned for five times.
Hoffman starred in a wide range of films in the 1990s, but his frequent collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson made him stand out due to his ability to “turn small roles into seminal performances”. Eventually, he took on more significant roles in Anderson’s films, starring as one of the leads of The Master in 2012, for which he received vast critical acclaim.
Bennett Miller’s Capote, released in 2005, saw Hoffman effortlessly embody the role of Truman Capote, earning him an Academy Award for Best Actor. By this point in Hoffman’s career, he was officially recognised as one of the greatest of his generation. Here, we explore the work of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a beginners’ guide.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s six definitive films:
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
Although Hoffman does not have a prominent role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible comedy-drama about dishwasher-turned-porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), set during the 1970s Golden Age of Porn, his role is undoubtedly a stand-out. Hoffman portrays boom operator Scotty J. who is in love with Dirk. Despite the star-studded cast, Hoffman’s character is one of the most memorable.
Hoffman embodies the pathetic longing of Scotty’s character with equal doses of humour and tragedy. His Californian drawl is comical in its delivery of such lines as “I like your name a lot,” demonstrating his helplessness and anxious energy with humour, whilst simultaneously emitting an underlying sense of sadness that is reflected in his too-tight clothing and nervous body movements and facial expressions that are always present.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)
Starring in Anthony Minghella’s psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley alongside Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Hoffman plays self-righteous rich-boy, Freddie Miles. In usual Hoffman fashion, Hoffman steals every scene despite being a supporting character. He blends the despicable nature of the entitled and privileged with humour and immaturity, making him an entertaining and fascinating presence on screen.
As always, Hoffman knows exactly how to hold himself to perfectly portray the role of Freddie. He embodies both intelligence and suspicion, standing out alongside the monstrous Ripley and Co., leading him to win Best Supporting Actor at the National Board of Review Awards in 2000.
Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)
Bennett Miller’s biographical exploration of novelist Truman Capote’s life whilst writing his famous novel In Cold Blood sees Hoffman embody the author with sheer magnificence. Hoffman totally transforms himself, his voice unrecognisable, and his dedication to the role, including significant weight loss and intense study of Capote’s vocal and physical mannerisms, led him to deservedly win his first Academy Award for Best Actor.
Most critics can agree that this is one of Hoffman’s most impressive performances, which was achieved by staying in character even when the cameras stopped filming, explaining that “otherwise, I would give my body a chance to bail on me”. Hoffman’s determination as an actor is displayed in Capote, signalling to audiences that he could play absolutely anyone with excellency.
Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)
Based on the Tony-winning play Doubt: A Parable, John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 film adaptation features Hoffman, alongside Meryl Streep, as a priest accused of sexually assaulting a black student. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards for his role, which was his third Oscar nomination.
Hoffman plays the role with such conviction, embodying the charisma of the well-liked priest while simultaneously keeping the audience on their toes, questioning if he really is guilty or not. His performance opposite Meryl Streep is incredible, holding his own against her accusatory and intimidating Sister Aloysius, which also earned her an Academy nomination for Best Actress.
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
Hoffman shines as Caden Cotard, a struggling theatre director who moves to New York to create a life-size stage version of the city, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy in Charlie’s Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. The film was rather divisive upon its release, labelled as both a pretentious debut and a masterpiece, however, Regardless of critical opinion, Hoffman’s incredible performance is undoubtedly impressive.
As Caden’s life and health deteriorate around him, Hoffman is perfectly capable of embodying this process, tragically lonely but fascinating. The weight of his performance made the film so astounding, leading to its nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
Starring alongside Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, Hoffman plays the egregious yet charming religious cult leader Lancaster Dodd, based on Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master. Hoffman is perfectly cast in the role due to his ability to play characters with unclear motives, blending charismatic energy with mystery and darkness.
Hoffman’s powerfully strong performance led to another nomination from the Academy for Best Actor, as well as many critics calling it Hoffman’s best performance of his career. His ability to capture the surreal, dramatic, comedic, and conniving all in one character is admirable, and his relationship with Phoenix’s character Freddie Quell is mesmerising.