Philip Seymour Hoffman - a personal top 10
- Niki Boyle
- 4 February 2014
Film journalist Niki Boyle lists his most memorable performances - good and bad - from the late actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died on Sunday aged 46, will be rightly remembered as one of the finest actors of his generation. There are numerous obituaries and 'best of' lists circulating the internet in the wake of his death, so rather than replicate his CV highlights over again, I've chosen to select ten of the roles for which I'll personally remember him.
Scent of a Woman (1992)
Hoffman's appearance in this film was one of those late-night, BBC2, double-take moments for me. He appears as the prep school villain opposite Chris O'Donnell's bland rite-de-passagist, with nothing much to do except sneer as Al Pacino chews the scenery. Hoo-hah!
Another double-take moment: I'm enjoying some badly-aged mid-90s blockbuster CGI (on VHS, no less) when who should crop up as a member of Helen Hunt's ragtag group of maladjusted weather-chasing misfits? Why it's PSH, alongside a floppy-haired edition of Ferris Bueller's Alan Ruck, both playing one-dimensional 'fun-loving weirdos' in opposition to Cary Elwes' group of polished, corporate meteorologists. Think Jeff Bridges' Flynn in Tron, but more slobbish.
Boogie Nights (1997)
I was young enough to think Twister was brilliant when it first came out, which shows I was far too young for Paul Thomas Anderson's expansive portrayal of the 70s porn industry on release. When I finally did get round to it, I was already somewhat aware of Hoffman's talent, but this solidified my good impression of him. In a story filled with tragicomic characters, Hoffman's Scotty J is perhaps the most pathetic – a crew member whose childish hero-worship of porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) manifests itself as inevitably spurned love.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Hoffman punctuated his work with Anderson with a spell alongside another American auteur – or rather, two of them. Joel and Ethan Coen can probably take full credit for the dialogue spouted by snivelling, sycophantic manservant Brandt – a man so servile he even abandons his own sentences in submission to others' – but Hoffman's contributions are clear, from Brandt's fastidious hand-wringing to his strangled, awkward laugh. My personal highlight: his sense of servitude winning out over his sense of decorum, referring to Jeff Bridges' character as 'Dude' when he'd clearly prefer 'Mr Lebowski'.
Probably the most likeable character Hoffman has ever played, Phil is a patient, forgiving guy who, when he's not cowering under the tantrums of Julianne Moore and Tom Cruise, swears at himself when his elderly client (played by Jason Robards) no longer has the energy, and offers a wry chuckle upon discovering that the likes of Hustler and Penthouse still exist. The moment when he sends a relief nurse home so he can stay by the dying man's bed is subtly touching.
Almost Famous (2000)
Almost a decade into the millenium, Hoffman would portray a crumpled shock jock in Richard Curtis' dire loveletter to pirate radio, The Boat That Rocked, but his finest contribution to music-loving nostalgia was his turn as legendary journo Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's coming-of-ager. His cynical advice to eager young wannabe Patrick Fugit on pitching to a conceited editor remains my perennial journalistic fallback: 'Tell him... you know, it's a– it's a think-piece... about a mid-level band... struggling with their own limitations... in the, you know, harsh face of stardom.'
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
After Brian de Palma's overly-twisty espionage and John Woo's explosive, balls-to-the-wall mayhem, there didn't appear to be any reason to watch Tom Cruise go through the motions of yet another Mission: Impossible film – until Hoffman was revealed as the film's villain. Sadly, even this couldn't save it – Lost scribe JJ Abrams got a bit too clever-clever with the script (a key action sequence is completed off-camera; we never find out what Cruise & co are actually chasing), with Hoffman himself looking bored even as Cruise threatens him with death at 30,000 feet.
With Ethan Hawke adding yet another squirrelly, nervous role to his CV, it fell to Hoffman to play his physical opposite: the more bloated, bullying bigger brother who sets up a diamond heist at his own parents' jewellery store. Swinging from blank, monotone persuasion to vein-popping, eyeball-bulging hysterics, he's a furious sight to behold opposite Hawke's twitchy dunderheadedness.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The film that cemented Hoffman as the absolute best of his kind (for me, anyway) was Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, about a playwright whose latest project is a 1:1 scale replica of his own life, complete with a reconstructed New York set. Hoffman is an anchor at the heart of a movie that swirls around him, switching perspectives on reality and fantasy until the playwright himself is recast as a bit-player in his own life story, whose final, poignant instruction is to die.
Now that his Best Actor Of His Generation tag was firmly established, Hoffman was amply prepared to go up against The Best Actress Of Her Generation, Meryl Streep. Hoffman plays beloved Father Brendan Flynn, who is suspected of bad behaviour by Streep's dragon-like Mother Superior. I personally don't think he did it, but with writer-director John Patrick Shanley offering no confirmation or denial of Flynn's guilt, it was a chance to forego the race to conclusion prized by conventional plotting and revel instead in some dramatic fireworks.