Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Viewer’s Guide

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The Hoff, as almost no-one calls him, is adding the role of cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to a list of religious figures that already includes a priest and a reverend. If this progression continues it’s only a matter of time before someone casts him as God, such is his reliable excellence in almost every role he takes. He’s even good in Patch Adams, for chrissakes. Back when he was just ‘Philip Hoffman’, with a mop top and a gleeful sense of preppy entitlement in Scent Of A Woman, he was giving a glimpse of what he could do – here’s what he’s done.


If 2005 was the Truman show, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones battling it out (in a respectful, actorly way) to deliver the most insightful portrayal of the Truman Capote of the In Cold Blood era, Hoffman ended it with the silverware as the Academy’s pick for Best Actor. Comparisons are invidious and, for the actors involved, probably fairly excruciating, so the focus instead should fall on the way Hoffman nails the whiny cadence of the novelist’s voice and his blurring of the man’s venal urges with his more humane instincts as he weasels his way into convincted killer Perry Smith’s trust. The actor may have shed 40 pounds for the role but he got 8½ of them back for his trouble.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Magnolia (1999)

PTA and PSH may sound like things you have to go to when your kid burns the school down, but the initials are also shorthand for a reliably awesome collaboration. The Master is the third time Hoffman has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, a five-film partnership that kicked off when his cameo, all nasty mullet and bad attitude, lit up the director’s debut, Hard Eight. Back in 2000 Anderson called Magnolia “for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make”, and certainly Hoffman has never been better for him than as jaded nurse Phil Parma. Among the falling frogs, bizarre coincidences, respecting of cocks, the life, universe, and everything, he grounds the movie in the simple compassion of a man trying to bring a dying father and his son together.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Happiness (1998)

A match in a misery-off for Synecdoche, New York’s playwright Caden, Happiness’s baleful sex pest is yet another example of Hoffman’s ballsy choices. And it’s worth remembering that these also include kissing Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights), fronting up to speeding trucks (Mission: Impossible III), cross-dressing (Flawless), and reading the script for The Invention Of Lying. There’s barely a glimmer of hope and optimism in Todd Solondz’s coal-black comedy, a perfect storm of gloom that fits Hoffman’s put-upon persona like a glove. No other actor could deliver lines like “Can I smell your panties?” and “I’m gonna fuck you so hard, you’ll be coming out of your ears” with this level of seedy panache.

RECOMMENDED: Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

If Ides Of March made us think that Philip Seymour Hoffman would make one heck of a political fixer in real life, this Aaron Sorkin-scripted satire made us think that he probably wouldn’t. The handbreak is well and truly off in a Hoffman performance that spans all the emotions from mild annoyance to full-blown rage as his paunchy CIA spook Gust Avrakotos rails against his Agency superiors like Jason Bourne with angina. About as politically sensitive as a tornado in an ill-fitting suit, the role is a fantastic showcase for both the actor’s schlebbier side and his ability to chomp the scenery when called upon. The Academy certainly thought so, giving him his second Best Actor nomination.

RECOMMENDED: Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
This gripping morality tale – a twisty, bile-mouthed swansong by the great Sidney Lumet – starts with a rare sight of Hoffman’s sweaty arse, pistoning away at Marisa Tomei in the kind of sexual business we’re thankful not to have seen before or since. The actor plays Andy, the older of two brothers trying to escape their imperfect lives just long enough to forge the perfect crime, while the odds slowly stack up against them. And if you’ve seen any film noirs lately (try Double Indemnity or Odds Against Tomorrow on for size), you’ll know that this kind of thing never ends well. Hoffman inhabits his corrupt accountant with just enough rumpled charm to hold us rapt as he tries to keep his younger sibling (a terrifically jittery Ethan Hawke) and pull off a ‘victimless’ heist.

FOR THE FAN: Doubt (2008)

John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own stage play gives Hoffman free rein to bamboozle us with the slippery, sinister Catholic priest. Is he a child molester, as Meryl Streep’s pious Sister Aloysius suspects, or just a kindly man in the wrong business? The ambiguous nature of his performance gels brilliantly with a stagey but intriguing melodrama that Shanley translates from Broadway with mixed results. The success of the film’s central idea – that Arthur Miller-y notion that faith considerably lightens the burden of proof – depended on audiences walking out with doubts of their own. Streep and Hoffman, a powerhouse duo, made sure that they did.

ONE TO AVOID: The Boat That Rocked (2009)

Richard Curtis’s pirate radio comedy sank with all hands. Sadly, Hoffman went down with it as American DJ The Count, a character who was based on Radio Caroline’s real-life 7” brigand Emperor Rosko but was annoying enough to get a job alongside Smashie And Nicey on Fab FM. Curtis’s usually sure touch deserts him in a script that is short on zingers – the device provides every good ensemble comedy with buoyancy – and gives a seriously gifted comedic cast little to work with. Would we like Hoffman to DJ our next ‘70s-themed house party? Yes. Yes, we would. Do we want to sit through this again? Not so much.