The Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances We Remember

The Wire staff remembers our favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances—on film and on stage. Which would we recommend to anyone looking to remember Hoffman through his work?

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The untimely death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has lingered in a way few do, and in large part because of the staggering body of work the man left behind. And for a man with an Oscar trophy and three more nominations to his name, it's been a satisfyingly futile task trying to nail down just which he'll be most remembered for. The sum of his parts, I think, is going to end up being his acting legacy. Even in the roundup that follows, there are gaps. What about Magnolia, perhaps his most humane role, or Boogie Nights and Happiness, two of his squirmiest. Oscar-nominated work in Doubt and Charlie Wilson's War. Unheralded greatness in 25th Hour and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages. The list does go on. Here are a handful of the performances that meant the most to us here.

Death of a Salesman

When he was in high school, Hoffman played the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. A few years ago, he reprised the role on Broadway.

It was such a perfect role for him. Hoffman always had that tired air, even in his first roles, probably something about how his eyes collapsed at the outer corners. I went and saw the production last year; the moment he shuffled onto the stage with his heavy walk, it fit perfectly. His moments of rage and depression as Loman, his portrayal of the character's constant struggle to get above the surface of the water felt completely natural. It's a hell of a play, obviously, but Hoffman was perfect for it.

I spent the last two hours of the show on the brink of tears, finally taking advantage of the dark theater to just give in. These tragedies. —PB

Almost Famous

It's probably the most common one being passed around right now, but his "uncool" speech in Almost Famous is still one of my favorite things ever. Jack Moore tweeted that "his Lester Bangs made high school slightly less miserable for me," and I think that's true for so many people.  Because, of course, in that performance he was the coolest person ever. He was the acerbic guy who we hoped we would one day meet and bond with, the rock-poet sage who would tell us that, yes, our nerdiness is a virtue. As Abraham Riesman tweeted: "How many people grew up and wanted to write about culture because of PSH in Almost Famous?" Even though Hoffman played so many other characters—from Truman Capote to Lancaster Dodd—I always sort of associated him with that uncool rock 'n' roll coolness, which he also got to show off in the underrated Pirate Radio—EZ

Along Came Polly

A lot of people (including ones who helped write this piece) want to remember Philip Seymour Hoffman for the great movies he was in. Capote, Lebowski, Boogie Nights, and Moneyball — all great movies and all movies where Hoffman was absolutely stellar. What I wouldn't people to forget, however, is that this man was stellar in terrible movies, too, like Twister and Along Came Polly, where he was playing characters without any Oscar acclaim.

In Polly, Hoffman tapped into a brand of physical comedy that made me feel better about sinking $14 into a Ben Stiller-Jennifer Anniston romantic comedy. Because: "LET IT RAIN!" AAS


That voice. Not much needs to be said about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Truman Capote—it won him an Oscar, after all—but my god, that voice. It's all you need to know why, after his death Sunday, Hoffman’s being called the greatest actor of his generation. He nails Capote’s speech: soft-spoken while never seeming to shut up, and commanding the room the entire time, like the way he casually name-drops Humphrey Bogart as he tries to cajole Chris Cooper’s Investigator Alvin Dewey over dinner. Some of Hoffman’s best roles are when he’s roaring at the top of his lungs. But when he reeled it in as Truman Capote, that won him an Oscar. —BC

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is not a film loved for its plot—not much happens. Instead, it is a film about performance. And while Joaquin Phoenix's unstable guard dog protagonist speaks the loudest, it was Hoffman's performance as emerging cult leader Lancaster Dodd that was more dangerous, the one from which I couldn't look away. There's a doubling here, where Dodd controls the room and Phoenix's Freddie, as Hoffman's performance controls the scene, and also Phoenix's wild performance. You're not meant to feel sympathy for Freddie, not really, and I didn't. You're not supposed to feel sympathy for a man like Dodd,  but I did, in moments.

The confrontation scene here is probably the most discussed part of Hoffman's performance—in part because of the expletive he spits out towards its end. But the build-up, where Dodd silences the truth that his emerging Cause is merely a cult, is the means that justifies it. —AO

The Ides of March and MoneyBall

Phillip Seymour Hoffman was gentle, generous and graceful, both physically and as an actor. He knew how to carry himself at all times, in every role, no matter the movie. One obituary said his IMDB page reads like a list of the great American movies of the last 20 years, which is ridiculous, because I don't know a version of that list that has Mission Impossible 3 or Along Came Polly. But that was Hoffman's brilliance—no movie was beneath him. He was a master of his craft and often lent his artistic heft to lesser projects.

Or, alternatively, Hoffman would end up as one of the highlights in a great movie gone wrong. Like 2011's The Ides of March, the political thriller with big ambitions headlined by George Clooney and Ryan Gosling. Those two turn in the film's worst performances. The movie is only exciting when Hoffman appears onscreen, whether it's acting circles around the still-wet-behind-the-ears Gosling, who plays his protege, or duelling with his chief rival, a campaign strategist played by Paul Giamatti.

Hoffman's other performance in 2011 went unheralded. He played the stuck-in-his-ways Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe, the one who didn't see the use in fancy stats, in MoneyBall opposite the rosy-eyed mathematical crusader Brad Pitt. While Pitt chewed up the screen, jaw clenched and speaking through his teeth, Hoffman quietly portrayed a man who believed in his system, in his traditions, in his art. —CS

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York is not a movie I have ever wanted to see again. Charlie Kaufman's movie about creation, art, and sense of self is probably a masterpiece, as intricate and volatile and fully-formed as anything I've seen. It's also a frighteningly insightful film on the subject of being alone, even as you live in a world entirely of your making. I was deeply unsettled by it then, and I'm deeply unsettled by it now, even just thinking about it. Hoffman's character comes to understand his loneliness so completely, so terribly. It's a pain that neither coupling nor creation can ever really solve. Synecdoche is a film that features some of my favorite performances by actresses in the last ten years (Michelle Williams; Dianne Wiest), and was probably the loudest I ever laughed at a movie when Emily Watson showed up to sub in for Samantha Morton. And I never, ever wanted to see it again. This is probably why it took me a while to land on this one when considering Philip Seymour Hoffman's best film roles. He perfectly inhabited, surely better than I was ever all that eager to admit, a character I wanted to stop thinking about as soon as possible. That's the kind of fearless that doesn't get talked about as often when it comes to actors. I think I owe it, and Hoffman, a rewatch. —JR

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.