[Originally posted February 2014 on my Tops page. I'm posting it again today in honor of PSH's birthday.]
In the short space of about 23 years, Philip Seymour Hoffman made his mark as one of the most talented actors of his or any other generation. When I heard of his passing Feb. 2, since I didn’t know him, I could only respond as a fan would respond – selfishly bemoaning the loss of another brilliant talent to drugs. I think Lena Dunham said it well in her tweet about our loss of the joy he brought due to such a joyless act.
But I quickly moved from the sadness to thinking specifically about the joy – his many performances that touched me. Some of them were small parts, as in the 1994 comedy starring Paul Newman, “Nobody’s Fool,” and the 1998 romantic comedy, “Next Stop Wonderland,” with Hope Davis. And then there were his major roles in films like 2008’s “Doubt” and his best actor Oscar-winning turn in the 2005 biopic “Capote.”
Hoffman had a great collaboration going with director Paul Thomas Anderson over the years, starting with “Hard Eight” in 1996 and followed by “Boogie Nights” in 1997, “Magnolia” in 1999, “Punch-Drunk Love” in 2002, and ending with “The Master” in 2012. I can only assume they worked well together because of the frequency and fullness of their collaborations. My favorites in that bunch are his sadly sweet porno groupie Scotty J in “Boogie Nights” and his deeply sympathetic nurse Phil Parma in “Magnolia.”
What I look for most in a movie is to be drawn completely into the world on the screen, which requires believable characters. Hoffman was always believable. Sure, he teetered dangerously close to giving himself away as Truman Capote in “Capote,” but I grant him some leeway there because Capote was such an outsize character, a tremendous personality, to begin with, and Hoffman pulled it off anyway.
Fortunately, Hoffman was not one of those actors who is so famous it is impossible to see him as anyone other than himself. I knew little about his private life, so none of that baggage entered into his performances for me. He had the skill and the freedom to become the character, and he did so whether the role was big or small. And what an eclectic bunch of roles they were.
I regret I was never able to see his acclaimed performance in “Death of A Salesman” on Broadway. According to Steve Martin, “If you missed him as Willy Loman, you missed a Willy Loman for all time.” But I am thrilled to have experienced his work on the big screen. That’s the great thing about the cinematic arts – your work lives on long after your body calls it quits. Here’s my list of favorites starring PSH. If there are any you haven’t seen, do so immediately!
- “Synecdoche, New York” (2008)
- “Magnolia” (1999)
- “Doubt” (2008)
- “Capote” (2005)
- “Boogie Nights” (1997)
- “Next Stop Wonderland” (1998)
- “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)
- “The Master” (2012)
- “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)
- “Nobody’s Fool” (1994)
I recognize Hoffman had many other marvelous performances, but my list is based on the ones I have seen (naturally) that made the biggest impression on me. I’ll wrap by repeating my initial Facebook post about his passing:
One of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances was in the deep, strange little Charlie Kaufman indie pic, "Synecdoche, New York," which features one of my favorite songs of all time, “Little Person" by Jon Brion. The song is especially poignant in light of Hoffman's passing. He was such a brilliant actor, but obviously we need more than brilliance to keep the demons at bay. RIP PSH.