My Three Favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman Roles

I’m certainly not an expert, nor was I his biggest fan or anything, but for me, Philip Seymour Hoffman was the sort of “character actor” who could really lift a movie from good to great by finding a understated way to embody a role that otherwise might have been smaller, and left the movie feeling more provisional.  Somehow his supporting roles brought things alive.  I was always glad to see him on the screen when he turned up unexpected.  I haven’t even seen most of the movies he was in, but the impression he left in the movies of his I have seen was generally very strong.

Boogie Nights

Hoffman’s Scotty J., the gay film-tech with a terminally impossible crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler is a defining nexus of this film, one that makes it leaps-and-bounds better than The Wolf of Wall-Street (this latter being the sort of movie that was just good enough, but not quite, and just similar enough, that I sat there the whole time thinking “man, Boogie Nights was so much better than this”).  Instead of Jonah Hill’s cloying “riffs” that gesture at flawed humanity in only the most schematic of ways, Hoffman’s Scotty’s awkward handling of the boom mikes, his excitement when he shows Diggler his new (but not quite cool) sports car, and just his all-around sweaty, uncomfortable presence remind you every time he’s on the screen that this movie in no way is meant to glorify its characters’ experiences, and that every one of their moments of seeming glory is just the first part of a sad story that hasn’t finished unfolding yet.


This is one of the few films I’ve seen that (at least for me) both tried to be totally earnest and also succeeded.  At the spiritual center of that attempt is Hoffman’s Phil Parma, the long-term care nurse brought into to assist the dying Earl Partridge.  He spends some anxious moments on the screen desperately trying to locate Tom Cruise’s Frank T. J. Mackey.  If it’s possible, Hoffman’s work in this sequence somehow humanizes Tom Cruise (again, only if it’s possible, which it may not be).  Speeches Hoffman’s Phil delivers to this family, one that would otherwise be overly sentimental pap, become very real and sentimental wisdom.  I think (though I don’t quite remember) that he’s the one that screams “why are frogs falling from the sky?” with such absurdly aware simplicity that we somehow excuse, even revel in the moment.

The Big Lebowski

I no longer remember a time in my life when awkwardly contracting my arms and torso and saying “our guest has to be leaving” wasn’t a standing joke among my friends (that spans over several groups of friends over like 15 years).  In a movie that’s chalked full of catch-phrases, Hoffman’s Brandt’s obsequiousness amplifies the archetypal nature of Lebowski (well, both of them).  His ridiculous bow and hushed “Mr. Lebowski is in seclusion in the west wing” as well as many other perfectly timed moments feel so inevitable at this point that it would be impossible to imagine any other inhabitant of that role.

Like I said, I haven’t even seen very many of his movies, and I don’t think any where he was the lead, and I never saw him in the theater.

Anyone else have a favorite they want to share?


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3 Responses to My Three Favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman Roles

  1. David says:

    I’m glad you mentioned his role in The Big Lebowski. Hard to believe that in a movie where Jeff Bridges and John Goodman have SO MANY great scenes and exchanges, I still think of two Hoffman scenes almost immediately when recalling the movie: (1) He’s showing off the wall of photos on the Dude’s initial visit, subtlely trying to keep the Dude from touching the photos, and clearly running through a rehearsed speech: “Oh yes, Lebowski’s Little Urban Achievers, children from unfortunate backgrounds without the necessary means to-the necessary means to-….” The repetition is perfect; tells you so much. (2) Hoffman’s reaction when Bunny tells the Dude that she’ll blow him for $2oo–but “Brandt can’t watch.” His entire body cringes as he tries to maintain a smile.

    My gloss on PSH: He played unattractive, unappealing characters that you wanted to see more of. That can’t be easy to do.

  2. John says:

    Man, I tried to narrow it down to three and I realized just how hard it was. And how almost any two people’s list would probably be difficult.

    I couldn’t get below a top 4 : Almost Famous, Doubt, The Savages, Synecdoche NY. But of course that leads out some all-time great performances (Capote, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Punch Drunk Love and (I’ve been told) The Master) as well as amazingly quirky one-offs (The Big Lebowski, Moneyball, Charlie Wilson’s War, State & Main, Pirate Radio). The guy could do it all.

    Also, after years of promising to do it, I think this will finally spark me to get around to seeing Boogie Nights and Magnolia in a classic case of wanting to smell the flowers after they’re gone.

  3. Sam Brown says:

    “This is our concern, dude…”

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