In Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, THE MASTER, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a philosophical movement who takes Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell under his wing and who definitely isn’t based on L. Ron Hubbard. Honest.
To celebrate the release of THE MASTER, we looked at Hoffman’s filmography and attempted to narrow it down to his five greatest performances. In a career absolutely filled with them, it’s been tough to whittle them down, but these are the five roles that best exhibit his versatility; truly a modern master of the craft.
MAGNOLIA is an ensemble piece largely remembered for Tom Cruise’s role, yet Hoffman bests him in the acting stakes with a role that saw him win Best Supporting Actor at the National Board of Review awards. He’s as affecting as he’s ever been as nurse Phil Parma, caring for Jason Robards’ terminally ill Earl, and helping him undergo a search to find his estranged son. Phil is a sympathetic character, even when committing what might be morally dubious acts and Hoffman makes this depiction credible and understandable, with his characteristics – his simple and unassuming personality, the care which he applies to his patients and the nature of his circumstances – shining throughout.
OWNING MAHOWNY (2003)
In this 1980s period piece, Hoffman plays Dan Mahowny, a Toronto bank employee who uses increasingly large amounts of money from his branch in order to fulfil a gambling compulsion. Based on a real story, Hoffman makes Mahowny both sympathetic and hard to root for, his addiction spiraling out of control and putting his relationships with girlfriend and colleagues alike under serious duress. The film isn’t as strong as its lead performance and fails to completely address the machinations of a gambler’s psyche, but Hoffman is consistently engaging, entertaining and somewhat endearing. The scene during which a security guard leads his fiancee (Minnie Driver) away from the table for causing a scene with Hoffman barely giving her a moment’s notice is a masterclass in understated acting.
One of two high profile Truman Capote biopics within a year of each other (Toby Jones performing just as well in INFAMOUS), Hoffman is magnificent in the title role, ensuring that the distinctive look and vocal patterns of the film’s subject aren’t mere imitation; Capote is a supremely peculiar character, with endemic traits specific to tortured writers magnified in his personality. Hoffman does a wonderful job of ensuring that Capote then man doesn’t suffocate CAPOTE the film, its script as rich as its lead performance. Again, Hoffman puts in a performance that deals with the concept of morality but is never less than riveting when on screen. CAPOTE is a hard film to like at times, with Capote’s sympathies hopping from victims to perpetrators and ultimately himself, but it’s arresting and gripping in its portrayal of a man lusting after that one big story.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)
In the finest MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film to date, Hoffman puts in the franchise’s strongest performance as arms dealer Owen Davian, playing possibly his first truly repugnant character. A bold opening sequence sees Davian capture Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and a loved one, and ends with a gunshot. His character is effortlessly suave, instantaneously dangerous and brutal in his attempts to hold off Hunt and the IMF team. Hoffman relishes the role, traversing his way through some nonsense dialogue about rabbit’s feet and creating a villain that recent Bond films would be proud of. Scenes in which Hunt character imitates him with the help of a latex mask are ludicrous yet entertaining, and Hoffman is always game for whatever the script throws at him.
A truly great Hoffman performance (if not his best film – that would be THE BIG LEBOWSKI, but his role is too small to warrant inclusion here), THEcentres around Jon and his sister Wendy, played by the equally talented Laura Linney, and their attempts to bond over the impending death of their father. Hoffman plays Jon like a stunted teenager his intelligence, masking the problems that bubble underneath due to the emotional abuse sustained at the hands of his father growing up. Though working from a script that is occasionally trite and sometimes forgets the jokes altogether, Hoffman is still effortlessly brilliant; scenes with his Polish lover are devastating, showcasing Jon’s inadequacy in the relationship and his inability to make his partner feel special. If any film shows the full scale of Hoffman’s versatility, its this one; leaping between comedy, drama and romance with assertiveness.