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Philip Seymour Hoffman: an appreciation of acting genius

Posted 3:16pm on Wednesday, Feb. 05, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of those rare actors who could, in just a few scenes, make a movie memorable. Even a bad one.

Consider Along Came Polly, a mostly unfunny 2004 comedy starring Ben Stiller as a risk-assessment analyst and Jennifer Aniston as his free-spirited former classmate. Beyond the bathroom humor and barely there chemistry between the stars you’ll find a hilariously nuanced performance by Hoffman, as washed-up former child star Sandy Lyle, who hasn’t quite accepted the fact that he peaked at 13.

Slovenly and arrogant, Sandy dispenses bad dating advice (“give her a little spanking”) and clashes with his co-stars in a community-theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

When Sandy finally steps up and fills in for his childhood friend Reuben Feffer (Stiller) during a big presentation, Hoffman invests his marginal character with so much quirkiness (he clears his throat incessantly) and heart (the room full of insurance suits are charmed by his passionate performance) that you wish Along Came Polly had been called Along Came Sandy.

And that was Hoffman’s gift: crafting truly unforgettable characters for more than 20 years, from Brandt in The Big Lebowski to Lester Bangs in Almost Famous to his Oscar-winning portrayal of Truman Capote.

I won’t pretend to understand his death at age 46 — news reports say he was found dead Sunday with a syringe in his arm and bags of heroin in his apartment. Four people were arrested Tuesday night in connection with the drugs found in his apartment, but that hardly lessens the blow of losing one of our generation’s finest actors. Or the fact that we won’t get to enjoy his gift for another 20 years.

Here are just 10 of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances. (Watch video clips of these at dfw.com/movies.)

George Willis Jr., Scent of a Woman (1992): This drama was a star vehicle for Al Pacino, who played a blind ex-military man who enlists a prep schooler (Chris O’Donnell) to take him on one last trip to New York City. Pacino won a best actor Oscar (hoo-ahhh!), but a 20something Hoffman gave a great turn as the squirmy son of privilege who reluctantly but predictably folds when the headmaster demands the Baird boys squeal on each other.

Scotty, Boogie Nights (1997): In uncomfortably tight tank tops and bad ’70s hair, Hoffman carves out some of the best moments in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sweeping epic on the porn industry. As the shy boom operator who can’t contain his crush on new star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), Hoffman makes Scotty believably awkward — both passive and slightly predatory.

Brandt, The Big Lebowski(1998): The genial, tightly wound personal assistant to a millionaire in the Coen brothers’ classic, Hoffman meshes beautifully with Jeff Bridges’ slacker king, The Dude. While it wasn’t one of Hoffman’s biggest or most challenging roles, Little Lebowskis will be quoting Brandt for eternity.

Lester Bangs, Almost Famous (2000): In another eminently quotable supporting role, Hoffman plays the ’70s rock writer who mentors the geeky William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he embarks on his first story for Rolling Stone. His clear-eyed advice, delivered with equal parts cynicism and affection, elevates Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age story. “Good-looking people don’t have any spine,” he tells William, describing the rock stars. “Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.”

Sandy Lyle, Along Came Polly (2004): Scruffy, arrogant and pathetic, Sandy is a work of art. Make that shart.

Truman Capote, Capote (2005): Dark and desperate, ambitious and petty — those are just a few of Truman Capote’s character traits that Hoffman brought to life in his Oscar-winning performance as the famed author of In Cold Blood. Resisting the urge to turn his Capote into caricature, Hoffman masterfully conveys the author’s lurid fascination with murder and his manipulative genius.

Gust Avrakotos, Charlie Wilson’s War (2007): As a grizzled CIA agent, Hoffman grabs hold of every scene he’s in, whether it’s bugging the office of a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) to prove a point or negotiating with arms dealers in Afghanistan. The movie was a star vehicle for Hanks and Julia Roberts, but PSH is the best thing about it.

Father Flynn, Doubt (2008): Hoffman goes toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep’s judgmental nun in this film adaptation of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. As the charismatic priest accused of molesting a student, he is righteously indignant and forceful, but someone you still have doubts about.

Art Howe, Moneyball (2011): Brad Pitt stars as the Oakland A’s GM who flips the script on baseball’s conventional wisdom, and he’s great. But in far less screen time, Hoffman is terrific, too, as the underappreciated manager. His heavy sighs and stares are the weapons of a proud man reduced to being bystander in his own clubhouse.

Lancaster Dodd, The Master (2012): PSH plays Dodd with enough charisma to make him credible as a cult leader. But beneath the bravado, there’s a barely hinged zealot desperate to keep from being exposed. Like all of Hoffman’s best characters, he is complex, relatable and purely memorable.

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