7 of the finest film performances by the gifted, prolific Philip Seymour Hoffman

Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune
·5 min read

Try to think of a part that Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn't have played. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Hoffman, who died in 2014, was credible as smart or dumb people, as self-aware or obtuse, as powerful or weak, jolly or sad, brave or cowardly, bold or meek, quiet or loud. Other than lose a few pounds or change his hair, Hoffman rarely did much to alter his appearance (even for his extraordinary "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway, where he played the decades-older Willy Loman). His imagination was so nimble that he didn't need to.

As a result, he's one of those actors who immediately come to mind when you see someone floundering in a role and wonder who'd be better in it. His much-too-soon death was a tragedy in many ways that are more important than his job, but there's no telling how many movies and plays he would have dazzled us in had he lived, because the answer to "Who'd be better?" is almost always "Hoffman. Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been better."

His first roles didn't give him a chance to hint at the depth to come. Hoffman was mostly cast as weasels — the snitch whom Al Pacino despises in "Scent of a Woman," a preppy rapist on "Law & Order," a con artist in "Leap of Faith," a dopey high school sidekick in "My Boyfriend's Back." He racked up a lot of credits in the early 1990s, including a memorable cameo as a vulnerable pal of Meg Ryan in the Al Franken-coscripted "When a Man Loves a Woman," but he probably grabbed most moviegoers' attention in a rare-for-him blockbuster, "Twister," as a manic storm chaser who really, really loves "the suck zone."

Hoffman's career sometimes took him into a different sort of suck zone. He's the only good thing about the execrable "Patch Adams" (mostly because he's the only person in the movie who flinches from the title character's excesses), he's oddly cast as a drag queen in "Flawless," and although he capably approximated Truman Capote in his Oscar-­winning "Capote" in 2005, the next year's "Infamous" was a better movie with a better Capote (Toby Jones).

Even in the sucky stuff, Hoffman was usually the best thing, because whatever the foibles of his characters, he never judged them or seemed to step outside of them to comment on their behavior. As he said to NPR in an interview about "Death of a Salesman," "to be loved, I think, is, like, the thing that gets you up in the morning. And ultimately, I mean, if we wanted to say what the play's about, you know, it's wanting to be loved."

That instinct fuels all of the characters created by Hoffman, who left us a lot of people to love.

Magnolia (1999)Hoffman excelled in all five movies he made with Paul Thomas Anderson, who said he "fell in love with" the actor in "Scent of a Woman." He's heartbreaking as the moony hanger-on in "Boogie Nights" and frightening as the misguided "The Master," but I keep re-watching his scenes in Anderson's masterpiece, "Magnolia." At the bedside of a dying (in real life and on screen) Jason Robards, Hoffman delivers a performance filled with compassion, grace and humor.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)Like James Bond movies, the "Mission: Impossible" franchise works best when the villain is most magnetic. Hoffman underplays a soulless bad guy who says of Ethan Hunt's wife, "I'm going to find her and then I'm going to kill you in front of her." Hoffman makes his character so divorced from humanity that we never know what to expect.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)A throwback to the preppy weasels he played early in his career, Hoffman's lockjawed Freddie Miles is a small but crucial role. The movie's game is that Matt Damon's title character is an amoral creep but he's so appealing that we root for him anyway. So Hoffman's job is to make Miles — who is onto Ripley, perhaps because he's amoral, too — such a condescending prig that we're rooting for Ripley to bash in his skull. Done and done (for).

A Most Wanted Man (2014)Based on a novel by John lé Carre and released shortly after Hoffman's death, this quietly riveting thriller exists in the same moral grayness as all of the novelist's thrillers. Hoffman's German spy is fascinating because he's (mostly) a good guy who seems like a bad guy. Hoffman keeps us guessing in this fantastic adaptation with a key question: Can you hold onto your conscience in a world of lies?

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)If weasels were one of Hoffman's specialties, over-the-top yellers were also a fave (the cult drama "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is another one where he blows his top a lot, as is "The Savages"). He's a sketchy, spectacularly hostile CIA guy so annoyed at his less-intelligent boss that he keeps storming out of his office in a huff, breaking his window on the way. In Mark Harris' new biography of director Mike Nichols, Tom Hanks said his work with Hoffman, who would earn his second of four Oscar nominations, was "the best three days I've ever had shooting."

Happiness (1998)There's no shortage of fine depictions of depression on film, from Kristen Wiig in "Bridesmaids" to Julianne Moore in "Safe," but Hoffman captures a particular brand of miserable longing in Todd Solondz's macabre drama. He's a virtual shut-in, sadly unable to stop flagellating himself long enough to see the possibilities in front of him.

The Big Lebowski (1998)Hoffman didn't do enough comedies — he's also very funny in "Along Came Polly" and a tiny part in "Strangers With Candy" — but he was great at it. As the title character's obsequious butler, watch him burble with toadying delight at a wall of his boss' goofy plaques and souvenir photos.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367