He could be anyone, he ennobled the underdog, he never met a challenge he couldn’t surpass. These are all things that were said about Philip Seymour Hoffman throughout his career, and their chorus got louder this week following his tragic death.
There’s no doubt that he was a towering presence in cinema. There’s also no doubt that articulating his best performance is a perplexing task. After all, if an actor can be dozens of different people, what ground do you judge each of them on?
A challenge, yes, but with it in mind we put the entirety of his career to our panel of writers, asking simply: what is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s best performance?
Their answers (and a place for your own) can be found below.
Landon Palmer: Paul Thomas Anderson said that he wanted his audience to get to know somebody resembling the real Philip Seymour Hoffman when he cast the actor as Phil Parma, at-home nurse and caretaker to legendary television producer Earl Partridge. Parma was a distinct break in Hoffman’s fascinating run of supporting schlubs and losers, and a deliberate decision against casting Hoffman according to his demonstrated type in a movie brimming with schlubs and losers.
As a result, Parma is one of Hoffman’s most nuanced turns. He is a sincere, soft-spoken nurse whose modesty hides layers of intelligence and an infinite reserve of empathy. It’s a decisively small and restrained performance in a movie full of giant demonstrations of characters meant to collectively represent All the Big Themes. That makes Parma’s big emotional crescendo – his movie-language explanation via phone about how people help each other – all the more affecting: instead of announcing itself as a Big Moment in this otherwise drama-trumpeting film, it sneaks up on you and let’s you experience Parma’s desperation unfold as he does, as a brief loss of control.
One year after Magnolia, Hoffman led The Party’s Over, a documentary about the 2000 election that follows the then-apolitical Hoffman interviewing everyone on the wonk scene from Jesse Jackson to 2nd Amendment absolutists. Hoffman exhibits a similar disposition to Phil Parma here: gentle, earnest, and reserved, yet deeply inquisitive and fully capable about wielding his confident intellect when need be. If Paul Thomas Anderson sought to cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as Philip Seymour Hoffman, then judging by this documentary and several interviews with him, he did exactly that. And I’m glad we have this great supporting performance in Magnolia as an archive of the authentic Phil among the treasure trove of amazing characters he realized elsewhere.
Allison Loring: Lester Bangs is the mentor we all wanted to meet when growing up and finding our way in this bankrupt world. But only a few come across their own Lester Bangs – luckily Cameron Crowe gave us all a version we could share when he cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as a rock journalist willing to take a chance on a teenage writer, and Hoffman gave audiences an endless supply of advice and quotes to feed off of.
Lester was opinionated and passionate, but Hoffman was able to infuse him with a true sense of heart that made you want to listen to his rants. Hoffman’s gravely voice spouting off Lester’s platitudes making Lester compelling instead of condescending. Lester dubbed himself “uncool,” but he was never overly self-deprecating, instead full of more wisdom than he probably even realized. Crowe himself even noted recently that Hoffman’s work in this particular scene elevated the character to a level Crowe never expected and brought the true essence of the real life Lester to life.
While Lester was not a major role in the film, it is a credit to Hoffman’s talent that even when popping up randomly throughout a film of stand out performances, he is one of the characters you walk away remembering, and wanting to spend more time with.
Nathan Adams: Asking someone to pick their favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance without giving them a chance to re-watch all of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performances isn’t really fair because he was such a prolific performer. It’s not like you can point to anything he did that wasn’t up to snuff. Maybe my favorite thing of his is the starring role in Love Liza though, because it was one of the first times, if not the first time, we got a chance to see what he could do when given the lead role instead of a supporting one, and it works as a wonderful showcase for what a unique soul he was.
The role is bleak, super bleak, but it’s also fused with a ton of humor and vulnerable humanity. Hoffman wasn’t just a great talent, he was also a troubled figure who could tap into a dark energy that made his presence radiate off the screen, and he was a shameless performer who was never afraid to make himself look like a clown. That allowed him to make any situation, no matter how painful, something worth laughing at. That all of those qualities existed in the same actor is truly amazing.
Kevin Carr: For most people, their first on-screen memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman were his more forceful (dare I say obnoxious?) performances. While these are powerful and impressive, my introduction to the late actor was in P.T. Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights. Hoffman played decidedly against type as Scotty J., a soft-spoken wallflower with a penchant for inappropriately tight clothing and a secret crush on 13-inch porn superstar Dirk Diggler. In a film full of amazing performances, Hoffman stood out because he was so comfortably uncomfortable in the character’s skin.
Even with such a limited role, Hoffman was given a chance to shine, berating himself when he tried (and failed) to confess his love to Dirk. My heart ached for this pathetic creature, striking my own internal emotion because everyone in the world knows what it’s like to humiliate yourself and not be able to take it back. This was the performance that showed great range for Hoffman, and it is one that he has not been asked to repeat or imitate by another director. It was the true demonstration of making the most of a supporting role, proving the actor’s mantra: “There are no small roles, only small actors.”
Adam Bellotto: Punch-Drunk Love is by no means Philip Seymour Hoffman’s meatiest role. It’s not The Master or Synecdoche, New York, where his performance is essentially in command of the film. In Punch-Drunk Love, Hoffman’s there mostly to shriek at Adam Sandler and retreat into the shadows of his mild criminal empire/phone sex hotline/mattress emporium. He’s a scene stealer but not an overbearing one, a character who’s extremely memorable without overshadowing anyone else, and that short, screamy performance is a neat little summation of Hoffman’s strength as an actor.
In an ensemble cast, he could blend in yet still remain an essential part of a film’s foundation. And when the spotlight found him, he was of such overwhelming ability that he could coax a moving performance out of even Adam Sandler. Punch-Drunk Love wasn’t his biggest or most acclaimed role by any stretch, but it’s a perfect window into Philip Seymour Hoffman doing what Philip Seymour Hoffman does best.
Samantha Wilson: It was hard to come up with a solitary performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman that could represent, for me, what he did best as an actor, but I’d like to offer up his role as Lancaster Dodd in The Master. As the L. Ron Hubbard-esque leader (but not actually L. Ron, okay) of The Cause, Hoffman somehow became the embodiment of intimidation and calmness in the same person. Watching his performance, you see him tower over his subjects, becoming this all-knowing and all-powerful being who garners the worship and love of anyone he meets.
And it’s completely believable; he’s as commanding as an actor on screen as his character is as a religious leader. There’s something special about seeing his interaction with Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell. His variations between friendship and dominance of the man are nuanced in a brilliant way that makes you, as an audience member wonder if you might fall for the same trick. Honestly, the only improvement on his character would be if his name were Plutarch Heavensbee in this movie instead of in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (it just seems like a good religious leader name).
The last we see of Hoffman on screen, as he mournfully serenades a crying Quell with “Slow Boat to China,” is a haunting and uncomfortable, mesmerizing scene that’s as good as any sendoff we could give the man.
Rob Hunter: Picking a favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance is a bit like rearranging your children on the Titanic. I’m mixing my sayings up a bit, but my point is that not only is it damn difficult to pick just one among so many great ones, it’s also an act of futility as I’m constantly discovering him in older films (My Boyfriend’s Back, Leap of Faith, The Getaway, Nobody’s Fool, etc). So for now I’m choosing the performance that first made me stand up and take notice.
One facet of his immense talent was in finding the heart and humanity within the truly pitiful and despicable, and there’s no better example of this than his role in Todd Solondz’ Happiness. He plays the tragically sad and desperately cruel Allen, a man who deflects his own pain by causing it in others, and it’s Hoffman’s acting that makes Allen more than just a disgusting slob. Can you imagine any other actor in the scene where Allen masturbates in his bedroom before using the resulting fluid as an adhesive to secure a postcard to the wall? I can’t. I also don’t want to.
Capote and Moneyball
Chris Campbell: I’m supposed to go with his performance in the documentary The Party’s Over (aka Last Party 2000), right? Well, I actually haven’t seen it so I’m going to cheat in a different way and pick two acting performances. Neither is my favorite, either. I just want to highlight the two real people he portrayed for director Bennett Miller. You cannot show me two characters any more different than Truman Capote in Capote and Art Howe in Moneyball.
It’s impossible to pick Hoffman’s “best” performance, but together these two roles, one a lead and one supporting, represent the scale of the actor’s talents for playing either end of the masculinity spectrum. He was perfect as an everyman or as any man. I wish he’d lived long enough to actually portray every man.
Ask 8 different people, get 9 different answers. What’s your favorite Hoffman performance?
Correction: In a previous version of this article, we referred to Hoffman’s Magnolia role as Phil Pharma instead of Phil Parma. Apologies.