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14 of the Best Roles to Celebrate the Life and Career of Philip Seymour Hoffman

by Albie Hartshill Feb 3, 2014

YESTERDAY, when the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death broke, I saw my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploding with posts of the story, all captioned, “He was one of my favorite actors.” The Atlantic quickly proclaimed him “the best actor of his generation,” while The New York Times called him “fearless in his choice of roles.”

For many other actors, the incredible amount of praise posthumously heaped upon them can feel a little bit forced — like we’re trying too hard to not speak ill of the dead. But Philip Seymour Hoffman was — in the truest sense of the word — amazing. The man could play any role. He made his scenes in Along Came Polly enjoyable to watch. I don’t know if I can give much higher praise than that.

So if you’re upset about the passing of a genius, here are some of his best performances to check out.

Almost Famous

In Almost Famous, Hoffman played rock journalist Lester Bangs — who, incidentally, also died at a young age of a drug overdose — and journalistic mentor to protagonist William Miller. Though the movie as a whole is excellent and Hoffman’s screen time is minimal, I still remember getting a slight feeling of giddiness every time he came onscreen. The scene above is one of the best in the movie.

The Big Lebowski

In another bit part in a great movie, Hoffman played Brandt, the personal assistant to the “big” Jeffrey Lebowski, in The Big Lebowski. His role is, again, relatively small, but he plays the part of a professional, anxiety-ridden ass-kisser so perfectly it’s hard not to laugh — and also maybe feel a little anxious yourself — at his scenes with “The Dude,” played by Jeff Bridges.

25th Hour

25th Hour is full of excellent performances, and again, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s is one of the smaller ones. He’s given less to work with than Edward Norton, Brian Cox, or Barry Pepper, but he still manages to make his small side-story — that of a quiet high school teacher with a crush on one of his 11th graders — shine as one of the most memorable parts of the film. One of the notable things about Hoffman was his willingness to take on bit parts and perform them perfectly — which isn’t to say he stole scenes or chewed scenery. His acting never appeared to be about him. It was about the role.

Charlie Wilson’s War

Okay, so there’s one movie where Hoffman does get to chew the scenery a little bit, and it’s Charlie Wilson’s War. Considering the people the movie was undoubtedly meant to spotlight were Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and the writing of Aaron Sorkin, it’s awesome to see Hoffman play the pudgy CIA agent wrecking ball Gust Avrakotos with such righteous fury. If you watch any of the scenes we’ve embedded in this article, watch this one.


Capote finally gave Hoffman the limelight in a real way, and his portrayal of Truman Capote during the writing of the masterpiece In Cold Blood finally won him an Oscar. Capote was not a particularly easy or likable subject to portray — oh, and he spoke in a much higher voice than Hoffman’s deep baritone — but Hoffman managed to portray him in a way where you actually sorta understood the guy. Even when he was being cruel or manipulative. The Oscar was much deserved.

Mission: Impossible 3

Like so many other actors, Hoffman followed up his Oscar win with a big-budget moneymaker, Mission: Impossible 3. Unlike so many other actors, he did not phone it in. And in a series known for over-the-top villains, Hoffman actually manages to be terrifying.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an excellent heist movie by master director Sidney Lumet. In it, Hoffman plays a drug-addicted executive who’s been embezzling money, and enlists his brother’s help to rob his parents’ jewelry store before fleeing to Brazil. Like so many of Lumet’s films, it’s about a man slowly losing control, and Hoffman plays that role perfectly.


Happiness is not a movie for everyone. It’s got significantly less happiness in it than it has pedophilia, and it’s a pretty stomach-churning film most of the time. That said, Hoffman’s portrayal of a lonely, boring man who makes obscene phone calls to his next door neighbor is incredibly creepy, and incredibly sad. As The New York Times said: The man was not afraid of taking on tough roles.

Boogie Nights

If there’s a director that Philip Seymour Hoffman is most associated with, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson. In Boogie Nights, perhaps the best known of the PTA movies, Hoffman played a gay boom operator in the ’70s porn industry who’s in love with Dirk Diggler, the porn star played by Mark Wahlberg. It’s kind of impossible to watch this scene and not think, “Jesus, the man picked a lot of sad roles.”

The Master

In another Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Hoffman plays a charismatic cult leader based off of L. Ron Hubbard, who entrances an unstable alcoholic played by Joaquin Phoenix. This would be Hoffman’s third and final Oscar Nomination (unless he gets one posthumously) for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.


Doubt was a sparse movie that relied less on the production and more on the strength of its actors. Fortunately, the actors were Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In it, a nun, played by Streep, accuses a priest, played by Hoffman, of molesting an altar boy. It’s no surprise that all four actors received Oscar Nominations for this one.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain saw Hoffman yet again playing a priest, and yet again, playing a bit of a creep. And yet again, his scenes are highlights of the movie.

The Ides of March

George Clooney’s political drama, The Ides of March, was an excellent movie about political betrayal (which I promise, gives away no more than the title does). Hoffman plays Paul Zara, the campaign manager who insists on loyalty from his employee, Ryan Gosling, and doesn’t quite get it. The scene above is one of the best in the film.

Synecdoche, New York

Look, Charlie Kaufman has done some great stuff — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. but his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, was borderline impenetrable. In it, Hoffman plays an artist who takes a warehouse in New York City and turns it into an authentic play about his life, with actors cast as himself, his friends, and his family. It gets way too meta and is difficult to follow, but the film is rendered watchable by Hoffman’s performance, which manages to ground the otherwise incredibly heady material.

This movie, more than any other, is proof of Hoffman’s incredible ability to make any character, no matter how affected, depraved, or psychotic, relatable and interesting. We’ve lost an incredible actor long before his time.

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