The knee-jerk reaction when a well-respected actor dies is to canonize that person, to go back and forth citing their greatest performances. Often times, like in the cases of the late James Gandolfini or Heath Ledger, the praise is more than fitting. And yet today, as movie lovers mourn the sudden and tragic loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, there can't be enough canonizing. He was truly one of the best. There's no such thing as hyperbole when discussing his work.
Of course, your personal highlights will very depending on your sensibilities. Fans of dark, uncomfortable cinema can reminisce about his fragile turn as the lovestruck but hopelessly overlooked Allen in Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998), or the self-destructive Andy Hansen in Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007). Also hilarious when he wanted to be, Hoffman earned the fondness of people who like a good poop joke playing Sandy Lyle, the world's vainest has-been celebrity and worst basketball player in the 2004 comedy Along Came Polly. And, of course, there's the Coens' comedy classic The Big Lebowski (1998), in which Hoffman is all strained subtlety as the title character's beleaguered assistant.
And that's leaving out some of Hoffman's most undeniably brilliant performances, whether it's as the nebbish, gay boom operator Scotty J. in Boogie Nights (1997), the reckless music journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous (2000), or his most recent piece of, pun intended, mastery, playing the charismatic but quietly sinister Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson's towering The Master (2012). There's no right answer or clear-cut winner in any game of "What's the best Philip Seymour Hoffman performance?" His career was constantly evolving but always maintained excellence, and one that, with its 50-plus film resume, will continue to be discovered by newcomers and cherished by cinephiles. The canonization of Philip Seymour Hoffman will be everlasting.
Hoffman's greatness is difficult to summarize. As with the best art and artists, his work meant different things to different viewers. Watching him navigate his crush on a minor as the shy high school teacher in Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002), for instance, one person could laugh at his awkwardness while others may feel empathy, or outright anger. Hoffman's talent allowed for that kind of subjectivity, even welcomed it.
Which is why, to pay tribute, the writers of Complex's Pop Culture team have written about the Philip Seymour Hoffman roles and memories that speak to them the most.
Ross Scarano, Deputy Editor: Ten times! Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ridiculous outburst in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love always surprises me. I know how many times he tells Adam Sandler’s character Barry Egan to shut up, but when I get caught up in the scene's manic energy, I’m helpless. It’s like trying to get the timing right for the “smoke weed every day” part at the end of Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode.” You want to look cool in a room full of friends by mimicking the moment perfectly. But it probably says more to get lost in the moment, because that means you must really love it.
Even though the Mattress Man is a character who thinks of himself as intimidating, you can see he’s really not. His white bead necklace gives everything away. It’s a recurring quality among so many of Hoffman’s characters, especially in Anderson’s movies. (He consistently did his best work with Anderson. Makes sense. Up until this morning Anderson was the greatest living American filmmaker, and Hoffman was the greatest living American actor. It’s heartbreaking that that’s no longer true.)
In Anderson’s movies, Hoffman is the difficult, broken dude with big aspirations, or a big front to hide behind. The performances differ in how deep he buries the instability. It’s deep in The Master. It’s right on the surface in Boogie Nights. In Boogie Nights, Scotty dresses and poses like one of the stars, like Dirk Diggler, the one he’s in love with—but he’s trying too hard. Everyone sees it, and even he knows it. “I’m a fucking idiot, I’m a fucking idiot,” he says to himself in the scene where Dirk recoils from his advances, a scene I can’t bring myself to watch right now. “Fucking idiot, fucking idiot, fucking idiot.” I don’t know how many times he says it exactly, sitting in the car, crying, beating himself up. I don’t know how many times but I know it’s too much to bear.
Tara Aquino, Associate Editor: Philip Seymour Hoffman was the kind of actor who became part of your life. At least for me. No, I didn't know the guy, but I watched Almost Famous religiously as teenager, and I lived by the words of Hoffman's Lester Bangs. "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." Bangs is just a character, inspired by director Cameron Crowe's own real-life mentor, and that line was fed to him through an excellent script. But Hoffman's powerful take on the tortured mentor, marked by such sincerity and weight, transcended the screen and was capable of reaching out to a lonely kid seeking validation. A kid like me.
Jason Serafino, Contributing Writer: Philip Seymour Hoffman elevated a movie just by showing up. Watch him in Along Came Polly. That may sound odd, especially given his incredible body of work, but as Sandy Lyle, he turned a Ben Stiller snoozefest into a legitimate laugh-out-loud comedy anytime he was on screen.
Like many people, I caught this movie on the USA network at around 2 a.m. during the week and was counting on it to put me to sleep. Instead, I found myself enchanted by Hoffman’s boorish performance. For two hours, I suffered through mindless romantic comedy clichés just for Hoffman's gems. He was surly, loud, crass, and chewed more scenery than a swarm of termites, and it was all pure brilliance. He has much better roles to his credit, with The Master and Capote coming to mind, but when you can make a movie starring Jennifer Aniston watchable, you’re easily one of the best.
Brenden Gallagher, Contributing Writer: Sports commentators love to talk about athletes who “never take plays off.” It's true of actors, too. Over the next few days, you will be told over and over again to watch Capote, The Master, and the rest of Hoffman’s great dramatic performances, and rightfully so. When I think of Hoffman, I think of Along Came Polly. There was no reason to make that film other than to fill another obligatory rom-com release date. There was no reason to act in that film other than a paycheck. There is no reason to watch that film besides Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sandy Lyle, the deluded former child actor, is as memorable and fully formed a character as any Hoffman created. I’ll never forgot that performance, even though it's lodged deep in an utterly forgettable film.
There are few exercises more subjective than picking the greatest artist working in a given field at a given time. If you want to pick Streep, Day-Lewis, or Bale, you’re probably right in a way. For me, Philip Seymour Hoffman was the greatest working actor because he made every role matter. Whether it was a part as small as Brandt in The Big Lebowski, or as large as titular writer in Capote, his relentless dedication to, and love of, his craft shone through no matter the film, no matter the role.
Justin Monroe, Deputy Editor: Of all the famous Thomas Harris characters that showrunner Bryan Fuller reimagined in NBC’s Hannibal, there is only one that irks me: Fredericka “Freddie” Lounds. In Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, which introduced the world to the brilliant cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Lounds is a sleazy tabloid reporter (and a man) who endangers lives and an FBI manhunt for the “Tooth Fairy” serial killer by trying to weasel stories out of it. Philip Seymour Hoffman played Lounds in Brett Ratner’s 2002 adaptation (the second, after Michael Mann’s 1986 take, Manhunter). He subtly conveyed his self-serving and unscrupulous nature so well that I felt like I could run a finger across Lounds and come up with a digit full of dirt. He was instantly unlikeable, which made for an uncomfortable mix of sympathy and ecstatic blood lust when the Tooth Fairy tortures and kills him as punishment for publishing false assertions about his sexuality.
It matters little that Hannibal’s Lounds is a woman (played by Lara Jean Chorostecki) or that she's no longer a print hack but a blogger for a true-crime website. What bothers me is that, as icky and meddlesome as she’s supposed to still be, Lounds lacks that core detestability and film of filth that Hoffman brought to the role. It’s ultimately a minor performance of his, but it speaks to how spot-on and impactful he could be in a supporting role that, in a series that dares to reimagine Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen is not Sir Anthony Hopkins but he’s absolutely delightful in his own cold Scandinavian way), the character I pine for is the asshole reporter Frederick Lounds.
Keep reading for memories from Joe La Puma, Matt Barone and more.
Joe La Puma, Director of Content Strategy: There are very few actors who have displayed as much diversity as Philip Seymour Hoffman, and to me that says a lot about his career. I'm currently scrolling through old scenes on YouTube, and as a casual movie fan, the fact that you could connect to a bunch of different roles PSH played shows how great he was. I remember being in college and watching him play Sandy Lyle in Along Came Polly, and how the "LET IT RAIN!!" scene could cheer me up no matter my mood. On the other hand, his more serious role in one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous, was both refreshing and spot-on when it came to his views on being a journalist. To this day the "Uncool" scene remains one of my favorites ever, and the fact that Hoffman served as a sort of a mentor for everyone coming up in music journalism will never be forgotten.
Jack Erwin, Executive Editor: Whenever I hear about parents of young children dying of drug overdoses, my first reaction is “asshole.” I’m not proud of my rush to judge another person’s life, but maybe it hits a little close to home. And then I try to walk it back a little, and my next thought is “Yes, ‘asshole,’ but an asshole in lots and lots of pain.”
A celebration of an artist’s life and work shouldn’t center on the details of his death, but it does seem like pain figures a lot in the characters Philip Seymour Hoffman played. I have no idea what Hoffman’s actual life was like, but it certainly looked like he knew what it was like to be on the fringe: Scotty, Allen, Lester Bangs, Truman Capote. Hoffman was incredible at playing men who knew unhappiness, and he did it in ways that never seemed patronizing: the smiles that required too much engineering to be genuine, the last shreds of pride mustered in the face of dashed hopes, even the heartbreaking joy at small victories (if I can be patronizing myself). And, of course, how pain can turn people into assholes (and how, in the end, it’s still a bullshit excuse for that behavior).
All of which perversely, maybe flippantly, makes me want to find a (relatively) pain-free PSH scene. There’s a bunch of them, of course; he wasn’t a one-note actor, that’s why he was one of everybody’s favorites. But I like this one. Sure, it’s a “pained” expression, and it’s difficult to imagine Brandt not having his quota of loneliness (and then some), but it’s really about that laugh, and how a really, really fantastic actor on the rise can inhabit the bitiest of bit roles and steal scenes working as the straight man. However Philip Seymour Hoffman got there, he got there, and art and the world are a sadder place for his loss.
David Drake, Staff Writer: One of Philip Seymour Hoffman's lesser known roles was also one of his most ridiculous. Allen, the antisocial loner of Todd Solondz extraordinarily dark 1998 comedy Happiness, was like a caricature of the kinds of troubled men Hoffman often portrayed, a social pariah trapped in his own head, unable to impact the outside world. But as easy as it would have been to play the role with knowing condescension, to reach for cheap laughs, Hoffman found the humanity in a character who was required to masturbate on screen, who revealed his most uncomfortable sexual fantasies, yet couldn't self-actualize in a meaningful way.
Mike Nichols, who directed Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War, was quoted by Lynn Hirschberger describing the first time he saw Hoffman perform in Scent of a Woman: "There is something deeply ethical about Phil as an actor that was apparent even then — he has the integrity and commitment to represent his characters without any judgment."
If there was ever a character who could be reduced to a cartoon, it would be Allen. Yet Hoffman refused to treat him shabbily; verisimilitude required that Allen receive the same consideration as Truman Capote. It's tough to imagine another actor willing to sacrifice himself for a role so thoroughly.
Matt Barone, Senior Staff Writer: Certain actors give off an air of bigger-and-better-than-me prestige—just by looking at them, I'm left humbled and awestruck. Daniel Day-Lewis. Sean Penn. Marlon Brando. Brad Pitt. All of those guys, they appear cooler just, you know, standing around in a white T-shirt than anything I'll ever do. But Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though just as good and as cool as any of them, was the quintessential everyman, one that I can relate to. And I attribute that connection to Hoffman to one random, unexpected encounter I had with the man in May 2008.
I was at a screening of Ben Stiller's new comedy Tropic Thunder inside a huge Manhattan multiplex, under the impression that it was another typical screening for critics and contest winners. But then Stiller strolled in to introduce the film. He also pointed out that a couple of his friends were in the building: Larry David and Philip Seymour Hoffman. To my surprise, they were both sitting right behind me—for a second there, I did feel humbled and awestruck.
As the movie played, I could hear Mr. Hoffman laughing hard and loud. At all of the same scenes and moments that I was laughing at. It was bizarre, listening to this Hollywood A-lister, one who'd won the Best Actor statue at the Academy Awards three years prior, for Capote, giggle uncontrollably over the Simple Jack bits, and whenever Robert Downey, Jr. said anything.
As I left the theater, I walked off to the side to check my phone, and there Hoffman was, doing the same thing while, presumably, waiting for Ben Stiller and Larry David so they could all go be awesome somewhere together. Then, in a rare moment of confidence, I said to him, "Excuse me, Mr. Hoffman, but I was sitting in front of you and couldn't help but hear you laughing your ass off. That movie was really funny, right?" Many other famous actors, like Penn or Pitt, probably would've ignored me, or given me a quick smile and then vacated the premises. But not Hoffman.
"Yeah, I haven't laughed that hard in a long time," he said, before saying goodbye and starting on that whole "being awesome" thing. Ever since then, all of Hoffman's performances have registered far beyond "acting" to me. Though he portrayed fictional or fictionalized characters, that guy on the screen, besides his enormous and singular talent, was, beneath the performance, a lot like me. Personal demons and all, as today's heartbreaking news confirms.
Jennifer Wood, Contributing Writer: I never had the opportunity to meet Philip Seymour Hoffman in person, though I’m fortunate to have witnessed him perform live on several occasions, most recently as Willy Loman in 2012’s Death of a Salesman and most memorably back in 2003, when he played the hard-drinking Jamie in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. That latter performance was a particularly difficult one to watch; after disappearing for much of the second act, Hoffman came roaring back onto the stage in the play’s final moments, full of a kind of blind rage that has stuck with me over the years.
It was a few months before that that I was called upon as a last-minute substitute to interview Hoffman. It was for a cover story related to what was poised to be a breakout year for the then-36-year-old actor, with no less than a half-dozen new films being released in quick succession (Punch-Drunk Love, Love Liza, 25th Hour, and the unfortunately under-seen Owning Mahowny among them).
Though I was a relative newcomer to entertainment journalism at the time, I seemed like an obvious choice to pinch hit when the original writer fell ill at the last minute. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’ve always had a soft spot for character actors, and that Hoffman had been one of my favorites since his role in 1992’s Scent of a Woman. There was just one problem: I didn’t want to interview him.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the fact that I was such a fan of Hoffman’s work made the prospect of speaking with him about his process far less appealing to me. What if the interview didn’t go well? What if the conversation were stilted? What if he revealed something to me that made me look at his acting in a different way? In other words: I already had a vision of who Hoffman was as a person based on the work that I had seen him in. What if speaking with him affected that?
But duties, and deadlines, called. Like it or not, Hoffman was going to be calling me to chat in a couple of hours, following a late night on the L.A. set of Along Came Polly. I wasn’t thrilled, and as the hour loomed closer something close to dread set in. Because I had followed Hoffman’s career so closely, I didn’t need to do much research. But I always like to read a subject’s past interviews in order to steer clear of repeating the same conversations. In doing so, I noticed a bit of a pattern: Hoffman didn’t seem to love doing interviews. And if he thought a question was dumb, he wasn’t afraid to say so.
When I hung up, I realized that my prediction had come true: Talking to Philip Seymour Hoffman had altered my vision of who he was.
After a handful of postponements on the actual start time, I finally answered the phone to hear Hoffman himself on the other end. He was exhausted after a shoot that had lasted until 4 a.m. (I couldn’t blame him.) But we both had a job to do here and so I began my line of questioning: “Yes.” “No.” “Yes.” “No.” “Maybe.” Panic set in after my first five questions were met with simple one-word answers. This was a cover story, after all, and all I could think about was how I was going to turn this going-nowhere conversation into an interesting piece about a person whom I considered to be Hollywood’s most talented actor. Then a really funny thing happened: Hoffman hung up on me.
To be clear: He didn’t hang up on me intentionally. We got disconnected. Really. Which was the exact same way that I would describe the “interview” thus far. I wasn’t 100 percent sure that he’d even call me back, but I knew that if he did, I needed a new game plan. I knew that Hoffman was a serious actor, but I also knew from mutual friends and acquaintances that he had a biting sense of humor. So if I wasn’t going to break through by appealing to his intensity, there was only one other route I could go: Fuck with him.
The phone rang again and Hoffman apologized, explaining that he was in his hotel room and must have hit the wrong button. I told him that for as great as an actor as he was, I was calling bullshit on his story. That he had made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want to be on the other end of this phone—he had spent half the morning postponing the call, the two seconds we did chat giving me half-assed answers and then had the audacity to actually hang up on me. It was a gamble I had never taken before as a writer, and haven't tried since. But it worked. After a few seconds of obvious confusion, Hoffman asked me point blank: “Are you fucking with me?” I admitted I was. But that there were some truths in what I had said. “You must think I’m the world’s biggest asshole,” he replied. Again, I agreed. And told him that that was actually the working title to my story. And it was up to him to convince me to change it.
“How about we start this entire thing again?” he asked. For the third time, I agreed. With the additional promise that he would be more forthcoming with me than he had ever been in an interview before. “Well, I don’t want the headline to be that I’m an asshole,” he laughed.
We ended up talking for a couple of hours. About his acting, of course, but about other things, too. He told me how it was a crush on a girl in high school that first got him interested in acting, and about the films he was most embarrassed to have been a part of (sorry, that part was off the record). He talked about the many ways in which one gets judged in Hollywood and how he had never been to the opera but was looking forward to the experience. We just talked.
When I hung up, I realized that my prediction had come true: Talking to Philip Seymour Hoffman had altered my vision of who he was. In whatever role he played, beneath all that intensity, I would never forget the guy I spent two hours laughing with more than a decade ago.