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.