By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2014)
You know how I know Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor? Because he always made me cringe. You know what I mean? It’s that autonomic flush of empathetic embarrassment that makes you cringe when a couple has a loud spat at the table next to you in a restaurant, or a drunken relative tells an off-color joke at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a good sign when an actor makes me cringe, because that means he or she has left their social filter on the dressing room table, and shown up for work naked and unafraid. And Hoffman did so without fail, in role after role, naked and unafraid. I’m sad beyond words that such a giant talent has left us so soon. Here are 10 “cringe-worthy” highlights:
Almost Famous– Although it’s essentially a cameo, this is one of my favorite Hoffman performances. He plays the late great gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s auto-biographical dramedy about a teenage journalist hired by Rolling Stone magazine to tag along and formulate a “think piece” about a touring rock band.
Boogie Nights– While he wasn’t the star, this was Hoffman’s breakout performance. It’s a real testament to Hoffman’s genius that he managed to leave such an impression on audiences and critics with his supporting role as “Scotty J.” in P.T. Anderson’s 1997 opus about the 70s porno film industry; especially considering the huge cast.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead– Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, this nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, stars Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) to help him pull an ill-advised heist involving a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast, and superbly directed by Sidney Lumet.
Capote- Undoubtedly the role Hoffman will be best remembered by, thanks to his well-deserved Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film. It’s a riveting dramatization about the complex friendship that developed between the writer and convicted killer Perry Smith while Capote was researching his “true crime” masterwork, In Cold Blood.. Hoffman isn’t merely playing Truman Capote in this movie, he is Truman Capote.
Happiness– This 1998 Todd Solondz film features one of Hoffman’s under-appreciated turns. Admittedly, Solondz’s films may not be everyone’s cup of tea (be prepared for that “cringe” factor) but if you’re OK with network narratives involving nothing but completely fucked-up individuals, this is your ticket. Brave performances all around in this veritable merry-go-round of modern dysfunction.
And rounding off the top 10, here are links to my full reviews of five more films featuring notable Hoffman performances: