I, like many film buffs, am eagerly anticipating Paul Thomas Anderson's new opus The Master, based on L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology. His oeuvre is one of the most exciting set of films by a contemporary director available even though it is only comprised of five features - Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master - and a few shorts. One of the best aspects of this oeuvre is that Anderson has worked with the fine actor Philip Seymour Hoffman on four of them and that is one of the biggest reasons I am anticipating The Master. Hoffman has long been one of my favorite actors because he has always been able to make an impression on me even if his part was only a 2-minute scene as an obnoxious craps player (shaka-laka doo, shaka-laka dooby doo). I think about his performances well after leaving the theater or turning off the DVD and that is rare among contemporary actors. He is a guy who doesn't get glory roles, those meaty leading man roles that are offered to, frankly, lesser actors who may be prettier but certainly don't command the same presence. That is one of the worst things about Hollywood - face, not talent, sells. Nearly all of Hoffman's performances stand out and that is why he is one of the most exciting actors working today. That being said, I'm here to laud my five favorite performances that Philip Seymour Hoffman has committed to celluloid (or digital whatever).
5. Jacob Elinsky - 25th Hour
Hoffman's character Jacob Elinsky is an English teacher at a private school who hails from a privileged background. Not a ladies man, Elinsky has a crush on one of his oversexualized students, Mary D'Annunzio (played surprisingly well by Anna Paquin). PSH creates a memorable character because he successfully elicits the crisis of conscience a teacher must feel when they are attracted to one of their students. Matt Damon had a similar dilemma in Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, also with Paquin (playing a slutty high school student has worked well for her). As Jacob and his friends have one last celebration for a friend before he goes to prison to serve time for dealing drugs, he oversteps his boundaries with Mary at a club and is left to wonder how this decision will affect his future as well as his social standing. And this dilemma we can feel though his pained facial expressions as he struggles with the decision he made. While mostly an ancillary character in the film, PSH makes sure that Jacob isn't just scenery.
4. Truman Capote - Capote
I thought about leaving this one off the list because it is his signature role. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for this role and likely helped him land big budget, big pay gigs like Mission: Impossible III. And more power to him. However, it is so damned good, that I couldn't do it. PSH simply embodies Capote, channels him and that is what is most impressive about the performance. I am often skeptical of actors portraying real life people in films and winning awards for their performance (Jamie Foxx - I'm looking directly at you). Archives exist of their written words, film and video exists of them allowing actors to copy their speech patterns, mannerisms, tics and quirks rendering most performances as merely cheap imitations. PSH, like Cate Blanchett in Scorsese's The Aviator, transcends the mediocrity most biopic performances elicit (despite what the Academy voters think). Just watch any archival footage of Capote and then watch this performance and you'll understand how great it is. Like Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in Gangs of New York, I couldn't stop thinking about this one for weeks after seeing it. That rarely happens.
3. Wilson Joel - Love, Liza
In a role written by his brother Gordy (who won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance for the film), PSH really shines in his first leading role. The story follows Wilson as he tries to cope with his wife's suicide. She left him a suicide note that he can't bring himself to read, despite urges from her mother (played by Kathy Bates). Along this journey, Wilson trades his addiction for huffing gas for flying model airplanes and through this new hobby as well as the urging of his brother-in-law (played by Jack Kehler, who played The Dude's landlord/an interpretive dancer in The Big Lebowski). This role is like so many of PSH's - that of the guy who can't win. He, John C. Reilly, Paul Giamatti and William H. Macy all seem to have occupied this particular niche. That said, they all turn out incredible performances on the regular, so that's good for us as viewers. PSH's nuanced interpretation of his brothers words really launched him into the upper echelon of actors working today for me. I eagerly anticipate each of his roles largely because of this performance.
2. (tie) Lester Bangs - Almost Famous and Brandt - The Big Lebowski
Both of these roles were small in the grand scheme of the films in which they are contained, but that doesn't mean they aren't valuable. In Almost Famous, as the wise, sage-like advisor to William Miller (played by Patrick Fugate), Lester Bangs helps him navigate the wild world of rock and roll journalism urging him to be "honest and unmerciful" when writing about the bands he is following. His line, "Good-looking people-- they got no spine. Their art never lasts," seems to echo Hoffman's own career. I think the Lester Bangs role/PSH performance along with Frances McDormand's performance as William's mother Elaine are the glue that holds the film together. Without the periodic check-ins with Lester and Elaine, this film would run off the rails. They are the voice of reason when chaos reigns. As for his role as Brandt in The Big Lebowski, the same holds true. With all of the craziness that occurs in that film over a kidnapping that never even happened, the check-ins with the other Jeffrey Lebowski and Brandt not only provide a time for us to reset our filmic compass, but also provides some additional humor. His line, "Mr. Lebowski is in seclusion in the West Wing," and accompanying gesture when he opens the huge doors where the Big Lebowski is floors me every time. This film showcases how funny PSH can be and how versatile he truly is.
1. Phil Parma - Magnolia
Phil Parma, male nurse, is perhaps the most tender (if I can call it that) performance in PSH's oeuvre and also my favorite. Magnolia is a sweeping look at life, love, mortality and masculinity in contemporary LA. Paul Thomas Anderson uses an ensemble cast in this film much in the way he applied it in the fantastic Boogie Nights (another fine PSH performance just missing out on this list), the characters' lives all intertwining to form one big story, bigger than any of them alone. Phil Parma is a nurse for the dying, famous TV producer Earl Partridge (played by Jason Robards) who tries to help grant Earl's final wish - to see his son one last time. After finding out Earl's son is Male Power Guru Frank "TJ" Mackey (Tom Cruise's only role worth a damn), Phil tries desperately to find him. My favorite scene is when he calls Pink Dot to get porno mags so he can find the number to reach Frank through his Seduce and Destroy seminar. PSH shows vulnerability and fragility in this not, not something that MANLY men do. Because he's playing a nurse, a role traditionally ascribed to women, he gets a free pass for the type of behavior. You won't see Sylvester Stallone or Jason Statham in a role like this. Phil carries out his role as a nurse who helps lead Earl, despite him being a terrible bastard for the bulk of his life, into death with dignity, ultimately helping him grant Earl's last wish even though he wasn't cognizant enough to realize it. PSH brings with him an air of humanity just right for this role and that's why I think it's his best. I would argue that Magnolia is perhaps the best film of the 2000s as well. And to add to its awesomeness, it was responsible for spawning this.
So there you have it. Lists like these are always fluid, changing from day to day depending on any number of factors. So that said, here are 5 more performances that are Honorable Mentions:
Scotty J - Boogie Nights
Joseph Turner White - State & Main
Dean Trumbell - Punch Drunk Love
Caden Cotard - Synecdoche, NY
Andy - Before the Devil Know You're Dead
All this said, you really can't go wrong with watching this man act. He can even breathe life into shart-tastic films like Along Came Polly. If you've never seen any of these films, try one out. They may not all be just right for you, but at least you know you are watching a professional at the top of his game in each of them. The films are just as varied in scope and theme as are his performances in depth and understanding of the human condition. Philip Seymour Hoffman remains one of the best actors working today and the proof is in the pudding.
Jeremy Harmon aka Spirit of the Thing aka Harmonov was a Van Damme/action movie ilk devotee as a younger man. Oh how things have changed as I now prefer to delve into small budget independent and foreign films even though I still maintain that Slap Shot is the best movie ever. Follow him on Twitter @harmonov or read his new blog @ http://spiritofthething.wordpress.com/
Which performance is your favorite?