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Peter Travers on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Brilliant Roles

From ‘Boogie Nights’ to ‘The Master,’ remembering the gifted actor’s enduring onscreen moments

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Courtesy of Peter Travers

I've known Philip Seymour Hoffman for almost two decades. The first time we met was in 2000, when he was playing rock critic Lester Bangs for Rolling Stone's own Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous. Brilliantly, of course. Brilliant was Hoffman's default mode. I've interviewed him countless times since. For our most recent TV talk, he arrived on a bicycle, in full sweat, minus publicists and groomers. He was just Phil. What you see is what you get. "I've got to lose this damn weight somehow," he'd shrug. I'd see him with his kids (he has three), walking near his home in Greenwich Village. He was an easy talker, laughing about being in a Hunger Games movie or how his mom was coming around to supporting Hillary Clinton. Silence only fell if you told him how good he was, like playing Willy Loman onstage in Death of a Salesman. Instant shutdown. He'd tell you how good someone else was. "Did you ever see Estelle Parsons do August: Osage Country on stage? Jesus, man, she was something."

Hoffman, 46, was really something. The news of his drug-related death on Super Bowl Sunday hit me like a gut punch. Not seeing him again seems unthinkable. Hell, he was just at Sundance. My heart goes out to his family. He told me how he struggled with addiction after college, but stayed sober for decades. It was a shock last year when he entered rehab for heroin addiction. But let's remember that Hoffman's mistakes didn't make him unique, his talent did. Moments from his movies keep swirling in my head. I'm sure you have your own. Here are mine.

By Peter Travers

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‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)

As closeted Scotty, a lighting tekkie in porn, Hoffman comes on to Mark Wahlberg's hardcore star Dirk Digler, kissing him and begging for attention that will never be returned. "I'm a fucking idiot," he cries, making every viewer feel his pain.

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‘Magnolia’ (1999)

Like Boogie NightsMagnolia puts Hoffman together again with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, this time playing a nurse to a cancer-ridden tycoon (Jason Robards). Just to watch Hoffman's face as the old man spills out his death-bed confession is a lesson in acting.

 

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‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ (1999)

Playing Freddie Miles, an expat creep who calls bullshit on Matt Damon's imposter, Hoffman damn near steals the film through the sheer force of Freddie's obnoxiousness.

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‘State and Main’ (2000)

As a fledgling screenwriter in David Mamet's Hollywood satire, Hoffman comes as close as he ever has to playing a romantic comedy, sparring with Rebecca Pidgeon and showing the wounds inflicted on a writer who thinks the truth matters.

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‘Along Came Polly’ (2004)

For those who think of Hoffman only as a serious actor who could never cut loose in a farce, check him out in this Ben Stiller throwaway in which he acts the role of a former child star given to "sharting." Don't ask. Let Hoffman tell you.

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‘Capote’ (2005)

Hoffman won his first and only Oscar for playing the gadfly author turned In Cold Blood crime writer Truman Capote. The role is a complete transformation in voice, body and tone. The scene in which Capote reads an advance chapter of In Cold Blood for a New York literary crowd is pure acting alchemy.

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‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ (2007)

In the last film directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet, Hoffman – who opens the film in a nude tangle with Marisa Tomei – plays a scumbag who'll rob and even murder his own parents to maintain a covert lifestyle. His every moment is chilling, but the scene in the heroin den may be too much to take for right now.

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‘The Savages’ (2007)

As one half of dysfunctional brother and sister (Laura Linney) drama geeks, Hoffman is richly details one of his most complex characters. Whether hanging from a neck brace or crying in his eggs, he leaves you in awe.

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‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ (2007)

Hoffman received an Oscar nomination for playing rogue CIA op Gust Avrakotos and when he's brokering the sale of Soviet weapons through Israel and Islamic Pakistan he's the film's sparking livewire.

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‘Doubt’ (2008)

As a priest who may or may not have molested a boy under his care, Hoffman gives John Patrick Shanley's provocation of a film an aura of haunted conviction, notably when a nun, played by Meryl Streep, tries to get him on the ropes.

 

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‘The Master’ (2012)

Winning his fourth Oscar nomination for playing a cult leader with a knack for lying even to himself, Hoffman hit another career peak. The scene in which he first interrogates proposed convert (Joaquin Phoenix) is itself a master class in acting.

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‘Almost Famous’ (2000)

I left this film for last because Hoffman performance in it always floors me. Playing rock critic Lester Bangs, he gives a lesson to budding journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) about the nature of cool: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool." That's Hoffman. He made being uncool but mercilessly honest an art.