BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)
One of the first filmmakers to recognize Hoffman’s insane acting talent was Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast him in most of his films, including a bit part in his directorial debut, Hard Eight, and his follow-up, Boogie Nights. In the latter, a funky portrait of the L.A. porn scene in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Hoffman plays Scott J., a boom mic operator and lighting technician for pornographer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). He’s a sad, schlubby loner. He’s also a closeted homosexual, and harbors a huge crush on well-endowed porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). The scene where Hoffman tries to kiss Wahlberg, only to be brutally rebuffed, and then cries, repeatedly yelling, “I’m a fucking idiot!”, is heartbreaking.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
Hoffman showed off his comedic talents in the Coen Brothers’s wacky screwball comedy The Big Lebowski. He played Brandt, the happy-go-lucky assistant/boy Friday to millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston). Brandt is creepily affable, and Hoffman knocks the tiny supporting turn out of the park. His highbrow inflection and nervous laugh is priceless.
During the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Hoffman became known for expertly portraying sad, schlubby losers onscreen, and his turn as Allen, a lonely shut-in in Todd Solondz’s excellent dark comedy/drama, Happiness, is an astounding one. Hoffman was an everyman, and was at his best when tackling romantic rejection onscreen, be it in Boogie Nights, or here. Allen makes obscene phone calls to Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), his attractive neighbor, but sinks into a deep depression when she turns him away. Hoffman’s Allen is one of the classic pervy creeps of cinema, and the phone sex sequence between him and Helen’s sister, played by Jane Adams, is riveting stuff.
Hoffman turned in some of his best work as a character actor under the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, and here, he plays Phil Parma, the attentive and considerate nurse to Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a former TV producer dying of cancer. Earl tasks Phil with finding his estranged son, a pickup artist named Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise). There’s a great, 10-minute sequence between Hoffman and Robards where the latter expresses regret for the things he’s done, and Hoffman displays such kindness and consideration as his doting nurse.
ALMOST FAMOUS (2000)
As Lester Bangs, the celebrated music journalist and mentor to budding rock journo William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Hoffman is electric, and Crowe’s quotable lines roll right off his tongue. The scene where he explains to Miller how “good-looking people have no spine” and how most of the world’s greatest art is created by tormented, uncool people, is Hoffman at his best. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool,” he says.
ALONG CAME POLLY (2004)
“This is serious. I just sharted.” That’s how we’re introduced to Sandy Lyle, a pompous former child star and the only pal of Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller), in John Hamburg’s hilarious comedy Along Came Polly. Hoffman is, without question, the best thing about the film, displaying his gift for broad, physical comedy—which had been largely unexplored up to this point. From his outrageous trash talking while playing basketball (he’s terrible), to his outrageous speech to save Reuben’s ass at work, Hoffman is an absolute riot. “RAIN DANCE!”
This is the role that propelled Hoffman from ace character actor to leading man. Even though he doesn’t really resemble him physically, Hoffman fully embodies author Truman Capote through his voice and mannerisms. It’s a master class in mimicry, and one of the finest screen performances of the last decade. The scenes between Capote and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) are brimming with sexual tension and intrigue. Hoffman IS Capote. The performance earned Hoffman his first—and only—Academy Award.
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007)
Hoffman had an amazing 2007—one of the best years of any actor, ever—and it all began with Sidney Lumet’s final film, the criminally underrated dark drama Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s a side of Hoffman we haven’t seen before, portraying the despicable, villainous brother of Ethan Hawke, who masterminds the robbery of their own parent’s jewelry store in Westchester, New York. As Andy Hanson, Hoffman is completely despicable—a far cry from his earlier sad-sack roles—but no less riveting. The scene where he yells-grimaces before shooting his gay lover still haunts me.
THE SAVAGES (2007)
Another criminally underrated performance—and film—of Hoffman’s is Tamara Jenkins’s family dramedy The Savages. Hoffman plays Jon Savage, the sarcastic and pessimistic brother (and confidant) to his sister, Wendy. The siblings are forced to care for their dying, estranged father, and Hoffman and Linney, through their tender, naturalistic performances, miraculously find a way to make it very funny. The scene where Linney is placing Hoffman in a head brace will have you in stitches.
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (2007)
Hoffman earned his second Oscar nomination as Gust Avrakotos, a hard assed, loudmouth CIA operative who bumps heads with his more buttoned-up colleagues in this Mike Nichols film. With his mustache, shades, and wig, Hoffman steals every scene he’s in (as per usual), and the scenes where he clashes with his CIA director, played by John Slattery—resulting in a pair of broken windows—are fabulous.
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)
Another underrated film of Hoffman’s is Synecdoche, New York, which marked the directorial debut of screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman. Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, whose wife recently left him. After receiving a MacArthur Fellowship grant, he occupies a giant warehouse in Manhattan’s Theater District and constructs his own separate world inside, casting actors to live out their constructed lives. It’s a staggering portrayal of a genius who’s slowly being swallowed up by the enormity of his artistic vision.
Hoffman received his third Oscar nomination as Father Brendan Flynn, a priest accused of child abuse by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. He’s riveting as a desperate man whose walls are caving in around him, and the scene between him and Streep in her office is screen acting at its finest.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (2012)
I had the pleasure of sitting in the front row to see Hoffman portray the iconic character of Willy Loman in this 2012 revival of the Arthur Miller play. It was amazing to see Hoffman in his element, tearing up the stage as arguably the most renowned loser in theatrical history. “That Mr. Hoffman is one of the finest actors of his generation is beyond dispute,” wrote The New York Times in their review of the play. When the curtain went down and the lights came up, I turned around to see Tom Hanks seated behind me. Tears were rolling down his face.
THE MASTER (2012)
Hoffman earned his fourth—and last—Oscar nod as Lancaster Dodd, a manipulative mystic and cult leader who spreads his teachings of “The Cause.” It’s a carefully nuanced turn, and the “informal processing” sequence between him and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed PTSD-stricken loner who falls under his wing, sees some of the finest screen acting of recent memory on display.