In the news reports and obituaries that have followed the sad and unnecessary death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the 46-year-old New Yorker is often described as “one of the finest actors of his generation”. What does that mean? In the case of Hoffman, it meant a career divided between intimately sketched lead roles and incisive character work in supporting parts. Hoffman was instantly recognisable, but there was no such thing as a Philip Seymour Hoffman role. He was brilliantly versatile (on stage as well as screen), as these 12 performances show, and that's the enduring tragedy. If the actor could accumulate this much memorable work over the last two decades, what would have done in the years to come?
George Willis Jr. in Scent of a Woman (1992)
Hoffman delivered a brief but memorable turn as one of the disdainfully privileged private school students who rouse Al Pacino to defend the honour of Chris O'Donnell's Charlie in Martin Brest's sentimental hit. In his body language and smothered admissions Hoffman places a sniveling edge to the aristocratic entitlement – you really enjoy his comeuppance.
Brandt in The Big Lebowski (1998)
There are no small Philip Seymour Hoffman roles. The actor only briefly appeared in the Coen brothers' comic Californian noir, but his unctuous assistant to the Big Lebowski is the perfect foil to Jeff Bridges' laconic anti-hero. His strangulated smile and anguished laugh when Tara Reid makes a carnal offer to The Dude is note-perfect.
Allen in Happiness (1998)
The pleasure that some find in self-loathing has rarely been portrayed as malignantly as it is here, with Hoffman's obscene phone caller giving complete access to the comically cruel worldview of Todd Solondz. “You are empty, you are a zero, you are a black hole,” he moans to one recipient, the sexual need to debase someone else rising with every syllable. What makes the role great is that Hoffman can also show Allen tentatively reaching out, and being crushed. The petty phone troll acquires genuine sympathy.
Joseph Turner White in State and Main (2000)
Hoffman rarely got to play the romantic lead, but he delivers a wry, tender turn as a noted young playwright trying to survive writer's block and movie business sharks in David Mamet's satire of a Hollywood film shoot in a small Vermont town. His scenes with Mamet's wife Rebecca Pigeon, as a bookstore owner who becomes the foil to Hoffman's Joseph Turner White, have a rueful rhythm and there's something genuinely sweet to his concerns about artistic satisfaction amidst a welter of off-camera scandals and commercial demands.
Lester Bangs in Almost Famous (2000)
“Jim Morrison? He's a drunken buffoon!” Cameron Crowe's autobiographical coming of age tale about a novice teenage rock journalist in the 1970s was full of period details and heartfelt reveries, but nothing cut through like Hoffman's take on the legendary music critic Lester Bangs. He inspires and advises Patrick Fugit's William Miller, revealing the final truths about their profession in a late night phone call from a lonely apartment filled with records. “The only true currencies in this bankrupt world,” advises Bangs, “is what you share with somebody when you're uncool.”
Dan Mahowny in Owning Mahowny (2003)
This small Canadian production houses one of Hoffman's most extensive performances. He's in virtually every scene of this film based on real life events, playing a Canadian assistant bank manager who skims millions of dollars from accounts to fund coldly reckless gambling plunges in an Atlantic City casino. Director Richard Kwietniowski builds the emotional texture of the movie around Hoffman, using intimate, extended close-ups to capture a split second of pain before Mahowny shuts down. It's a remarkably precise, yet lived-in performance.
Sandy Lyle in Along Came Polly (2004)
For the occasional moviegoer this is what they'd recognise Philip Seymour Hoffman for, and that's okay. He had a keen sense of humour and casually knocked the ball out of the park as Ben Stiller's buffoonish best friend, Sandy Lyle, in John Hamburg's hit comedy. “Hit me,” he says to a hotel chef, indicating the piping bag and his open mouth, and the fictional former teen star's outlandish appetites and delusional behaviour – his street basketball bravado is cringingly funny – steal every scene he's in.
Truman Capote in Capote (2005)
For his Academy Award winning role Hoffman didn't just compress his physical bearing to play the tiny Truman Capote during his journey into the American heartland to research what would become In Cold Blood, he captured the famed writer's self-destructive talent as he forms the closest of bonds with death row inmate Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). The high-pitched voice and conspiratorial giggling are historically exact, but more telling is the relationship between writer and subject that can only end in rejection and discord.
Owen Davian in Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Playing the villain in an action-adventure thriller is close to a clichéd role, but when JJ Abrams hired Hoffman to play Owen Davian, an arms dealer who serves as the adversary to Tom Cruise's hero Ethan Hunt, he got a distinctive take. Davian is not florid and powerful, he's personal and vengeful. The obligatory fight scene was brief, but there's a reason the film's trailers were built around a Hoffman monologue where his character swears retribution on Hunt's loved ones.
Gust Avrakatos in Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Aaron Sorkin wrote some richly juicy dialogue in this subtle Mike Nichols comedy about the unlikely Washington coalition that armed the Afghan rebels who forced the Soviet military out of their country, but nothing tops the introduction of Hoffman's CIA veteran Gust Avrakatos. Arriving in a superior's office, his expected apology turns into a stinging broadside that paints a distinct portrait of both the man and the organisation he works for. Note how Hoffman's throaty voice, one of his great attributes, elevates his several monologues here.
Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The inscrutable Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, basically wanted to capture the possibilities of the universe and the smallest emotional moment within them with his directorial debut. Needing a leading man who could contain those multitudes, he called on Hoffman to play Caden Cotard, the theatre director who is haunted by death to the point where his own body starts failing in alarmingly specific ways. It's a restless, privately intellectual work, and it wouldn't work half as well as it does if Hoffman didn't hold it together amidst the parade of women who document Caden's decline.
Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012)
Hoffman had played roles small and large for Paul Thomas Anderson, beginning with his 1996 debut Hard Eight, but he emerged from the ensemble to share the screen with Joaquin Phoenix in the fascinating depiction of spiritual awakening and personal faith in post-WWII America. Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is an author and self-important orator, whose belief system, The Cause, finds a vexatious early convert in Phoenix's troubled drifter Freddie Quell. His intensely committed performance was a revelation, but it only reaches the heights it does because Hoffman's Dodd is the bulwark upon which he breaks himself.