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A Charlie Bielinski Pop-Ed: In Honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman, My Three Favorite Performances of His

There is a good chance that if you turn your television on at some point during the day that you will find Philip Seymour Hoffman. He has 63 credits listed on IMDb and has been in some films that are found in heavy rotation on both basic and pay cable. I originally wrote a column about something else for this week but after hearing the news about Hoffman’s death on Sunday, I am going to save that one for next week and talk about three of my favorite Hoffman performances. I’m not in any way trying to say these are the best performances he leaves us with ,but they are some of my favorites and the ones that I will remember him for. I am sure with perhaps the exception of Almost Famous they are three films most writers won’t be writing about in the next few days.

Hoffman was only a few years older than me, and we both grew up in Rochester, N.Y. I didn’t know him personally but always thought of the fact that we shared a hometown whenever I saw him on screen. Many people are feeling the need to comment on the circumstances surrounding his deat, but I'm going to refrain from trying to write anything meaningful about it other than to say that addiction is a very complex and dangerous disease. I know this to be true, and I am also proud to know recovering addicts who fight this disease with strength and bravery every day.

My favorite Hoffman performances:

1. George Willlis Jr.
Scent of a Woman 
He wasn’t "Philip Seymour Hoffman" yet because this is one of his first roles, but whenever I see this on television I stop channel surfing to watch. Sure, it is a bonus that there are some great Al Pacino rants included in this one, but I particularly hope that I catch the movie in time to see Chris O’Donnell as Charlie Simms talking to Hoffman as Willis over the phone. As I am watching and hearing the voice speaking to O’Donnell I always smile thinking that it is Hoffman delivering those lines. I also enjoy watching the weasely George Willis Jr. as he shrinks in his chair sitting next to George Willis Sr. when Pacino begins his famous “Baird Bums” speech. I would be willing to bet that most people didn’t know he was in this film but as soon as they find out he was they can immediately realize that Hoffman played Willis.

2. Lester Bangs
Almost Famous 
 “We are uncool. Good looking women will always be a problem for guys like us.”

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”

With those two lines and that performance I forever became a fan of Lester Bangs, the Creem and Rolling Stone writer Hoffman portrayed in Almost Famous. After Hoffman says those lines and a few others in the two-minute scene on the phone with a broken hearted William Miller, he then states that the reason he was home to answer the phone was because he is, in fact, uncool. Which is completely ridiculous because Hoffman is exceedingly cool in this film. Each line he has in the film is spoken with wit and charm and the intelligence of the character is very visible. He is obviously the smartest and coolest person in the film. During this particular conversation it is very evident that Bangs cares for Miller and wants badly for the kid to feel better about the situation they are talking about.

When the film was released, I was 28 years old and a few years into my career as a teacher but I can state honestly that had I been younger I would not have wanted to live the life of any of the members of the fictional band Stillwater but rather the life of someone like Bangs, the on-screen Hoffman version at least, who wrote about the bands and the music. Actually, if I am really being honest I need to tell you that I have always wanted and still want to be exactly what Hoffman was on screen in Almost Famous and that his performance left me both hopeful and sad. Hopeful that maybe someday that dream would actually be realized and sad because I knew then as I do know that probably isn’t true.

3. Owen Davian
Mission: Impossible III 
Laugh all you want about this choice, but Hoffman as a bad guy was amazing. The film begins with Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible character Ethan Hunt tied up and watching Hoffman's Owen Davian threaten to kill Hunt’s wife. Hoffman begins the quiet count towards yen as he points the gun at her head and counts to five. After the count of six, it almost appears that Hoffman and his on screen alter ego are overmatched and that Cruise is too big of a star (not actor but rather a star) to be matched up with Hoffman. This is a crucial moment in the film because at this point the audience must believe that Davian is a threat, which is the exact opposite of what most people think of when they think of Hoffman (refer back to Scotty J from Boogie Nights if you don’t believe me). However, after the count of six and the defiance of Hunt, Davian explodes for numbers seven through nine with rage. For me this was the point where I knew that Davian would be a worthy adversary to Hunt. Obviously, Hoffman could act with Cruise (and stop laughing – I know you are – because Cruise is a good actor), but like any other casting choice that doesn’t jump off the page as perfect I was concerned about Hoffman being the villain. I was so happy after watching that scene at the beginning of the film that I was wrong.

There is one little moment in that film that is my favorite Hoffman moment on film. It isn’t a Mission: Impossible film without a face mask scene where Ethan Hunt dons one of the high tech disguises to impersonate another character. During this scene Hoffman gets to play both his character and Cruise’s Hunt in the Davian mask. At the end of the scene Davian’s bodyguard is looking at him for an explanation of what just happened and Hoffman gives a perfect Cruise smirk and shoulder shrug. To say it is a Cruise impersonation is really understating how perfectly he executes the move. After that very brief moment anyone should be able to suspend disbelief enough to see Hoffman playing the Hunt character wearing an Owen Davian mask.
A Charlie Bielinski Pop-Ed: In Honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman, My Three Favorite Performances of His Reviewed by Charlie Bielinski on 2/03/2014 Rating: 5

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