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Five Unexpectedly Great Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances

In recent years, it's been taken for granted that Philip Seymour Hoffman could do just about anything. That's the kind of trust a performer builds with both filmmakers and moviegoers when he or she is able to cultivate the kind of long and varied career that Hoffman enjoyed right up until his tragic passing on February 2.

No role was too small or too underwritten for the NYU-trained character actor, who brought discipline and command to every role he played, almost always revealing a new facet of himself in the process. Whether tasked with slipping into the skin of Truman Capote or Lancaster Dodd (or, on stage, as Will Loman and James Tyrone Jr.), you came to expect excellence from Hoffman in large part because he consistently met those expectations. Nevertheless, right up until the end, he also remained an actor capable of great surprises, taking on parts that seemed like a potential mismatch and slipping into them so easily, so naturally, it's hard to imagine those characters being played by anyone else. Tributes to Hoffman have and will deservedly single out expected titles like The Master, Capote, Synecdoche, New York and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead as being among the finest examples of his craft, but if you want to experience the full range of his talent, make a point seeking out these unexpectedly great performances.

Lester Bangs
From: Almost Famous
Filmed right in the midpoint of Hoffman's evolution from scene-stealer to A-list actor, Cameron Crowe's autobiographical essay of a film called on the actor to embody the one real-life voice in a recreation of the '70s music industry otherwise populated by thinly-fictionalized characters, including the young hero who functions as the director's stand-in. Crowe was spot-on in assuming that the actor could effectively replicate the unique personality of music critic Lester Bangs, as well as fill out the obligatory mentor role as the teacher who first nudges the protagonist down his path to self-discovery. What he perhaps couldn't have foreseen (and if he did, more power to him) is just how strongly Hoffman's voice reverberates throughout the film, almost drowning out the other characters despite only appearing in a handful of scenes. It's one of the best examples of how Hoffman could find new beats to play in even the most familiar film types.

Owen Davian
From: Mission: Impossible III
Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible films have largely been defined by terrific stunt work, fleet-footed pacing and a rotating crew of directors, each bringing their own distinct style to their individual entries. But as the Big Bad in the J.J. Abrams-helmed third installment, Hoffman delivered what the series had lacked to date and since: a superb, genuinely-threatening villain. The most extraordinary thing about Hoffman's Owen -- a black market merchant specializing in pairing up the right explosive device with the right terrorist group -- is how ordinary he is in his appearance, lacking the flamboyance of a Bond villain or the imposing costume of a Marvel baddie. Frankly, you'd think that Cruise's super-agent would make super-quick work of him. But then Owen opens his mouth to speak and that voice, a one-step-away-from-the-grave drawl, issues forth and chills you to the bone. Playing the bad guy in a franchise sequel is generally an excuse to ham it up in grand style, but Hoffman goes the other direction and, as a result, creates a villain who really does seem capable of the impossible: killing Tom Cruise.

Sandy Lyle
From: Along Came Polly
For understandable reasons, Hoffman's legacy will largely be defined by his dramatic roles, but he had a distinct flair for comedy as well, one that such varied directors as P.T. Anderson, the Coen Brothers and Mike Nichols exploited to memorable effect. And he's easily the funniest thing in this early-aughts rom-com Along Came Polly, an otherwise paint-by-numbers affair starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston as a predictably ordinary odd couple (he's a nebbish and she's a free spirit!) who fall in love over the course of 90 tedious minutes. Handed the seemingly thankless boorish best friend role, Hoffman approached ever scene he appeared in as if he, not Stiller, was the star, an approach that not only suited the self-centered schlub he was playing, but also helped distract from the ostensible leading man's prolonged hemming-and-hawing. His forcefulness stands out in a movie where no one else is trying all that hard.

Max Jerry Horovitz
From: Mary and Max
Physicality was always an important weapon in Hoffman's arsenal, which may explain in part why he generally avoided voiceover work, only lending his pipes to a few select projects, among them an episode of PBS's Arthur and this stop-motion animated film from Australia, which was short-listed for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2009 (though it wasn't included amongst the final batch of nominees). Hoffman voices one-half of the titular duo, Max, a plus-sized shut-in who has deliberately cut off almost all contact with the outside world… that is, until he receives a Pen Pal-request letter randomly sent to him by a young Australian girl, Mary, who has problems of her own. A decades-spanning friendship develops, one that helps both of them through some fairly dark -- and darkly comic -- times. (It should be stated upfront that, despite the seemingly kid-friendly Claymation look of film, Mary and Max is not a children's movie.) Adopting a gruff, weather-beaten New York accent, Hoffman makes this small, sad clay figure as human as any of his flesh-and-blood characters.

Plutarch Heavensbee
From: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
An effects-heavy, star-driven enterprise like The Hunger Games series can only grant the supporting cast so much room to work in. When operating under those conditions, some actors (like Elizabeth Banks and Jena Malone) try to make every moment count, while others (Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley) just contribute the bare minimum. Perhaps not surprisingly given his work ethic, Hoffman adopted the former strategy when he joined the Dystopian party as the newest Head Gamemaker, who is eventually revealed to have other motivations up his sleeve. (Hoffman reportedly had a few more days of shooting left on the final Hunger Games film, but his part will not be recast.) What was surprising, though, is just how effectively he brought Plutarch to life in such limited screen time and given the constraints of the genre. In their eagerness to keep fans happy, YA adaptations like the Harry Potter and Twilight series have a bad habit of limiting how much of a personal stamp an actor is able to put on a role, lest it depart too much from what readers loved on the page. Hoffman found a way to honor the character's origins, while fleshing him out in small, subtle ways that even Suzanne Collins arguably didn't.

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