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Philip Seymour Hoffman's Best Literary Performances

Celebrating the late actor's finest performances inspired by novels, plays and nonfiction works.

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This weekend, we learned the sad news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. I’ll leave the platitudes and edgy jokes to others; instead, let’s celebrate the life and work of an actor intimately associated with the literary world. Some of Hoffman’s finest performances were in films adapted from or inspired by novels, plays and nonfiction works, and he was also a dedicated theater actor. Thus, much of his professional life was defined by a measured interlocution between the printed word and us, the audience. Here are a few of the books, plays and other literary works that sparked some of Hoffman’s best roles:

1. The Big Lebowski — Inspired by the Work of Raymond Chandler

A recurring theme in Hoffman’s work was his skill in bringing life and nuance to small roles, to characters who often possessed little status or cachet in their own fictional worlds. In The Big Lebowski, Hoffman played a wonderfully breathless Brandt, the millionaire Lebowski’s personal secretary. The film is the Coen brothers’ ode to pulp noir, explicitly inspired by Chandler. Hoffman’s character is a classic archetype in the writer’s world: the gatekeeper who tries to push the protagonist away from the truth, often while revealing more than he wants to.

2. The Talented Mr. Ripley — Based on the Novel by Patricia Highsmith

Hoffman here plays Freddie Miles, an uncomfortably perceptive friend of Tom Ripley’s first victim, Dickie Greenleaf. The scenes between Hoffman and Matt Damon’s Ripley are difficult to watch: Miles gives Ripley such a hard time and has so instantaneously (and correctly) judged Ripley as a fraud and social climber that you actually begin to feel sorry for Ripley ... right up until he murders Miles to keep his secret. In the straightforward prose of Highsmith’s 1955 novel, Miles is a ginger-haired, wobbly boor, yet Hoffman brought a piercingly human touch to the somewhat cartoonish literary figure.

3. Almost Famous — Based on Cameron Crowe’s Experience as a Music Journalist

Almost Famous is based on the early life of its director, Crowe, who skipped three grades and became socially isolated at high school as a result. He began writing music features for his school newspaper before being taken on by Lester Bangs and Rolling Stone just shy of his 16th birthday. Hoffman played Bangs in the film, bringing a likeable self-aware pomposity to a guy who, by some accounts, was a bit of an asshole. Like Hoffman, Bangs died too young, and it’s heartbreaking now to watch Hoffman as Bangs dispensing advice to his young protégé. His words could serve as a manifesto for the actor’s life: "You have to be honest and unmerciful. If you get into a jam, call me. I stay up late."


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