Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To honor the life and career of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, we single out some of our favorite performances.
Boogie Nights (1997)
The first time I noticed—and I’m guessing most people noticed—Philip Seymour Hoffman was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough Boogie Nights. Hoffman was something of a muse for Anderson, who cast him in five of his six feature films, from a small but memorable role in Punch-Drunk Love to a barely contained masterful performance in The Master. But it was in Anderson’s epic about the porn industry that Hoffman first got a chance to show what he could do. The pathetic, closeted Scotty J. could’ve been a one-note part, but Hoffman (with help from writer/director Anderson, who doesn’t do one-note parts) gives him a relatable vulnerability that’s almost painful to watch: Anybody’s who ever had an impossible crush can relate.
Hoffman doesn’t hit the screen until nearly 40 minutes into Boogie Nights, and he’s introduced wearing ill-fitting clothes that provide a mirror to his emotional unease. He quickly zooms in on Mark Wahlberg’s character, Dirk Diggler—an in-camera trick makes Wahlberg appear from Hoffman’s POV as if through a telescope. And in every appearance thereafter, Scotty’s face is filled with worship for Dirk, whether Hoffman has a major part in the scene or not; he’s spectacular to watch even when he’s just in the background. But it’s the New Year’s Eve scene that earned the actor such praise: In it, he leads Dirk out of a big party to show off his new car, then awkwardly, painfully tries to kiss him. It’s after being soundly rejected that Hoffman gets his moment: “Can I kiss you on the mouth?” he begs. “Please let me.” And when the object of his affection runs off—after being about as kind as he knows how—Hoffman sits alone in his new car, crying and cursing himself. Most people point to the scene that immediately follows it (in which William H. Macy murders his wife, played by real-life porn star Nina Hartley) as the turning point for Boogie Nights, when it goes from party to pain. But Scotty J.’s rejection, so masterfully conveyed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, actually beats it to the punch. His innocence is gone. In lesser hands than Hoffman and Anderson’s, it could’ve been a throwaway gay joke (and character). Instead, it provides one of the most potent emotional beats in a movie full of them.
Availability: Boogie Nights is available on Blu-ray and DVD (which can be obtained from Netflix) and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.