With The Master released on September 14 and Lincoln to be released at the beginning of awards’ season, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis are sure to be in the mix of Academy Award nominees. And, rightly they should. After some thought, the five of us at Gladiators are uncertain if there is a more accomplished and consistent actor than these two.
Question 1: Who you got? Hoffman or Lewis?
Bill Coffin: This is a close one, but Lewis, if only because he is in one of my all-time favorite movies (Last of the Mohicans) and Hoffman is not.
Tim Adkins: Day-Lewis. As much as I like what Seymour Hoffman did in Almost Famous, Pirate Radio and Charlie Wilson’s War (in particular), the fear speech from Gangs of New York is one of my all-time favorite moments in life. Gotta go with the dude who delivered it.
Jared Wade: Danny Day. Although I do think it’s worth noting that Lewis has the advantage of creative scarcity. As is the case with Jimi Hendrix and The Notorious B.I.G., artists who have a small, great body of work usually seem more impressive than those who, while having just as many masterpieces, also made a few duds. As the comedian Doug Stanhope says, “How do you know if Jimi Hendrix hadn’t had died he wouldn’t have wound up doing Super Bowl half-time duets with Elton John?” It is a little different in this context since Daniel Day has made a non-“I died”-related choice to not dilute his resume with mediocrity. But Hoffman will usually get punished here just because he has expressed a desire to do a few get-rich projects in between his endeavors to create high art.
Steve Barker: I got to go with PSH, mainly because of his role in Happiness. That character was the second time Hoffman showed up on my radar after Boogie Nights. He played a perverted loner so well I thought maybe that’s all his career would be. He proved me wrong when I saw him a few years later in Almost Famous, and Capote was the best performance of 2005.
Dustin Freeley: Lewis by a hair, and it came down to the tie breaker of “films I can watch only because of the performance.” All of Lewis’ films aren’t great (I abhor Gangs of New York), but there’s not a single one that I won’t sit and watch his scene until it’s over. Hoffman also has some duds, and, within those duds, there are films that I can’t watch just to watch him (Pirate Radio, Cold Mountain, and The Talented Mr. Ripley come to mind).
Question 2: Which role that one has played could the other never pull off? (Clearly Hoffman wouldn’t be the first person chosen in a Lincoln-look-alike contest, but he did play Art Howe — a man he doesn’t resemble outside of having two eyes.)
Bill Coffin: Pretty sure Hoffman couldn’t pull off Hawkeye. Likewise, I don’t think Day-Lewis could have done what Hoffman did in Magnolia. Hoffman’s scenes were my favorite in that flick, and he brought something special and unique to it. Having said all this, I don’t think Day-Lewis could do a better Capote, but I’d like to see him try.
Tim Adkins: Seymour Hoffman could never pull off Danny Flynn in The Boxer. He doesn’t have the right physicality for it. You’d believe him as a trainer, but not as a guy throwing punches. Day-Lewis would seem really strange playing Scotty J in Boogie Nights. He’d be more likely to come off as dangerously creepy than creepily sympathetic.
Jared Wade: I have a hard time seeing PSH running through a forest pretending to be a Native American. That said, there is also no way DDL could have pulled off Gust Avrakotos, who Hoffman made into one of my favorite 10 characters in film history. The quick wit and humor he brings to his part in Charlie Wilson’s War is just something that is largely vacant from Daniel Day Lewis’ filmography. Really, it’s hard to see Lewis playing most of my favorite Hoffman’s roles (The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War, Along Came Polly, 25th Hour, Love Liza), since the sad-sack-drenched-in-levity persona he embodies at his best is almost unique to cinema.
Steve Barker: I’m sure we can all agree PSH wouldn’t do well running around the woods for two and a half hours. If I can bring up Happiness again, there’s very few actors, Lewis included, who can be that believable in such an off-putting role
Dustin Freeley: I can’t get a specific movie here, so I’ll give a character-type. While this isn’t his entire resume, Hoffman has a knack for playing slimy characters, slightly off-putting (Allen from Happiness, Dean Trumbell from Punch Drunk Love, Freddy Lounds from Red Dragon, Sandy Lyle from Along Came Polly, Andy from Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Father Brendan Flynn from Doubt). However, he doesn’t veer into hyperbolic yelling and vulgarity; rather, there’s a reality in this deviance; more amazingly, there’s also a glimmer of humanity and sympathy (with the possible exception of Lounds; you almost root for his burning body to go faster as it speeds down a hill). I’m not sure Lewis can fill the bad guy role and generate sympathy. Bill the Butcher is detestable throughout, and Lewis’ turn as Daniel Plainview might be the best performance of the last forty years in the best film of the last forty years, but, when he’s “finished,” he doesn’t make the audience question where he went wrong and how his downfall could have been prevented. His downfall is foreshadowed in the first scene, and from there on out, we’re along for the ride. These roles are wonderful studies in power and isolation, respectively, but I don’t feel for either one like I do for Hoffman’s depiction of less-than-perfect characters.
Question 3: If not these two, who else could be considered the best contemporary actor in Hollywood? (Please, no nostalgic nods here about who Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert DeNiro
Bill Coffin: I’d have to give it to one of these guys. Nobody else seems to throw themselves into their work with quite so much intensity. There are those who are greater crowd favorites, but these guys are supreme examples of their professional discipline.
Tim Adkins: Good question. Do you go with Denzel? DiCaprio? Ed Norton? Kevin Spacey? Johnny Depp? Tom Hanks? Most of the guys on that list–save for Norton and Spacey–carry the burden of being a movie star and/or a cultural institution in addition to–or perhaps instead of–working as an actor. That’s something Seymour Hoffman and Day-Lewis don’t have to deal with. They get to be actors. And that’s it. I go with Denzel here because I think Flight has potential to be a crowning achievement for an epic career.
Jared Wade: It has to be one of these two, but, of the others … Christian Bale. I know he didn’t do much in his turns as Batman or John Connor, but his work earlier this millennium in American Psycho, The Prestige, Rescue Dawn and The New World stands above that of most other major-film contenders that come to mind. Throw in his other-worldly turn in The Fighter just two years ago and I think it’s fair to say we will be seeing less Bruce Wayne-cowling-and-growling in the next few years and more of what had him atop most young-actor lists a few years ago.
Steve Barker: If you had asked me this question in 1999 I would have predicted that Ed Norton would be the best actor of our time come 2012, but honestly I haven’t been all that impressed with his choices recently. Brad Pitt
rarely disappoints. If Johnny Depp would finally just break up with Tim Burton and stop with the damn pirate movies he’d be at the top of my list. Overall, no matter how many awful cop movies or bad comedies De Niro does, he will always be my favorite actor of all time. I recently saw Freelancers with De Niro and 50 Cent and it was exactly as I expected, terrible.
Dustin Freeley: I’d probably go with Sean Penn. A close second in Robert Downey Jr., but the whole superhero thing makes me question if he’ll ever come close to his performance in Chaplin, or if the Tony-Stark paychecks will keep him in the tent-pole film business. Penn on the other hand, like Hoffman (for the most part) and Lewis is pretty selective with his roles. There have been films that I haven’t liked (Mystic River and its incredible, predictable twist comes to mind), but even then, his performance is far and away the best part of the movie. (Seriously, Mystic River might be the movie with the weakest screenplay and the best cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney. All of them are amazing in this film.) If we need to go a little younger than Penn, I would say Joaquin Phoenix. There are some pot holes along his thespian highway (We Own the Night), but all in all, he completely assumes a role. His turns in Gladiator and Walk the Line are solid, and his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is superb.