Philip Seymour Hoffman: Forever in character

Almost Famous (2000)

Philip Seymour Hoffman was an excellent actor and, by all accounts, a terrific person. I didn’t know him and I don’t have any corky encounter stories to write about, so I normally don’t do these kinds of things. But I experienced an abnormal reaction on Sunday, when I read of his death. What is typically a “Woah,” felt more like a punch to the gut. I didn’t have to know Hoffman to understand his talent.

I knew him by his characters and one in particular rocked my world. I will forever remember Hoffman’s Lester Bangs in my favorite film of all time. “Almost Famous” teaches me different things every time I watch it, in the way that I take something different away from “The Great Gatsby” every time I read it. But the film always leaves me hopeful and happy. There’s no more fitting an end than when Russell walks into William Miller’s room, laid over Led Zeppelin’s extended “Tangerine.” There’s no more charismatic Band-Aid than Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane. (She’s never been better). There’s no better sing-a-only than to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

There’s no better sequence than Hoffman’s perfect “Uncool” scene. Beautifully written by writer/director Cameron Crowe, Hoffman delivers what is possibly the most memorable line of the film — you can probably find it somewhere on my old MySpace page — “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” It was the kind of line that I needed to rewind and watch two or three more times the first time I saw it and one of the many lines I look forward to as soon as I press Play. Hoffman isn’t trying too hard to deliver what is obviously an excellent line in the script; instead, he embraces the scene for what it is — a very late-night phone conversation between two uncool people. He delivers it with such sincerity.

I knew, for sure, I wanted to be a writer after watching that movie and I return to it today whenever I’m looking for a little inspiration or to calm my nerves. I watched it the night before I moved away to college. I watched it the week of my college graduation and I watched it the night before my first job interview. I learned a lot from Lester Bangs. Frankly, I learned that I’m uncool and I learned to accept it and work it. Hoffman made it cool to be uncool.

But this was the case for all of his characters. Hoffman was never a movie star like Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hanks. You wouldn’t see him in his role. Instead, you’d see Lester Bangs, Paul Zara, The Count, etc. Only later did you appreciate who the actor was. This became an expectation. Hoffman never got caught up in leading a film. He never appeared concerned about carrying a film, though he did in many cases. His only Oscar, for “Capote,” was one example when he completely transformed for a role and The Academy recognized him for it.

To lesser degrees, Hoffman “transformed” in all of his films, disappearing into his character whether he was a baseball manager, Catholic priest, political campaign manager or radio disc jockey. He’s much less known for his role as The Count in “Pirate Radio,” but I will always remember it. He played a funny, arrogant disc jockey who refused to show weakness and, though less memorable, I always liked the film and thought he was the best part about it.

Many journalists have great stories and testimonials about Hoffman and you should read all of them. It might shock you that Hoffman was 46 years old when he died because it feels like he has been around so long. That’s a credit to his work and expertise. He was one of my favorite actors and I will miss him, but he will never be forgotten. Lester Bangs will always be waiting inside that “Almost Famous” DVD box. Hoffman’s characters will continue to transcend. Always remember, “Friendship is the booze they feed ya.”

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