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Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Lester Bangs Who Inspired Us All

A tragic end to the life of one of the greatest actors of our generation.
February 3, 2014, 6:02pm

Cameron Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Patrick Fugit on the set of Almost Famous. Photo by Neal Preston via.

For our generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman reconstructed himself and became our own personal Lester Bangs. This isn't because we are idiots. This is because when he stepped into the role for Cameron Crowe's autobiographical film Almost Famous, Hoffman did what Hoffman did. And he did it for us.

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No actor honed the craft of acting in a way that he did. For The Village Voice, my former colleague Alan Scherstuhl wrote that Hoffman was “secretive and self-amused, wickedly charismatic, possessed of that unlikely radiance simmering inside only the greatest screen actors.” Back in 2008, director Mike Nichols, who directed him both on the screen and on the stage, spoke to the New York Times Magazine of his talent: “Again and again, he can truly become someone I’ve not seen before but can still instantly recognize. He may look like Phil, but there’s something different in his eyes. And that means he’s reconstituted himself from within, willfully rearranging his molecules to become another human being.”

I’ve watched Almost Famous too many times to count. It’s not my favorite movie—and it’s not even my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman movie—but back when it released in the early aughts, it introduced a generation of young people to the heyday of rock criticism, and made the whole romanticized version of the lifestyle seem pretty fucking awesome. As a kid who lived in small town Iowa, the movie showed me a world that I actually did not know existed. My dad listened to a lot of music, but watching Hoffman’s Lester Bangs go on rants about Jim Morrison needing to have the courage to be a drunk poet and the merits what being a drunk poet meant made me understand (and believe) that I could actually make a living listening to music. Every word he said was truth. To this day, when I think about Lester Bangs, I think about Hoffman, and I think about that quiet moment late in the movie when Charlie calls him up, looking for advice on how to tell the truth and why that's important. Be honest; be unmerciful, Hoffman says. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”

What made Hoffman so incredible is that he would transform into whomever or whatever he needed to be in order to accomplish the art, probably sacrificing his own sanity while doing so. It’s said that during the filming of Capote, a role for which he’d eventually win his only Best Actor Oscar, he didn’t break from his quiet, pensive persona during the filming process. He walked around set mummering in the tiny voice he'd established for his character, no doubt making it slightly uncomfortable to grab a coffee and a donut alongside him during a break. But he did it, because it's what he needed to do to get it done. In every instance, Hoffman's subjects consumed him. And while doing so, he’d do more than just captivate the viewer. He persuaded us to take the piece of humanity he was putting on display, and challenged us to think about it and do something with it.

These qualities made this man my favorite actor. I never met him personally, but the roles of his films shaped me into the person I am today. When I learned of his death yesterday, I was gutted. And when I learned he was found in his bathroom with a needle in his arm full of heroin, I went into my room, shut the door, and lay down on my bed in silence. I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I didn’t want to believe it. I was heartbroken. He was only 46. He had three kids. And now he was gone.

Death is weird. Joan Didion once famously wrote that “it is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” That’s a concept I’ve always strived to live by, because it makes sense to practically apply that worldview to our fluid daily lives. We meet new people. We make new friends. We fall in love. And we always remember those beginning moments—the stories we tell our friends, like that time she unexpectedly sat down next to you and you ended up falling in love and meeting her mom a month later while riding the carousel in Central Park; or the time you rapped every word to the same song with him in the middle of summer and knew you’d be friends for the rest of your life. The beginning is easy. The beginning is clean. The end is what’s hard, and confusing, and when friendships and relationships end, it’s more often than not a mess.

But death is different. We live a life full of inconsistences and challenges, and we’re often trying to stretch certain things we don’t want to end longer than we probably should. But when someone dies, there’s no option but to deal with it. You can ask why. But you won’t get an answer. You can play the memories over and over in your head, but there won’t be any new ones. Death means someone is gone. Gone. And it forces you to deal with that fact. No one wants to do that.

Eric Sundermann is the Managing Editor of Noisey. He’s on Twitter — @ericsundy