How He Made Being “Uncool” So Cool
As I’m writing this post, it’s been 15 days since Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away on February 2nd from an apparent drug overdose, and in those 15 days since his passing, the realization that I won’t be able to see one of my favorite actors in another movie during my lifetime has become increasingly harder to deal with.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was never your traditional Hollywood actor. He didn’t have the look or the build of a leading man, but he did some fantastic character work throughout his career, instilling a sense of heart, joy, and longing into each role he played. Whether it was his performance in the underrated Charlie Wilson’s War, or his strong and stern acting in films like Doubt and Moneyball, or the role of Truman Capote, which earned him his one and only Oscar, Hoffman’s presence could never be undervalued. He was an actor that gave each role he took everything he had in him, and that effort was fully on display in each moment he was on screen.
Personally, my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance by far is his turn as music critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s classic rock-filled, coming-of-age film, Almost Famous. Having just re-watched the movie last week (it’s one of my all-time favorites), it still amazes me how effortlessly Hoffman becomes that character in Almost Famous. In his first scene, we look in on him through the window of a radio station as he discusses who is better, The Doors or The Guess Who, before becoming overwhelmed with excitement when he finds an Iggy Pop album that he can play.
Following our introduction to Hoffman’s Bangs, we get a couple of scenes between him and Patrick Fugit’s William, where the two of them first bond and form their mentor-student relationship. Hoffman’s speech to William about how he would do speed and a “little bit of cough syrup,” staying up all night just so he could “fucking write” is one of the actor’s best moments in the film. As Bangs slowly drops the façade of pretentious “big shot critic” and allows his passion and enthusiasm for the work and the music to show, a small smile spreads across Hoffman’s face and his voice is more tender and kind, an almost fatherly way of speaking to William. Bangs has found someone he can connect with and potentially mentor in this teenage kid, and it both surprises and excites him.
However, as great as Hoffman’s initial moments as Bangs are in Almost Famous, nothing beats his performance during his phone call with William near the end of the film. Hoffman’s infamous “uncool” speech is a masterful work of acting. As Cameron Crowe himself has stated, he initially envisioned this conversation as a call-to-arms, a loud, fiery rallying speech that would inspire William. Instead, Hoffman underplays the scene, using a soft, parental voice, comforting his protégé that he’s not alone, rather than shouting at him to do better.
For me, it’s the best scene in the entire film (which is why I’ve embedded it above), and the truest example of why Philip Seymour Hoffman was one the greatest performers of our time, an actor who made looking differently or sounding differently or behaving differently something to be celebrated rather than feared. He represented that standing out from the normal crowd was nothing to shy away from but that we should embrace what makes us unique, embrace what we hesitate to share with other people, embrace being uncool in a world that may never understand us, and that’s something that I will always be thankful to him for.