Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The best of Philip Seymour Hoffman: Lester Bangs in Almost Famous

By Michael J.W. Stickings 

How can you possibly land on one movie, one scene, one role, one performance as the very best of PSH? He was so good in so many good movies, and he made so many movies so much better just by being in them.

But when I heard on Sunday that he had died, it was one movie and one role that came immediately to mind.


I love Almost Famous. I love especially the extended version (the untitled "bootleg cut") that captures director Cameron Crowe's vision, and I love watching it while listening to the commentary by Crowe and his mother. (I picked it as the best movie of the '00s.)

But it's a hard movie for me to watch. It means so much to me, is so powerful to me, makes me so emotional, that I often find it too much to take. Some great movies, some great movies to which one is intensely attached, are so meaningful that they require the right time and place to appreciate fully. I never want to watch Almost Famous as casual entertainment. To me, it's special. It's not the greatest movie ever made -- to me that's Seven Samurai -- but it's a truly remarkable achievement.

And while he's not in it much, and while his character is just a minor one in terms of screen time, Almost Famous just wouldn't be Almost Famous, at least not as I love it, without Philip Seymour Hoffman's incredible performance as Lester Bangs, the movie's soul.

There are many great scenes in the movie, and perhaps many more famous ones (like, say, the "Tiny Dancer" scene on the bus), but one of the scenes that stands out to those of us who love the movie is the one late in the movie when William and Lester speak on the phone. It's a beautiful, quiet scene, the "uncool" scene, with Lester speaking to what William has experienced, to the empty world he has witnessed while still just a teenager, providing comfort and wisdom at a difficult time, and it is their bonding, their connection as two similar souls as expressed in this one late-night conversation, that provides the movie its essential core.

Here's how Cameron Crowe described the scene, and PSH's performance generally, yesterday:

My original take on this scene was a loud, late night pronouncement from Lester Bangs. A call to arms. In Phil's hands it became something different. A scene about quiet truths shared between two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late. It became the soul of the movie. In between takes, Hoffman spoke to no one. He listened only to his headset, only to the words of Lester himself. (His Walkman was filled with rare Lester interviews.) When the scene was over, I realized that Hoffman had pulled off a magic trick. He'd leapt over the words and the script, and gone hunting for the soul and compassion of the private Lester, the one only a few of us had ever met. Suddenly the portrait was complete. The crew and I will always be grateful for that front row seat to his genius.

PSH will be missed. But thankfully he left behind so much that was so beautiful. I think about other movies as well, other great performances in movies like Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Charlie Wilson's War, Synecdoche, New York, and Moneyball, but it is still Almost Famous, and Lester Bangs, that is front and center.

Let's all watch it again, this wonderful film, to celebrate the life and work of one of the very best at his craft.

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