I used to hate Philip Seymour Hoffman. When I was 14, my friend and I watched "The Talented Mr. Ripley" a few too many times, drawn to the movie by its Italian setting, the amusement of Tom Ripley's (played by Matt Damon) antisocial tendencies and the utter unlikability of every character. Hoffman's character, Freddie, was an insufferable, pretentious buffoon, an arrogant party kid who razzled Ripley throughout the film until, like so many other characters, he met his death at Ripley's hands. At that time, I thought "good riddance," since Freddie struck me as the least likeable and most psycopathic character (save Ripley himself) in the movie. For the longest time, I associated Hoffman with that role, and that role only.
Fast forward a few years: Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone, found dead in his New York City apartment. He died with a needle in his arm, bags of heroin found in his possession. His end seemed more fitting for a junkie than the world's greatest character actor. Not only did I not think "good riddance," I was saddened, something I don't feel after most celebrity deaths.
Hoffman wasn't pure celebrity, though. He didn't have leading man looks, and was known for his ruddy complexion. Yet, he was cast in leading roles later in his career, due to his ability to inhabit every character he played. Each role he played was different, but he was most convincing as the low man on the totem pole, either the underdog or the creep. He owned these roles valiantly.
What changed my mind about Hoffman was his performance as Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous." The role of Bangs — a legendary music critic who, like Hoffman, died young of a drug overdose — is, in retrospect, eerily perfect for him. Hoffman understands the essence of Bangs; they were both introspective, sensitive geniuses at the top of their fields, underdogs moving against the pursuit of fame and the current of culture, yet simultaneously being the center of it. Hoffman both acts and looks the part — while reading Bangs' "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," I imagined Hoffman as Bangs, not Bangs himself, writing the book's essays on a typewriter in a damp, fetid apartment, exactly like the one Hoffman calls aspiring teenaged rock critic William Miller in (Patrick Fugit) in "Almost Famous."
Besides the striking similarites, Hoffman owns the role because of his empathy. He understands what it's like to be Bangs, and you'd believe that Bangs himself — the sweaty, mangy admirable hulk — had risen from the dead to play himself. Listening to Hoffman talking to Fugit on the phone in the apartment scene perfectly captures Bangs as we idolize him, as a balls-out, downtrodden intellectual, mixing academic language and curse words, dishing out sharp, authentic candor. This is also why Hoffman also owns the role of Freddie (which I ultimately conceded after rewatching part of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" for the 200th time). Though he's not pompous and arrogant, he gets inside the head of an overconfident narcissist, dissecting and tailoring each personality quirk until it's uniquely Hoffman, yet precisely capturing the stereotype of his character.
This makes Hoffman's death particularly devastating. Few other actors understood the intricacies of characters as he did and were able to apply them at all times. Hoffman was an artist, and like much great art it took me a while to warm to his performances, but I eventually became an ardent fan. His tragic ending is not befitting such a man, but is often the way great artists go.