“Don’t do drugs,” Frances McDormand shouted to her young son countless times in the rock epic, “Almost Famous.”
That line came to mind this morning after digesting the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in New York with a heroin needle in his arm. The actor was 46.
Hoffman had only a bit part in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 coming of age odyssey set in the drug-addled 70s. He was Lester Bangs, the quirky music critic for Rolling Stone and Crèem magazines, back when rock journalism meant something.
Bangs was a mentor to the aspiring high school journalist William Miller, who summoned the courage to call him from the road seeking advice while chronicling the band Stillwater for Rolling Stone.
Exuding subversive wisdom and wit, Hoffman’s Bangs told the pubescent protagonist how to excel at rock criticism, and more importantly, how to manage perceptions. His late-night advice crackled on the screen.
When Miller’s profile was falling apart, Bangs schooled him on how to blow his editor’s mind. “Tell him it’s a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”
Those words ring true as Hoffman’s struggle with addiction is assimilated by his Greenwich Village neighbors, Hollywood actors and the news media en masse. At 22 he quit a frightening propensity for drugs and alcohol and channeled his drive into acting, he told 60 Minutes.
The pudgy, fair-haired actor was among the hardest working in showbiz, having appeared in 50 movies. Clearly he was doing what he loved and received the equivalent of a Pulitzer for his 2005 performance as “Capote.” Not enough to stay clean.
Too bad McDormand wasn’t around to admonish him.
We can’t claim to know what goes on in the minds of actors. We see them on the screen and if, like Hoffman, they inspire confidence with their talent, we feel we know them and trust they’ll take us on an imaginative journey that provides needed escape.
But how can a celebrity escape from the harsh face of stardom in these overexposed Snapchat times?
And beyond the famous, with heroin’s potent and easy availability, how can the average out-of-work addict on the street say no?
Mothers, friends, lovers, neighbors need not merely shout “Don’t do drugs,” like McDormand, but find your own meaningful way to intervene.
Though Hoffman’s final moment could have been lifted from one of his film dramas, it was no act.