mor·tal (ˈmôrtl) adjective 1. (of a living human being, often in contrast to a divine being) subject to death: “all men are mortal” synonyms: perishable, physical, bodily, corporeal, fleshly, earthly, this-worldly, human, impermanent, transient, ephemeral; of or relating to humanity as subject to death: “the coffin held the mortal remains of her uncle”; informal conceivable or imaginable: “punishment out of all mortal proportion to the offense” 2. causing or liable to cause death; fatal: “a mortal disease” synonyms: deadly, fatal, lethal, death-dealing, murderous, terminal: “a mortal blow”; (of a battle) fought to the death: “from the outbuildings came the screams of men in mortal combat” synonyms: irreconcilable, deadly, sworn, bitter, out-and-out, implacable: “mortal enemies”; (of an enemy or a state of hostility) admitting or allowing no reconciliation until death synonyms: unpardonable, unforgivable “a mortal sin”; Christian Theology, denoting a grave sin that is regarded as depriving the soul of divine grace; (of a feeling, esp. fear) very intense:”parents live in mortal fear of children’s diseases” synonyms: extreme, (very) great, terrible, awful, dreadful intense, severe, grave, dire, unbearable: “living in mortal fear”; informal very great; informal dated long and tedious. noun 1. a human being subject to death, often contrasted with a divine being synonyms: human being, human, person, man/woman, earthling: “we are mere mortals”; humorous a persona contracted with others regarded as being of higher status or ability: “an ambassador had to live in a style that was not expected of lesser mortals.”
Like many, I was struck and deeply saddened by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death earlier this week. As so many gifted artists do, he opened himself up to this world in order to make the work he did and he couldn’t, at this particular moment, contain it all. Being so permeable in a world so full can be hard to bear. Today, the dictionary project hosts an essay by Mike Miley in tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman
I can still remember the sense of wonder I felt the first time I noticed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Scent of a Woman. His performance in that film usually doesn’t get mentioned because the film is so clearly Oscar bait for Al Pacino, but in it Hoffman plays the nasty ringleader of Chris O’Donnell’s school chums, a real bastard whose sense of entitlement is surpassed only by his lack of remorse over it. While everyone else in that film was sheepishly letting Al Pacino chew up the movie, Hoffman was busy dominating the film with an unapologetic youthful bravado that demanded your attention and respect. I normally looked away from bullies in the movies, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him; he was just so real, so unlike anything I’d ever seen. In a perfect world, it would have been a star-making turn for Hoffman, but that wouldn’t come until later. Much later.
Plenty of acting and writing textbooks stress the importance of creating three-dimensional characters, but that all just sounds like empty platitudes after you’ve seen Philip Seymour Hoffman do it. Hoffman acted in 3-D long before such a thing was cool, and he did it selflessly, without calling attention to the fact that he was doing it and demanding your accolades. Even though that’s what all actors are supposed to do, he did it with such commitment, honesty, and passion that he revealed how much other actors had been holding back on us, slipping us illusion and evasion when they were supposed to be delivering truth and contact.
Hoffman gave each of his characters the fullest depth of emotion and transformed words on a page into living, breathing human beings who stumbled their way through life with dignity. Whether Hoffman was front-and-center in a film (the widely lauded Capote, the criminally underseen Owning Mahowny) or barely noticeable in the background (Magnolia, Moneyball, Almost Famous) he commanded the screen, making both the film and everyone around him better. Paradoxically, his smaller parts are where Hoffman made his largest impact in a film. In the hands of lesser actors, these would be considered thankless supporting roles, but in the hands of Hoffman, these roles are those ones that stuck with you because rather than settling for making these characters into cheap jokes, Hoffman made them human beings, warts and all. In fact, Hoffman made you love his characters because of their warts, because they were unguarded and caring enough to let you get close enough to see their flaws. Hoffman gave truth to such human shortcomings and made you feel less ashamed about the flaws you had.
Like most people feel about their favorite actors, I liked Hoffman best because I identified with him: overweight, pasty, equal parts ribald, joyous, compassionate, and pathetic—this guy was exactly how I saw myself. But now that I think about it, that’s just how we all are. That’s the kind of truth you can only learn from a great artist, and while we may have just lost a lot of great work from such a giving human being, he’s already showed us more about ourselves than we could ever hope to know.
Mike Miley teaches Film Studies and Literature at Metairie Park Country Day School in Metairie, LA. His writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film International, The Huffington Post, Moving Image Source, The New Orleans Review, and now here. He just #killed his Twitter for New Year’s and is toying with the idea of coming out of retirement and making films again.