Wednesday, 30 April 2014

BOB HOSKINS: AN APPRECIATION

Bob Hoskins was one of the key crime actors of the past forty years, and though he was a better and far more nuanced actor than his posthumous typecasting as a cockney or gangster might suggest, he was integral to a number of films which helped open up and redefine the crime genre. I would see Hoskins around occasionally, especially in Soho, often unkempt and dishevelled-looking, and always radiating an intensity which I think reflected in a very intelligent way through his films. He used that sense of intensity to suggest violence and dare you to miss what was happening underneath.

Starting with The Long Good Friday, which came out of nowhere (well, the Edinburgh Festival) to captivate me and rest of the London Film Festival and then go on to huge success. The film remains eerily prescient about Thatcherism and the 'New Britain' it spawned, and Hoskins' Harold Shand is absolutely perfect in his greedy arrogance. It remains perhaps the best British noir. And what's interesting too is the way Shand was the dark side of his Arthur Barker from Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven, who was actually dark enough underneath, which was partly why his Arthur is better than Steve Martin's, the other part being Hoskins' reluctance to play as much for sympathy.

He was a fine Owney Madden in Cotton Club, before playing George in Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (itself a sort of companion piece to The Crying Game) and in a non-crime context, opposite Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne. I mention the latter, which I think is one of his great roles, because his character in the film plays on the qualities he brought out in Pennies From Heaven and in Mona Lisa, a combination of need and very mundane hubris that he is never afraid to show.

Then of course came his signature role, as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. If The Long Good Friday was prescient about Thatcherism, Roger Rabbit is, underneath the animation, like a sequel to Chinatown, or Chinatown crossed with Pennies From Heaven. It never stretches the audience's suspension of disbelief, at least not until the finale, and it plays with the conventions of the detective movie (and of cartoons) with far more conviction and far better than say Bugsy Malone.

Hoskins had a sideline playing historic figures. In crime terms, his J. Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone's Nixon is as telling a stroke of supporting casting as Anthony Hopkins' was of casting a lead. I doubt anyone else will ever play both Hoover and Laurent Beria, which Hoskins did in Konchalovsky's The Inner Circle. Or, on a less notable level, could anyone else play both Pope John 23 and Mussolini? Hoskins did, though not in the same movie. Or both Churchill and Manuel Noriega?

He was an out and out villain, but with a cuddly exterior and at least some sense of guilt Felicia's Journey, opposite Elaine Cassidy, whose intensity makes his performance all the
 more disturbing. He was Verloc in Christopher Hampton's strangely listless version of The Secret Agent, but he was at his hardboiled best in Hollywoodland, in which Adiren Brody plays a detective investigating the suicide of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on TV. The film falls just short of excellent, partly by Brody's overly louche interpretation, but playing Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix Hoskins is again superb, playing for contrast against Diane Lane, his wife, who is having an affair with Reeves, which may be why Reeves' suicide wasn't suicide at all. Lane deserved a Supporting Actress Oscar, and Ben Affleck, as Reeves, gave what may be his best performance; Hoskins plays off both of them brilliantly.

There are a number of other excellent, often small, roles in non-crime movies throughout Hoskins' career, I'd single out his Mr Micawber in the BBC's David Copperfield for special notice. He could be comic, which everyone knew from Roger Rabbit or Mario Bros. and he could be absurd to the point of surreal, which is why he was so good in Brazil: he is one of the actors I would have most liked to see do Beckett.

But it is for crime movies that Hoskins' is likely to be remembered, for George in the star-shaped sunglasses, for Eddie Valiant with the toons, for Harold Shand looking back from the rear of a taxi, his dreams of a rich new world disappearing into the old violence. He was a great actor, and leaves a great legacy, even beyond those crime classics.

NOTE: This essay will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

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