Monday, May 26, 2014

Bob Hoskins: The Thrill of Acting

Bob Hoskins (1942-2014)
Bob Hoskins, who died at the end of April at the age of seventy-one, was known as The Cockney Cagney, and it’s easy to see why. He’s compact like Cagney, a little man with a loud voice, but both men aren’t merely flamboyant: their front-and-centre, pop-up quality reveals an alertness to the world and an intensely emotional interaction with it. They leap out of the gate like champion racehorses because their characters are bursting at the seams. Like Cagney’s, Hoskins’s trademark performances are about class, though in a more explicit and more complex way. Cagney’s characters didn’t generally talk about their working-class roots but they didn’t have to – the proletarian essence was in his somewhat stylized New York accent, his hoofer’s nimbleness, as assertively masculine as Gene Kelly’s, his take-no-prisoners aggressiveness, and in the fact that the actor’s home studio was Warner Brothers, which catered to the working-class neighborhoods that housed many of the theatres Warners owned. Hoskins’s characters have the same qualities (Cockney subbing for New Yorkese), but they address the issue of class all the time. Well, that’s the Brit in them; they’re fighting the battle of the classes that’s at the heart of English drama from the middle of the twentieth century onward. There’s more overlap, too, between these two marvelous actors. Both men’s acting is centered as much in their eyes as in their tight, dukes-up, punching-the-air bodies, though whereas Cagney famously had soft bedroom eyes – Olivier eyes – Hoskins’s eyes had the quality of blazing neon or exploding firecrackers. Both had a depth of feeling that, set against their missile-force immediacy, had the ability to poeticize their acting. And they both acted as if they thought it was the most thrilling job in the world. They got gloriously, extravagantly drunk on it.

Hoskins was stage-trained, but he didn’t get noticed until he started doing TV in the late seventies and film in the early eighties. And his early major performances were largely about class. In England he broke through in the nearly eight-hour 1978 BBC miniseries Pennies from Heaven, written by Dennis Potter and directed by Piers Haggard; it was televised here on some PBS stations but not many viewers caught it or had any idea, when the two-hour M-G-M musical came out three years later, that Hoskins had originated the role Steve Martin played, the Depression-era song plugger Arthur Parker. In both versions the character is a luckless and increasingly desperate dreamer driven by financial and sexual disappointment – marriage to a repressed woman – whose belief in the romance promised by the popular songs he hawks is inseparable from their fierce yearning for a carnal paradise he believes is implied by the euphemistic Tin Pan Alley lyrics. But in the TV version Arthur’s wife Joan (Gemma Craven), a shopkeeper’s daughter, is a product of middle-class grasping for respectability. She depends on stiff-upper-lip English clichés like “absolutely top-hole” and “one of the best” to mask the unhappy reality of married life and substitute for passion, and her abhorrence of vulgarity makes Arthur feel continually bested. She criticizes his table manners and corrects his pronunciation with the same distaste she shows for his sexual proclivities – which she satisfies only when she’s terrified that he’ll leave her if she doesn’t. (Potter, relentlessly fair, shows tremendous sympathy for both spouses, trapped in a marriage that makes them equally miserable.) In one scene she reminds Arthur to say “everything” rather than “everythink” and after she disappears into the kitchen to make tea, he repeats the “g” sound over and over as if she’d stapled it to his skin.

Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell in the BBC production of Pennies From Heaven

In the other series he starred in, the 1980 Flickers, Hoskins, with a thick brush mustache and a bowler, plays Arnie Cole, a figure in the early days of film who graduates from showing movies to making them. Once again he’s a vulgar, sparring Cockney who’s paired with a woman (Frances de la Tour) with middle-class pretensions. But in her way she’s as tough as he is: pregnant by another man, she gets Cole to marry her in return for the capital he needs to go into his new business. She complains that he’s coarse and charmless, but she appreciates his pragmatism and work ethic – she knows she’s getting her money’s worth out of him.

1980 was also the year Hoskins became a movie star, in a tidy, witty little item called The Long Good Friday, written by Barrie Keeffe and directed by John Mackenzie. This is a gangster movie about a prole named Harold Shand who has climbed into the aristocracy by dint of the money he’s accumulated through his fantastically successful illegal organization and the aristocratic wife (Helen Mirren) he’s picked up along the way, who’s as unashamed of his activities as he is. In the seminal 1932 American gangster picture Scarface, Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte shows off his expensive shirts, in a scene lifted from The Great Gatsby; Shand hosts his new American partner (Eddie Constantine), whose business is going to help him go legit, on a yacht with a Parisian chef. But he isn’t shy about his roots. When he pays a visit to a drug dealer, he grins at the chutzpah of the street urchins who appoint themselves to guard his car and then demand payment for not slashing his tires; “That’s the way I started,” he brags to his aides. (The moment takes us back to the 1937 social-problem picture Dead End, where a notorious hood played by Humphrey Bogart gives the Dead End Kids a lesson in how to prep for a rumble.)

Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday

The most intriguing exploration of class in any of these early Hoskins pictures, though, is his portrayal of George in Neil Jordan’s magnificent Mona Lisa (1986), written by Jordan and David Leland: one of the great performances of its era and in my estimation the best one he ever gave. George is a small-time hood who went to prison to protect his boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine); when he gets out seven years later, everything has changed. His wife doesn’t want to hear from him; his teenage daughter has no idea who he is. And though he assumes that Mortwell will compensate him for his loyalty, the only work he throws George’s way is as a driver for a high-class black hooker named Simone (Cathy Tyson). Simone’s not like any woman he’s ever been exposed to – she’s a natural aristocrat with taste and the beauty and bearing of an international model who wears a pair of slacks as if they were the height of elegance and lacy lingerie with a hint or irony, as if she were merely slumming for her own amusement. She has a soft, cooing voice and an air of mystery. At first Hoskins is richly funny, the comedy deriving from his explosiveness and his fish-out-of-water quality. (When Simone gives him money to buy himself new duds, he shows up in a flashy outfit that embarrasses her, and he has no clue how to behave in the West End hotels where he has to drink tea while she’s upstairs with one of her johns.) Her high-handedness pisses him off; he gets so angry at her criticisms that he kicks her out of the car in the middle of a busy roundabout. But he immediately feels bad about what he’s done. Hoskins’ George is a decent man just below the surface of a tough ex-con. So when he and Simone become friends and she asks him to help her find a friend from her streetwalking days, a younger whore named Cathy who is still, she fears, in the hands of the sadistic pimp Simone managed to flee from, he agrees to scour the seedy demi-monde of the porn clubs – all Mortwell’s territory – to seek Cathy out. Here we get a variation on the fish-out-of-water idea as George, who is actually sensitive and repulsed by this world, tries to negotiate it for Simone’s sake. Leland and Jordan’s big influence is Taxi Driver, but reconceived with a Travis Bickle whose missionary impulse is fueled not by paranoia and Old Testament ferocity and sexual frustration but by compassion for the wrecked young women he sees on the streets (who, implicitly, remind him of his own daughter) and by his love for Simone. The tragic side of the story is that he misses her motive and the way she’s using his feelings for her to manipulate him.

Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa

Hoskins was so often marvelous that it’s a pity most people know him for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the exhausting Robert Zemeckis comedy in which he gets to play most of his scenes with cartoons. It’s not material for a genuine actor, especially one of Hoskins’s gifts. Here are some other performances worth checking out. Try Jack Clayton’s 1987 The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, adapted from Brian Moore’s novel, where Hoskins plays Jim Madden, who’s returned to Dublin and his sister’s boardinghouse after his years in New York haven’t added up to anything. He boasts about America as if he made a big success there but it’s a façade that doubles as a self-delusion. And he can’t keep it up; he’s sunk in disappointment, and the disappointment makes him angry. The staggering Maggie Smith plays the title character, a genteel spinster who moves into the boardinghouse and views him as her last chance at romance. It sounds like the set-up for a romantic comedy or perhaps a romantic drama but it’s far more: both these characters have their weaknesses. Hers is for alcohol, his for the teenage domestic who’s sleeping with his indolent, obese nephew, and the savagery with which they indulge these weaknesses takes the movie into unexpectedly dark areas. You can fast-forward through Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) and linger on Hoskins’s scenes with Fred Gwynne, as Mutt-and-Jeff gangland pals whose relationship punctures the movie’s hot-house airlessness. There’s his turn as the excitable, compulsively snacking screenwriter in Sweet Liberty (1986), uproariously swathed by the costume designer Jane Greenwood in lime-green sports jackets and lemon ties and pink trousers as if he were a human ice-cream truck. Meeting the historian (Alan Alda, who also wrote and directed the movie) whose Pulitzer-winning book he’s adapted, he announces who he is as if he were an astronaut or a Nobel-laureate physicist.

Cher and Hoskins in Mermaids

In Mermaids (1990), he’s a life-affirming shoe-store proprietor whose face pops when he sees Rachel (Cher), a divorcee new to town, at a parent-teacher meeting; he looks as if Christmas just walked in the door. This performance, another obscure treasure in the Bob Hoskins portrait gallery, is made up of terrific moments, like the one where, an amateur painter with no talent but bottomless enthusiasm, his Lou dabs at a canvas joyfully as he murmurs along with Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano” – or the one where, on a trip to Cooperstown, he touches the glove of his hero Lou Gehrig. Hoskins turns to be a gifted Dickensian caricaturist with an undercurrent of authentic feeling in the 1999 TV version of David Copperfield, where he plays Micawber. His few scenes as a motion-picture businessman, Eddie Mannix, the general manager of M-G-M, in Hollywoodland (2006) is different from anything else he ever did. Mannix’s power comes from quiet intensity and single-mindedness, and he spreads it like a blanket over his wife Toni (Diane Lane), whose affair with the actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck) – TV’s Superman – he doesn’t begrudge because her happiness is everything to him. And how I wish I’d been able to see him live in the 1982 National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls, where he played Nathan Detroit opposite Julia McKenzie (as Adelaide) and Ian Charleson (as Sky Masterson). I own an old vinyl recording that I cherish, and the best thing on it is his duet with McKenzie on “Sue Me,” where he does the most surprising things: growling “Adelaide, Adelaide” as they round into the chorus as if he were shouting her down rather than pleading with her; singing “I’m just a no-good-nik” as if he were tasting the sound of this odd, unfamiliar word; rendering the final verse in a gentle, seductive tone. He must have been fantastic.

In Fred Schepisi’s 2001 Last Orders – an unqualified masterwork - he’s in the company of one of the most staggering ensembles ever assembled: Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, David Hemmings, Tom Courtenay and Ray Winstone, all of them brilliant. Hoskins plays Ray, a gambler with a lucky touch to whom Caine's Jack turns to as he lies dying of cancer to help him provide for his widow (Mirren), whom Ray has always loved and with whom he had a brief affair twenty years ago that, it turns out, Jack has always known about. “You’re a little Ray of sunshine,” Mirren’s Amy tells Ray late in the movie. “You’re a little Ray of hope.” That seems like an apt eulogy for this actor, whose was a kind of paradox, an outsize presence who never seemed bigger than life because he was so completely grounded in life’s sensual realities.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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