By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2014)
According to most of the perfunctory obits on the network newscasts and such over the past several days, the only work of note by the late great British actor Bob Hoskins was his starring role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yes, I’m sure we can all agree that was an entertaining romp (if a wee bit overrated) and Hoskins (who never gave a bad performance in his life, despite the material he may have had to work with at times) proved that he could hold his ground against a bevy of scene-stealing cartoon characters, but as far as I’m concerned, that was strictly a paycheck gig.
Granted, at a casual glance this guy may have reminded you more of your 10th grade shop teacher than say, George Clooney, but hand him a juicy character role that he could really sink his teeth into, and he’d go straight for the jugular, tearing up the screen like a fucking Cockney Brando. Standing 5 foot 6 and built like a fireplug, he could appear as huge and menacing as a killer grizzly, or as benign and vulnerable as a teddy bear. For a true appreciation of what Hoskins was “about”, just check out his more “actor-ly” movies…like my top five picks:
Felicia’s Journey– Due to its disturbing subject matter, writer-director Atom Egoyan’s 1999 psychological thriller/character study does not make for an easy watch, but it does provide an ideal showcase for Hoskins to fully flex his instrument.
In this film, he plays an introverted, middle aged man named Joseph who works as a catering manager. He is obsessed with his late mother, who was a TV chef. He whiles away evenings in his kitchen, cooking in tandem with Mom via old videotapes of her program (while Egoyan’s film is not a comedy, Hoskins’ portrayal has echoes of Rod Steiger’s creepy “Mr. Joyboy” in The Loved One).
As he strikes up an unlikely friendship with an equally insular young Irish woman named Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), who is in search of the cad who left her in the lurch after getting her pregnant, there are disturbing reveals about Joseph’s past that will have you wishing that Felicia would get herself far away from this man, and quickly. As he does in most of his films, Egoyan uses a non-linear narrative and deliberate pacing to build up to a powerfully emotional denouement.
Inserts-If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by many critics at the time, but 42 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those involved.
Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.
The Long Good Friday– If I had to whittle it down to my “#1” favorite Hoskins performance (no simple task), it would be the one he gives as “Harold Shand”, in John Mackenzie’s 1980 Brit noir. Harold is a “hard” Cockney gangster boss, on the verge of forging an ambitious alliance with an American crime syndicate. Unfortunately, a local rival is bent on throwing a spanner in the works, using any means necessary. Harold finds himself in a race against time to find out who is responsible before “they” succeed in sabotaging the deal.
Screenwriter Barrie Keeffe has a keen ear for dialog, and applies dabs of dark humor throughout. Cinematographer Phil Meheux makes great use of London locales. Helen Mirren is a standout as Harold’s mistress, who also serves as his unofficial (and formidable) consigliere (Hoskins and Mirren reunited onscreen for the 2001 film Last Orders). In the film’s closing scene (a lengthy, uninterrupted close up of Harold’s face) Hoskins delivers a master class in acting, without uttering one word. Gritty, brutal and uncompromising, this ranks as one of the best British crime films of all time.
Mona Lisa– Hoskins gives a nuanced, Oscar-nominated turn as a “thug with a heart of gold” in Neil Jordan’s brilliant crime fable. Fresh out of stir, Hoskins is offered a gig by his ex-boss, a London crime lord for whom he took the fall (Michael Caine). Hoskins becomes the chauffeur for a high class call girl (Cathy Tyson) who serves select clientele in discreet liaisons at posh hotels. The pair’s “oil and water” personality mix gets them off to a dicey start, but their relationship morphs into something unexpectedly rich and meaningful (and it’s not what you’re thinking). The twists and turns keep you riveted up to the end. Hoskins and Tyson have great screen chemistry (like a streetwise Tracy and Hepburn) which injects this otherwise unsettling tale with much genuine heart and soul.
Pennies From Heaven (Original BBC TV version)- Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), this 1978 production is rife with Potter’s signature themes: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by an occasional, completely incongruous song and dance number (Potter was a fabulous writer, but I would never want to be in his head).
Hoskins gives a superb, heartbreaking performance as a married traveling sheet music salesman living in Depression-era England. His life takes interesting turns once he is smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two creepy brothers. It’s best described as a ‘film noir musical’. Far superior to the ill-advised U.S. feature film remake released several years later (with Steve Martin in the lead role).