Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bob Hoskins, 1942 - 2014

I've reached the point in my life where many of the familiar faces who've inhabited my personal pop cultural landscape since my childhood, whether they're actors, authors, artists or musicians, are beginning to die in earnest. I suppose it was inevitable, but it's still depressing to hear about these (often quite untimely) passings week after week. I've found that these people tend to occupy one of three categories: someone whose work is very well-known to me, someone whose work I was quite familiar with at one time but haven't paid as much attention to lately, or someone whose work I should be better versed in but haven't really explored to the fullest. Veteran actor Bob Hoskins, who passed away a few weeks ago, was in the latter category.
Don't get me wrong; Hoskins was unquestionably known to me, and over the years I've enjoyed watching him in a number of different films, but there were certain key roles of his that I had yet to experience, and to be honest, I was woefully ignorant of his range as an actor. As is so often the case, his death inspired to seek out some of those films, and I've embarked upon a sort of ongoing Bob Hoskins retrospective at my home, which is easier said than done in this day and age in which video rental stores effectively no longer exist. The selection of Hoskins' films that are streaming on Netflix is fairly sparse, so I've been reliant upon my local library, but evidently, others had the same idea in the wake of his death, and I've had to wait to acquire some of them.

With his diminutive stature, stocky build and thinning hair, Hoskins seemed unlikely material for a movie star, but his formidable acting chops proved otherwise. Perhaps best known in the United States for his role in Robert Zemeckis' 1988 live action/animation hybrid, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Hoskins initially came to prominence as a film actor in his native Britain via his role in John Mackenzie's 1980 gangster opus The Long Good Friday, which is a film I'd known about for years but never seen. Among those I had seen prior to his death, my favorite of Hoskins' films was probably Terry Gilliam's 1985 dystopian satire Brazil. Hoskins plays Spoor, a psychotic maintenance man who harasses Jonathan Pryce's character throughout the film, until he receives what is perhaps the most hilariously disgusting comeuppance in the history of the cinema, courtesy of Robert De Niro and a rerouted sewage hose. Hoskins' role is relatively brief, but it's impossible to imagine anyone else in it. His signature Cockney accent gives Spoor a necessarily rough edge, and his mischevious grin that can morph at any time without warning into a menacing grimace allows the character to be both goofy and scary within the same scene. This prodigious talent at expressing a character's duality would become even more apparent when I was at last able to see Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, which finally became available at the library last week, allowing me to take a long overdue look at the film.

In the film, Hoskins portrays Harold Shand, a London mob boss who operates more like a businessman, at least at the beginning. Shand, along with his elegant and sophisticated significant other, Victoria (Helen Mirren), has plans to redevelop a disused section of the London waterfront as a venue for the forthcoming Summer Olympics. His aspirations toward legitimacy begin to crumble, however, as his criminal empire is left reeling following an escalating series of attacks from an unidentified group. In a brilliant scene early on, Shand gives a stirring speech about his vision for London to a yacht full of potential investors as they chug down the river Thames. With the instantly recognizable Tower Bridge framing him as he waxes eloquently about the future of the British capital (an inspired visual choice), the viewer can be forgiven for forgetting that Shand is actually a gangster who is capable of brutal violence, as we will witness later in the film. Thanks to Hoskins' brilliant delivery of the monologue, I found myself rooting for Shand despite my knowledge of his true background. Hoskins keeps the character on a mostly even keel for the first part of the film, until things begin to heat up and Shand plunges off the deep end.

Two later scenes in particular are showcases for Hoskins' virtuosic talent. In the first, he discovers that a close associate was inadvertently responsible for triggering the offensive against his organization, and in an explosive rage, Shand violently attacks and mortally wounds the man. As he cradles his dying friend, Shand slowly comes to realize what he's done before breaking down in remorse. Hoskins handles this powerful scene with aplomb. I was aghast at his actions, but a moment later, I felt his pain and sadness as his friend died in his arms. The very end of the film, however, displays perhaps his finest work of all. Without giving too much away, Shand realizes too late that he's been snared by his adversaries and is whisked away to an uncertain fate. As the film's jazzy, uptempo yet somehow melancholy theme is reprised, the camera lingers on Hoskins for a good long while, with only a few, brief cutaways, as a gamut of emotions cross his face, from surprise, to disbelief, to rage, to sadness, to resignation and even a little dark humor for good measure. Hoskins is absolutely phenomenal in this scene; it's an impressive end to a great film, and it really opened my eyes to how much we've lost with his passing (Hoskins had actually retired from acting in 2012 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease). Although I'm a bit late to the game, I look forward to seeing as many more of his films as possible in the weeks and months to come.

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