Wednesday, August 08, 2012

What about Bob?

Perhaps inspired by Claude Debussy's view that music was "the space between the notes", Miles Davis demonstrated that silence can be as musical as playing a sound. Likewise, BB King's blues guitar virtuosity hasn't been measured by how fast his left hand can cover all points on the fretboard, but the beauty of playing a couple of notes...just when they need to be played. Not before. Not later. And not for too long.

Actors rarely get regarded for their silence: if Oscars were given for dead-eyed staring, De Niro would have won more than just the two. Play a cripple or some other down-at-heel, throw in an emotionally thunderous oratory and that gold statue is in the bag, baby.

Two wordless minutes of a film, in fact the final two minutes of a film, defined Bob Hoskins as one of Britain's great actors. It is the scene, at the end of The Long Good Friday, in which Hoskins' Harold Shand is abducted at gunpoint by the IRA (a menacing Pierce Brosnan popping up in the passenger seat of Shand's Jag).

We never learn Shand's fate, though it is assumed he won't see the dawn. In those two minutes, director John Mackenzie extracts from a single close-up shot of Hoskins' face his pique at being outfoxed and his empire pulled from beneath him, and then his desperation in the knowledge that for all his power, he is powerless to prevent his own premature demise.

The scene is not without silence - Francis Monkman's arpeggiated synth cutting in before the theme tune's memorable saxophone melody rasps along - but in it Shand has been silenced, literally.

He'd clearly had little trouble throwing using the 'verbals' to underpin his authority around his London 'manor' - earlier we'd seen him rounding up a band of ne'er do wells and hanging them from an abattoir's meat hooks, Hoskins delivering his own version of Henry V's Agincourt address:
"For more than ten years there's been peace. Everyone to his own patch. We've all had it sweet. I've done every single one of you favours in the past. I've put money in all your pockets. I've treated you well - even when you was out of order, right? Well now there's been an eruption!"
Tonight there's been an eruption, of a sort, with the sad announcement that, at the age of just 69, Hoskins is to retire from acting to focus on dealing with Parkinson's Disease.

Actors, like musicians, rarely retire, but Hoskins' decision to step away from the limelight brings the curtain down on an acting career that began relatively late in his life, in his late 20s. Although Suffolk-born, Hoskins theatre and early television career in the 1970s evolved through playing Londoners, usually on the fringes of legality. His performance as Arthur Parker in the BBC's original dramatisation of Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven established Hoskins in Britain, with The Long Good Friday following two years later in 1980.

Being squat, five-feet-six, with a boxer's neck and a squished nose, Hoskins was never going to win romantic leads. But six years after TLGF, Neil Jordan cast him has George, the ex-con reduced to driving a high-end hooker around for the gangster Mortwell (Michael Caine) in Mona Lisa. It was a fantastic performance by Hoskins, and thoroughly worthy of the Oscar nod and the BAFTA awards he actually won for it.

In the years since TLGF Hoskins had played numerous roles the played upon his stature - Pink's manager in Alan Parker's film of Pink Floyd's The Wall, mobster Owney Madden in The Cotton Club - as well as comic turns in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Though another gritty London crime drama, Mona Lisa provided a springboard for Hoskins' career to take off in Hollywood.

In 1987 Brian De Palma had him pencilled in to play Al Capone in The Untouchables in the event that Robert De Niro turned the role down. He didn't, but that didn't stop De Palma showing his appreciation.

"Months went by and I read the papers and saw De Niro was doing it," Hoskins told Absolute Radio in 2009. "I'd sort of forgotten all about it, and then Linda - my Mrs - was opening the post one morning and said 'What's that?' and it was a cheque for £20,000. It said 'Thanks for your time Bob, love Brian'. So I phoned him up and I said 'Brian, if you've ever got any films you don't want me in son, you just give me a call!'"

It wasn't long before he got his chance as grumpy gumshoe Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis' superb semi-animated comedy. Armed with Hollywood clout, Hoskins next made his directorial and screen writing debut with the under-rated Raggedy Rawney, the story of a young army deserter joining a gypsy clan.

More Hollywood was to follow, with Steven Spielberg having him play Smee in his Peter Pan epic Hook. It brought him together with Phil Collins (playing the detective Inspector Good), prompting rumours, invariably acknowledged by the two, that they might one day make a film together - perhaps with Danny DeVito - trading off their similar physical statures.

Though clearly owning far more range than just playing gangsters, Cockneys or Cockney gangsters, Hoskins' stocky appearance has opened doors. In addition to almost playing Capone, Hoskins has played a number of biopic roles, including Churchill, Mussolini, J. Edgar Hoover, General Noriega and, in Enemy At The Gate, Nikita Kruschev.

No actor should, over the course of 40, 50, 60 or 100 years, be thought of for just the one role, but it's hard not to return to the part that broke Bob Hoskins into the open: Harold Shand. As he steps away from the cameras to deal with his terrible affliction, he leaves with us a tremendous body of work capped by one memorable scene at the end of an equally memorable film. And it's a scene in which silence says it all.

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