Anthony Hopkins won his first Academy Award on his first ever nomination at the age of fifty-four in 1991 for his brilliant performance in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) a performance so revered and popular it became a part of pop culture shortly after the film was released and before the Oscar was in Hopkins hands. So great was his impact in less than thirty minutes of screen time, he was voted the year’s Best Actor over formidable competition from Warren Beatty in Bugsy (1991) and Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides (1991). Long before Jonathan Demme cast Hopkins in the part of Hannibal the Cannibal he was touted as the next Olivier, a young actor on the rise, and very early in his career worked with no less than Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in A Lion in Winter (1968) as their power-hungry son. But success and widespread fame would not come too soon for Hopkins and for many years looked like it might never arrive. He earned wide respect as an actor among actors, but audiences struggled often to remember who he was. He nearly broke through in Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978) as a troubled ventriloquist who is struggling with the dummy taking over his life, and with an Oscar nod might have seen his career on a different route, but it did not happen. For whatever their reasons the Academy went with a bizarre nomination that year as the fifth that of Laurence Olivier in The Boys from Brazil (1978) for which Olivier’s performance drew comparisons to elderly Jewish women (no kidding). Hopkins certainly gave one of the year’s best performances, and might have been cheated out of an Oscar nod, though much could be said for either Dustin Hoffman (Straight Time) or Brad Davis (Midnight Express) earning the nod Olivier got.
He would impress in The Elephant Man (1980) as the elegant, deeply gentle and compassionate Dr. Treves, and stun audiences on television as Hitler in The Bunker (1981), and though movie roles came, they were not the star making sort. He battled the bottle behind the scenes and was known to be tyrannical with directors, none of which helped him.
Within days of the release of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) it was clear that the arc of Hopkins long career had changed. There was a perfect marrying of the actor to the role, the sort of thing we see every five to ten years, and so unique was his performance, so perfect, overnight he was a superstar.
In the years since he has portrayed two former Presidents superbly, worked and done excellent work for James Ivory, and constantly challenged himself as an actor. There have been times his habit of going over the top has hampered his performances and the films he has been in, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) being one of them, though his work seemed to mesh with the tone of the film I suppose. Twice I have had the immense pleasure of interviewing Mr. Hopkins, and each time he was a complete gentleman, interested in how I became a critic, more interested when he hears that I studied acting. He is a cool man who has been lighting up our screens for many years, doing substantial work for more than thirty years.
His performance in Hitchcock (2012) is one of his best and will likely land him in the Best Actor race this year for the first time since 1995. Here are the performances I consider to be the actor has given.
1. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)…Of course, what else could it have been? However I have included only this incarnation of Hannibal, not any of the other films in which the actor portrayed the role, though Hannibal (2001) nearly made the list. In the iconic role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a famed psychiatrist with an IQ off the charts, who is a jailed serial killer, fond of eating his victims, Hopkins was searing and altogether brilliant. At the time it seemed to be a totally different sort of acting, new and fresh, when it fact it was simply (though not so simple) that an actor found the perfect way to play a part. Remember the first time we see him? Standing erect in the middle of his cell, waiting for Clarice, after we have heard all the horrors about this man? Brilliant choice. Think how easily he could have gone over the top, think how difficult his choices must have been, yet every single one of them is perfect. Do his reptilian eyes ever blink? They are all knowing. We see the genius in his eyes, and the madness as well, yet as diabolical as he is, strangely Lecter is a good guy in the film! We care about him, we understand why Clarice (a brilliant Jodie Foster) is fascinated with him, and more his attraction to her mind. The good doctor actually does help Clarice through his series of riddles, and when he escapes, does indeed do murder, to go after a man who has treated him poorly, a very rude thing to do to him. He brought something entirely new to horror films, something dark and brilliant, a genius who should have known better and despite his crimes, we cannot help but like the man. Behind glass of course.
2. NIXON (1995)…Though he looks nothing like Nixon, nor does he sound like him he did something brilliant, something Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman called “shows us the wounded soul of Nixon.” Indeed. I have always felt Nixon was a great President, though flawed man, and did several great things during his presidency, undone eventually by a lie along with his own paranoia and sense of self worthlessness. Every single President to follow (until his death) was advised and sought his advice in matters of foreign policy, and though he was forgiven for what he did by those men, never by the American people. Was he a worse President than George W. Bush, George Bush or jimmy Carter? No. The film focuses on Nixon’s rise to power and the nagging belief that he was not worthy of the office, of his wife, of being alive. We watch him through the White House years, obsessed with being “liked” as Willy Loman was, knowing he will never have the adulation Kennedy did. Moments into the film, Anthony Hopkins is gone and we are watching Nixon, with that famous stooped walk, and that manner of speaking, and of course, that forced slightly false smile. Oliver Stone did something many did not believe could be done, he humanized Nixon and found sympathy for the man. Hopkins is simply brilliant.
3. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993)…In one of the most economical performances you will ever see, Hopkins is a long serving butler to a wealthy British family during the Second World War. Quiet, loyal, speaking when spoken too and never any other time, his is a life in the shadows. One of the maids working in the house loves him from afar, and when she approaches him we see how far from society he has detached himself, for while he loves her too, he cannot show his affection or offer a demonstration of any kind. She offers him, silently a life of happiness, but he lacks the words to accept. A tragic story and a deeply sad and haunting performance. There are moments Hopkins says more with a gesture or facial movement than other actors can say with pages of written words. He owns the film.
4. THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)…Though John Hurt got the attention from the critics and the Oscar nomination for Best Actor, it is Hopkins who gives the film its humanity and heart. As Dr. Treves, the kindly doctor who finds John Merrick in a travelling freak show, he takes him into his care, the hospital and even his home to try and show the poor man a kindness that he has never known. Initially believing Merrick to be an idiot, he finds he can read, that he has dreams and passions and becomes his friend. There is a magical moment the first time Treves sees Merrick, and stands perfectly still as a lonely tear slips down his cheek, weeping for something God has done to this poor man who society shuns. It is a quiet performance the sort that often does not get noticed, but without it the film fails on every level, for Hopkins represents the goodness of humanity, without which Merrick can find no hope.
5. HITCHCOCK (2012)…Having only seen the film once, I am basing my opinion on a single screening, something I do not usually do, but the performance was so strong I cannot help it. After seeing Toby Jones play the role in The Girl on HBO a couple of weeks ago, and being suitably impressed, I did not think I would like Hopkins performance as much. Wrong, he does what he did with Nixon, finding the director’s soul and presenting that to us, flaws and all. Set in and around the shooting of Psycho (1960), the film offers a glimpse into Hitchcock’s marriage, a strange relationship that defines how behind a great man there is a great, often forgiving woman who understood her husbands’ obsessions better than he did himself. Like many men he sought the unattainable in women, and was always self aware and troubled of what he looked like, knowing he could never be sexy to them. Give him a few minutes to settle into the role, give yourself a few moments to forget the images of Hitch we know so well, and watch how he becomes the director before your eyes. Mesmerizing.
6. HOWARDS END (1992)…Emma Thompson won every single major acting award for her stunning performance in the film, but she admitted she could not have done what she did without the support of Hopkins as her priggish husband. Shortly after the death of his first wife he marries Thompson’s character, and keeps something very precious from her that his late wife gave to her. That deceit will come back to haunt him throughout their marriage. Despite his flaws as a man she loves him, and actually comes to make a difference in his life, allowing him to become a decent man able to see others and not just himself. She teaches him kindness and compassion, and watching it happen is extraordinary. Two of the greatest actors we have going toe to toe? It gets no better.
7. THE BUNKER (1981)…By now the definitive performance of Adolf Hitler is Bruno Ganz in Downfall (2005) but until then it might have been Hopkins turn as the madman in the TV film The Bunker (1981). Choosing to play Hitler as a dangerous psychotic, we see little (if any) humanity in him, allowing Hopkins to portray him as a ruthless maniac caught up in a love affair with himself. Unlike Ganz he draw out no pity, no sympathy instead presenting a portrait of the most vile man to walk the earth in the 20th century. The actor is spellbinding to watch as he creates the essence of arguably the vilest man to have walked the earth in the 20th century.
8. AMISTAD (1997)…As former President John Quincy Adams, well into old age yet sharp as a tack, Hopkins earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and is the best thing in this film. Spielberg himself admitted “he dried it out” in the execution but thankfully allowed this performance to shine through. Called upon to defend a group of Africans taken from their homeland by Spanish ships and about to be sold off as slaves in America, old Adams is called to defend them to the Supreme Court. He does something many of the whites are incapable of doing; he sees them as human beings and befriends them. Feisty, fiercely honest and demanding of justice, he steals the film and we want more of him.
9. MAGIC (1978)…There was once an old Twilight Zone episode I watched with a ventriloquist at war with his dummy for possession of his mind and soul. It was frightening and reading William Goldman’s frightening book as a teenager; I was often reminded of that show. When Hopkins landed the role, I was pleased because I knew of his work and felt he could deliver the goods as Corky. And he did. Not only is Hopkins totally convincing as a ventriloquist, he is a terrifying homicidal maniac unknowingly at war with himself, slowing losing himself to his dummy Fats. Often terrifying, he should have been nominated, but had he, what career trajectory would he have taken? It might have changed everything.
10. TITUS (1999)…Though some critics carped that he went over the top in this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, how else do you play it? One of the Bard’s earliest and least known works, it lends itself to going broad with the acting and Hopkins understood that better than anyone in the cast. Director Julie Taymor coaches a strong, often wild performance out of the actor, who as a betrayed King out for blood after the rape, mutilation and eventual death of his beloved daughter makes him a dangerous person. More lethal than anyone realizes when he extends a hand it is for revenge, nothing more, and nothing less. The very best thing in a fascinating yet flawed film.
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