|photo by GDCGraphics|
The Mask of Zorro
The Remains of the Day
The Silence of the Lambs
The Elephant Man
Let's deal with this cannibalistic elephant in the room.
Often people remember Sir Anthony Hopkins' performance for its unique lines ("I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.") His performance in The Silence of the Lambs is often imitated but never duplicated (not even by Hopkins himself). To understand the sheer genius of his work you need to go back and watch the very first shot of him in the movie. The film had done a good job of building him up by attribution. But then he is finally revealed.
He stands with complete and utter confidence. He owns the moment. He is not a killer in a cell. He is a nobleman allowing an audience. Without saying a word, just by standing, he establishes his gravitas. And every word and look and gesture is calculated. Watch as he says, "Jack Crawford sent a trainee to me." You can see his eyes pregnant with at first insult but then delight, conceiving how he can manipulate Starling. And nothing he says or does rings false. He is alternately courteous and crazy, but he is always true to his character. His work on Lecter is so powerful because we could believe that Hopkins could eat a man's face right off. And strangely enough, Hopkins gets us to like him in a way despite his evil. It is a diabolically good performance. That is why even though he has only in 16 minutes of a 118 minute movie, Hopkins presence looms large and earned him is Academy Award.
But I would say that this is not his best performance.
Hopkins has played refined English gentlemen, as he did in The Elephant Man. He performance in The Remains of the Day is a lesson in acting restraint. His character holds all of his emotions so tightly bottled that it almost hurts to watch how fastidiously he controls his feelings. But he can also turn on the wit and the charm. He is my favorite on screen Van Helsing. He is arrogant and violent, but he has a darkly humorous charm that adds much needed relief to the horror and melodrama. In fact, his dialogue is at time absolutely brutal, but Hopkins gives his Dracula-nemesis a winking charm.
Hopkins also shines in sub-par and even bad movies. Nixon is not a good film, but Hopkins gives a great performance. That is, it is a great performance if you realize he is not playing the actual historical Nixon and is instead playing the figment of Oliver Stone's imagination. It is wonderfully frustrating to see him play a man with greatness in him but who is his own worst enemy who is beaten down by his own inferiority complex. Hopkins makes a man of no charisma and questionable character believable as someone who could run a nation. In movies like Amistad, he does a great job of a man fallen from greatness who strives to find meaning in goodness. It is especially fun to watch his John Quincy Adams revel in the low expectations of his associates.
Hopkins even shows off his more physical side in Mask of Zorro and The Edge. In both films, he plays a man pushed to the brink who tries to find redemption in helping others. Hopkins proved that he was an actor not just of skill and talent, but of great physical prowess.
But his finest performance, for me, was his portrayal as CS Lewis in Shadowlands. The movie itself has a number of flaws, not the least of which is its meandering length. But Hopkins makes the movie watchable. And while I have qualms with his portrayal of the historical CS Lewis, as with his role as Nixon, he still creates a compelling screen character. Like his character Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, Hopkins' Lewis is a man who holds back his emotions. When Joy Gresham comes into his life, Hopkins shows you how Lewis' armor is slowly whittled away and how he falls in love without realizing it. When Joy gets sick, Hopkins gives, to my mind, an Oscar worthy performance showing the dam begin to break:
But that wasn't even the big break. As the movie progresses Hopkins shows the continued struggle inside his soul to either give in to faith, love, and pain or to put stone around his heart and numb himself to the world. It isn't until the last few minutes of the movie that Hopkins shows us the broken man's choice. And it was like watching a frozen waterfall suddenly melt and the torrents of heartbreak flooded out of him. I don't think I've seen another actor so emotionally naked on screen in the way Hopkins was and it felt like such a cathartic release after the entirety of his amazingly graceful performance.
Anthony Hopkins is a rare actor who is still capable of reaching heights that few actors can.