Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Solid: Bob Hoskins, RIP

 by Peter Schilling Jr.

Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
When you separate the name from the man -- Bob Hoskins -- it sounds like nothing more than the guy next door, some nobody shilling insurance or a real estate agent pushing you to get that split-level in the ‘burbs when you want the city instead. Thankfully, you can’t separate Bob Hoskins from the squat fellow who, in a fit of great humor, once claimed he would be happy playing the lead in a Danny DeVito biopic, such was their resemblance. Hoskins was one of my absolute favorite actors, a man who took a couple of the worst movies I’ve ever seen and made them endurable, and gave some intellectually challenging films their beating heart. He died Tuesday night of pneumonia, having suffered from Parkinson’s for many years.

An Englishman, Hoskins was raised by a man who drove a lorry, and a mum who taught children. Atheists. Communists. People who probably got a lot of grief for those beliefs, in part because people with those beliefs usually can’t keep them to themselves. And thank whatever you believe for that. They make the world a better place, in my opinion.

Supposedly, they taught young Bob to be proud of himself, but not arrogant. Bob Hoskins, then, was the result of a solid upbringing and then became one of the most solid men working on the silver screen. There’s a nice handful of great performances in his quiver, and then, like the very greatest character actors, he brought dignity and a great work ethic to the worst pictures. He was, to paraphrase critic David Thomson (describing the also amazing Elisha Cook Jr.), the glue that kept a picture together. 

Legend has it that he was recruited to star in play whilst drinking beer in a pub. Does it matter whether this is journalistic fact or entertainingly apocryphal? It’s perfect. In fact, it is so perfect that I would love to imagine the director Neil Jordan, losing his mind over who to cast in the lead of his still great Mona Lisa, wandering into a pub and staring agape at Bob, replete in his 70s outfit (which looked ridiculous in the 80s when that movie came out -- today he appears fashionable) who would, of course, be gulping down a pint. Probably he’d argue with Neil and then walk on the set and be just perfect.

Because Hoskins was perfect in Mona Lisa. The story of a man released from prison and given back his job driving by crime boss Michael Caine, who was never more slimy than here. Hoskins is George, a guy with a lot of energy but not a lot upstairs. Assigned to ferry around a high-class prostitute, Simone (played by Cathy Tyson), he resists falling for her, but of course, he can’t help himself -- she’s beautiful, and likes to listen to his probing questions. Nothing can come of this, and it is Hoskins who carries the whole film on his shoulders -- we can see a man who believes, deep down, that the underworld is the only place for a man like him, but he has no illusions, he knows it’ll be a grind, knows it won’t pay very much, but he commits to it, fully.

Hoskins seemed, at times, like a man freed from some sort of prison, and his acting style certainly suggests a man used to pacing inside small spaces. Look at him in that movie, in the original BBC production of Pennies from Heaven, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He seems ready to climb up the walls, his fists clenching and unclenching, eyes darting about as if hoping the bars on his cage will fall open at some point.

As I write this and think back on the man, I’m reminded that he was also a genius when it came to working with other actors. Mona Lisa is a brilliant study of the friendship between George and Simone, them walking or driving, him curious, her taking in his curiosity. I still can never forget the moment he takes the gun from her, after she’s killed her pimp and Caine, and the violence on his part and the utter heartbreak when he realizes that he is nothing more to her than all the other slimeballs she’s encountered is palpable. He won a ton of awards for that one, including an Oscar nomination.

But there’s others: Roger Rabbit features brilliant work between Hoskins and a robot -- look at it again, and it predates and informs how well this type of thing is so often used in Lord of the Rings and the newest Planet of the Apes (and Roger was no Andy Serkis.) Though he’s interesting in The Long Good Friday, the movie which put him on the map here in the states, I tend to think he’s beating his chest a bit too much -- he was best with other people with whom he could react.

This is never better than in the very weird, very troubling, made for television (BBC, but still) Pennies from Heaven. I like the Steve Martin film, enjoy how they expanded it to make the amazing dance scenes, but the television movie -- sweet Jesus. Devastating, and I mean bleak. You may have heard of this one, from writer Dennis Potter, who also did The Singing Detective -- horribly sad tales of people who are addicted to their dreams and totally incapable of success, moderate or otherwise. They’re losers.

Hoskins’ Arthur Parker is a traveling sheet music salesman. He loves music -- it is as much a part of him as his tongue and his lungs, it is how he expresses himself, what gives him sustenance. His wife wants nothing more than to be a settled housewife. Arthur is yet another of Hoskins’ utterly conflicted men, horrible men in their own way, that we have to come to respect thanks to the actor inhabiting the role. Arthur sleeps around, falls in love with a woman who is not his wife, tries to start a record store that we know is doomed, and then, through a nasty twist of fate, is accused of a murder he didn’t commit.

All the while the characters stop the story in order to lip-synch British music hall tunes from the Depression.

Pennies from Heaven is brilliant, and Potter fans will no doubt bristle when I say that without Hoskins, this would be much less of a movie (yeah, I know it’s TV), nothing more than pure bitterness. Again, the man took a role and he worked, and made it come alive with feeling, with passion.

Outside of a few starring roles, Bob Hoskins was found in any number of movies, from the execrable Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez -- again, I’ve (thankfully) forgotten that mean little movie to remember the kind older maître d’, a man urging J-Lo to better things. He was in Super Mario Brothers (the less said about that the better.) Great as a put-upon government plumber in Brazil. Wonderful as Cotton Club owner Owney Madden in the film of the same name, and doing his best Mutt and Jeff routine with the Munsters Fred Gwynne as Owney’s henchman and best friend.

Supposedly, Hoskins was slated to play Al Capone in De Palma’s Untouchables if De Niro was unavailable. I ache at the thought of what we missed -- De Niro was already slipping into bullying the camera by that point, loud and unacting, simply coasting on his legend. I don’t doubt for a minute that Hoskins would have brought the little criminal’s interior frustrations to the fore, even in that small role. Just as he did in Hollywoodland, as studio boss Eddie Mannix -- again, notice him being utterly wicked in most of his screen time until Diane Lane comes into view, and we see the motivations behind the toad, his love for her lighting up the screen, and we're privy to the emotional scars of her betrayal, suddenly as clear as the wrinkles on his forehead.

We’ll not see another like Bob Hoskins, maybe because the route to acting doesn’t include that intellectual blue collar background that used exist in this world. The man could act, and he could get you to feel his characters, to understand them, and reflect on your own pain, humiliation. You left his movies feeling thankful for the small gifts of joy life bestows upon you—even when that same life has been unbearably cruel.

Bob Hoskins was born October 26, 1942 in Bury St. Edmunds, West Suffolk, England. He was 71 years old.

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