Thursday, November 22, 2012

Anthony Hopkins' Top 10 Performances

Anthony Hopkins is one of the best actors in the world when he wants to be – but we all know he has too often whored out his talent in movies that do not deserve it (Instinct, 360, Thor, The Rite, The Wolf Man, Bad Company and far too many others). But when he’s good – he’s very good. Apparently, Hopkins may get himself his first Oscar nomination in 15 years for his work as Alfred Hitchcock in the appropriately titled Hitchcock. I thought I’d look back at his best work to date.

10. Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001)
Originally, I was only going to put one of Hopkins’ performances as Hannibal Lector on this list, but I decided against that for two reasons – the first is a practical one – I couldn’t decide on a 10th performance. And the second is that his work in Hannibal is miles away from his work in The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. In those movies, Hannibal was a caged animal – he had to play the games others wanted, or else he wouldn’t have any fun. Here, Hopkins’ Lector is let loose on the world – free to do whatever he wants, and Hopkins relishes the opportunity to go so far over the top it borders on the absurd. And yet, whenever I catch a few minutes of this on TV, I can see just how much Hopkins is having – and how much fun I’m having watching him. Hopkins can be the subtlest of actors when he wants to be – and can also be a shameless ham. Here, he’s a ham – and I love it.

9. The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003)
Yes, my wife and I still, 9 years later, make jokes about Anthony Hopkins playing a black man – who passes as white for decades. And no, the movie is nowhere near the masterpiece novel written by Philip Roth on which it is based. And yet, the movie is still interesting throughout – and although I do think another actor may have been physically convincing than Hopkins, I cannot deny the passion he puts into this performance – whether he’s railing against the PC police who cost him his job, or confessing his sins to his new girlfriend (Nicole Kidman – who doesn’t have an easy role either). The movie is fascinating as is Hopkins performance, who throws himself into the role with everything he has. Yes, the movie has more than its share of problems – but it will certainly start some conversations if you watch it with someone.

8. Hearts in Atlantis (Scott Hicks, 2001)
Like some of Stephen King’s best stories, Hearts in Atlantis is not really a horror movie, but tells a real story, in which the supernatural plays a role, mainly in the background. The movie takes place over a summer in the 1950s, where a 12 year old boy bonds with the old boarder who has moved in upstairs. This is Hopkins, who is hiding out from the “Low Men”, who want him because of his gift – a gift that the young boy has as well, although he hasn’t figured out how to use it. The smartest thing that director Scott Hicks does in the movie is concentrate of story, character and atmosphere – and simply let the story’s supernatural element take care of itself. And Hopkins aids him a great deal in that. When he talks about the “Low Men”, he could have gone overboard with it – making it overtly scary, or sound like cheesy horror movie dialogue, but he doesn’t. He makes everything more complicated than that. This is a vastly underrated performance in a movie that should be rediscovered.

7. The Edge (Lee Tamahori, 1997)
The Edge is a wilderness survival movie written by David Mamet – which is odd, because Mamet’s characters usually never seem to leave the city. But the movie contains some of Mamet’s best dialogue, that director Lee Tamahori, and his two actors deliver wonderfully well – not overplaying it, like some try to do with Mamet’s words, but underplaying it. The movie is really a battle of wills between Hopkins, as a cold billionaire, and Alec Baldwin, as the fashion photographer there to take pictures of Hopkins’ trophy wife – who of course, is also sleeping with her. As the two men find themselves lost in the wilderness, and chased by a bear, they battle each other, and everything else. This is a brilliant two hander of an action movie – and one that gives Hopkins the far better role of the two. These two need each to survive, at least for a while, and Mamet’s screenplay brilliantly plays with the conventions of the genre. The ending kind of sucks, but don’t they always in movies like this?

6. Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997)
Hopkins’ role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is not a large one – he doesn’t really come into the proceedings until fair late in the game, but when he takes center stage, you cannot look away from him. Hopkins was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for this film, and it’s easy to see why – his stirring closing argument to the Supreme Court, pressing upon them the urgency of the case, and why they must let the slaves who overtook their kidnappers on the slave ship, was the only right thing to do. Hopkins has always loved grandstanding, and that is precisely what this role requires of him – and he does so well. That speech is long, but impassioned, and far more memorable that almost anything else in the movie.

5. Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)
No one would consider Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare’s best plays. It is so wildly over the top in its level of blood, gore and violence, and has only one likable character – the title character’s poor daughter who will be raped, have her tongue torn out, her hands cut off and eventually her neck broken. But Julie Taymor’s Titus is one of my favorite Shakespearian films – precisely because she embraces the plays over the top nature, and plows straight ahead. Perhaps her best decision was casting Hopkins in the title role – a conquering General who returns to ancient Rome a hero, and then has to fight battles on the home front, and will eventually chop off his own hand, and then kill his arch enemy’s two sons, and feed them to her in a meat pie. Who else could you possibly get to play that role? Hopkins has often gone over the top for no reason, but here, he knows damn well the only way to play Titus is to go wildly over the top – and he succeeds brilliantly. A demented performance in a demented film.

4. Howard’s End (James Ivory, 1992)
I’ve talked often in this list so far of Hopkins’ tendency to go over the top, but it’s worth noting that when he wants to be, Hopkins can be the subtlest of actors. His performance in Howard’s End is a near perfect example of this. In the film, Hopkins plays Henry, an upper-middle class man whose first wife has just died, and decides to take on a second wife (Emma Thompson). At first, Henry seems to be shy, quiet and awkward – but a generally good man. But then his past comes out – he has made mistakes you see, but he asks for forgiveness, which he receives. And then late in the movie, he shows his true colors – how cruel and heartless he can be to someone who has essentially made the same mistakes he has – the difference being that the people who made that mistake are poor, and he is not. Or as he says “The poor are poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is”. Henry is cruel and heartless, although he is extremely civil about it all. The upper class always are in Merchant-Ivory films – and Hopkins delivers a great example of it here.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
When Anthony Hopkins dies, the first sentence in every obituary about him will undoubtedly mention The Silence of the Lambs – it is a role as iconic as they come. Perhaps Hopkins would have been better suited if, like Jodie Foster, he decided not to take on the role a second (and then a third) time – but his work in Hannibal and Red Dragon don’t diminish just how great he was in this film – to me anyway. Hopkins won his only Oscar for this performance – and while it is small for a lead role, his presence hangs over every scene – he is the one you remember long after the film is over, no matter how great Foster was as Clarice Starling. Hopkins calm, cruel voice is haunting in the extreme. There is  a reason why Hannibal Lector tops many surveys of the greatest film villains of all time – in a very real way, anyone who plays a psychopath from this moment on, had to live up to Hopkins. And so very few have even come close.

2. The Remains of the Day (James Ivory, 1993)
In The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins quietly breaks your heart. It is my personal favorite of all the Merchant-Ivory films, and a large part of that is Hopkins quiet, thoughtful, subtle performance. Hopkins plays a butler to an English Lord, who places duty above all else – even his own feelings, which he never expresses. That he is love with the head housekeeper (Emma Thompson) is obvious, and even though she approaches him, he never truly responds – even telling her when she catches him reading a romance novel that he only reads it to “improve my vocabulary”. In the years leading up to WWII, the Lord hosts a series of dinners promoting “international understanding” – but in reality were just pro-Nazi parties. What does Hopkins butler think of all this? He never says. It isn’t his place to have his own thoughts or feelings – just to serve the master no matter what. Hopkins work here is sad and heartbreaking – his character never realizes he has wasted his entire life. Maybe he gets an inkling of that near the end of the film, but even then, he cannot show. The poor, dumb bastard.

1. Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995)
The most shocking thing about Oliver Stone’s Nixon is how much sympathy he shows for a man he obviously hates. Hopkins Nixon is not the snarling villain we have seen in many movies, but a man undone by his own flaws – his own hubris. Nixon was an intelligent man, but what he really wanted was to be love by the people – and he can never figure out why he isn’t. As he says to a portrait of JFK – a man he admires and hate in equal measure - in the White House, shortly before he resigns in disgrace “They look at you and see who they want to be, they look at me, and see who they are”. The movie makes no excuses for Nixon – it shows him at his worst, but it’s hard not feel something for the man. It would have been easy for Hopkins to make Nixon into a one dimensional villain – they have been great performances by actors who have done this (Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, Frank Langella in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon), but Hopkins goes deeper. No, he doesn’t particularly look like Richard Nixon – and he only marginally sounds like him – but Hopkins’ performance here is not just an impersonation, but something far greater than that. Nixon is one of the best films of the 1990s – one of Stone’s most underrated masterpieces, and truly remarkable performance by Hopkins. I know most people would pick The Silence of the Lambs for the top spot on this list – and while I understand that, I do not agree. Nixon is the role I’ll always remember Hopkins for.

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