Forgotten/Ignored Gems: Bob Hoskins Edition

Such is the immortal nature of images captured on celluloid that even a (self-proclaimed) cineaste occasionally finds himself confusing the dead for the living, an embarrassing scenario that usually plays out thusly: sprawled on the couch, clicker in hand, the CFS stumbles across a film featuring a performance by such-and-such that’s so clever he finds himself activating IMDB’s phone app to see what such-and-such has done lately, only to be reminded that such-and-such now resides in the great proscenium in the sky.

More often than not the confusion involves thespians taken from us much too early — think the preternaturally talented Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer. Or Corey Haim. Which is why I’ve coined this phenomenon the “Marty Feldman Effect” in honor of the pug-eyed comic who passed at 48. (Ed. note: this shouldn’t be confused with the “Hal Holbrook Effect,” which involves an actor assumed long dead but who’s actually still plugging away.)

My most recent encounter with the “Marty Feldman Effect” came when I caught a couple minutes of 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit and thought to myself, “Boy, I sure love that Bob Hoskins bloke. What’s he been up to lately I wonder?”

Being dead, in point of fact. Since 2014. Which I knew — poor guy had to retire from acting in 2012 because of Parkinson’s and eventually succumbed to complications related to pneumonia a few years later — but guess I had forgotten.

Although best remembered to American audiences for his role as Eddie Valiant in Robert Zemeckis‘ aforementioned live action/cartoon homage to Chinatown, Hoskins enjoyed a long and varied career both before and after, one that spanned stage and screen, from Shakespeare’s Othello to Dennis Potter’s groundbreaking BBC miniseries Pennies from Heaven (1978) to Spice World (1997), the unmissable cinematic debut of the Spice Girls, the British Isles most important export since bangers and mash.

Sadly, perhaps his two finest pre-Hollywood performances came in a couple of relatively obscure British films from the early 1980s. Which means there’s a good chance you’re not familiar with them. Which is unacceptable. Let’s remedy this now.

The Long Good Friday (1980, Dir. John Mackenzie)

Synopsis—In the late 1970s, London gangster Harold Shand (Hoskins) wants to develop the rundown London Docklands. In search of capital, he turns to the American Mafia. A visit is planned in London between the two organizations so that Shand can woo them with his vision and the Americans can confirm that Shand’s organization is indeed stable and strong enough to deliver on promises.

Problem is, just as the Americans arrive for this Good Friday conference, several of Shand’s most trusted men are mysteriously murdered. And then Shand himself is almost blown to smithereens. Worried the Americans will back out if they suspect his primacy being challenged, Shand, aided by his loyal moll, Victoria (Helen Mirren), desperately try to uncover who’s trying to kill him and why.

Thoughts—Violent, profane and funny, The Long Good Friday is truly a hidden gem. Director Mackenzie, aided in no small part by cinematographer Phil Meheux and screenwriter Barrie Keeffe, brings the less-than-appetizing proceedings to vivid life, giving us a world of gangsterism full of sudden violence and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, laugh-out-loud dialogue. (When told a murdered cohort will be transported in the back of an ice-cream van, Shand says, “There’s a lot of dignity in that, isn’t there? Going out like a raspberry ripple.”)

Hoskins is a Cockney marvel here, his compact frame and pugnacious visage effortlessly communicating a violent rage boiling just beneath the surface, a rage that helped him reach the pinnacle, but one that needs to be held in check if he wants to stay there. Needless to say, with the screws tightening at such a critical juncture, he succumbs to ignoble urges. Put it this way: you’ll never look at a broken whiskey bottle the same way again.

Michael Sagrow, a film critic at The New Yorker, had this to say about Hoskins’ performance in the liner notes for The Criterion Collection‘s DVD release of the film:

And Hoskins does more with his cheeks and jowls than Richard Nixon: He makes the curve of his teeth look as ominous as a crossbow, and trains his eyes like gun sights on his targets. Hoskins has the gift usually attributed to American, not English, actors—of getting so far inside a character’s skin that we seem to be witnessing vivid behavior rather than bravura performance.

For a taste of what Sagrow’s talking about, look no further than The Long Good Friday‘s final scene, an excruciatingly long take on Shand’s face as he registers a parade of emotions — confusion, anger, defiance, regret, fear, sadness and, finally, acceptance. I’d like to say it’s reminiscent of the bravura scene featuring George Clooney in the cab at the end of Michael Clayton but, of course, it’s the other way around.

Apropos to nothing, it’s interesting to note that the very thing Shand was trying to (fictionally) accomplish — the revitalization of the London docklands — came to fruition in the real world in a big way beginning with the wildly successful Canary Wharf project.

Mona Lisa (1986, Dir. Neil Jordan)

Synopsis—Fresh from a seven-year stretch in prison, estranged from his ex-wife and daughter and faced with limited prospects, low-level minion George (Hoskins) asks his ex-employer Denny Mortwell (a surprisingly menacing Michael Caine) for a job. Mortwell, a vicious gangster specializing in the sex trade, offers George employment as a driver/handler of a high-priced call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson in her terrific film debut). Not only will George ferry her from one assignation to the next, usually in posh hotels, but he’ll also act as her cover if the hotel staff becomes suspicious of her activities. From the start there’s no love lost between the two — George thinks Simone’s aloof and Simone thinks George, what with his floral shirts and gold chains, is arousing suspicion rather than quelling it. However, after she buys him a proper set of suits, the two begin to settle in, eventually developing real affection for each other, albeit platonic.

Between appointments, Simone begins asking George to drive her to places around London known for street walkers. It seems she’s looking for Cathy, an old friend from back when Simone worked the same streets. Soon she’s expanding the request, asking George to rummage through various peep shows and sex shops for any leads on Cathy’s whereabouts. George, continuing to fall hard for her, obliges.

Eventually all roads lead to the seaside resort town of Brighton, where George, Simone, Cathy, Cathy’s violent pimp, Anderson, and the big man himself, Mortwell, converge with violent results.

Thoughts—In Mona Lisa, writer-director Jordan has fashioned a terrific film, a neo-noir with all the trimmings: a naïve gumshoe in over his head, a femme fatale not quite as innocent as she appears, villains with long reach and a nefarious agenda to match and, of course, a big town’s seedy underbelly.

However, as opposed to Shand in The Long Good Friday, Hoskins’ George has a soft side — the deeper he falls for Simone, the more he fancies himself her romantic protector, someone to whisk her away from this sordid life. As such, when it finally dawns on him that he’s nothing more than a patsy, he’s devastated. In his final interactions with Simone, you’ll see the kind of raw emotions — frustration, sadness, longing, hurt — you’d never expect from a cockney fireplug like Hoskins. It’s a tour de force performance from start to finish, one that snagged him a BAFTA, the Best Actor prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival and a Best Actor nomination at the 1986 Oscars.

RIP the great Bob Hoskins!

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