Monday, February 7, 2011

Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Last night, following the Super Bowl, I watched an interview with Sir Anthony Hopkins (as it turns out, a not very good interview featuring somewhat clueless questions from Piers Morgan). Hopkins is a fascinating actor, to be sure. I've long been an admirer, like most actors. He is unquestionably the standard-bearer for 'naked face' work.

A close buddy of mine was over to watch the game and stuck around to see the recorded segment with Hopkins. We both agreed Morgan had no idea what and who Anthony Hopkins really is. Most of the questions would have been fine had he been interviewing, say, Justin Bieber (At one point, Hopkins was about to launch into a detailed, introspective explanation of his personal journey from atheist to agnostic to believer when Morgan cut him off by asking, "So, do you like being famous?" Good Lord.).

Nonetheless, there were a few gems from Sir Tony. At one point he, like nearly anyone that has any idea of what great acting is about, tipped his hat to Brando, DeNiro and, oddly, Matt Damon.

I also, quite coincidentally, just finished reading a fine biography of Hopkins. He's an odd duck, to be sure. A man who has clearly spent decades thrashing around in his own skin trying to find something to make him feel comfortable in it.

Having said that, however, he is, on occasion, an astonishing actor. I have never had the pleasure of seeing Hopkins on stage. I have never had the pleasure of seeing him tackle the big Shakespearean roles on the boards. I have, of course, seen his film versions of a few of these roles.

His preparation for a role is legendary in the theatre. I suspect not so much for film, but that's just a guess. A glance at his script for King Lear, for example, shows thousands of tiny, tiny notations in precise block script next to his dialogue.

There is a wonderful story of Hopkins auditioning for The National when he was very young. He got in. But first he had to do a monologue for Olivier. Sir Laurence had just finished a spectacularly successful Othello at The National in the role of Iago. When asked what he would be doing that day, Hopkins, standing alone on stage in the lights looking out over the dark theatre, said, "Iago." A long pause from the house..."Cheeky," said Olivier.

Of course he got in and Olivier, years later, recounted the incident in an interview with the BBC. "Yes, that's true," he said. "Only a fool would have done that. Turns out it was very good. Very good, indeed. Not as good as mine, but very good." And years after that, in an interview with Ken Tynan, Olivier went even further. "He could have been the best, I think. He was better than Richard (Burton). He could have been the heir to the sword."

"The sword" that Olivier spoke of was the actual sword that David Garrick used in his famous production of Richard III some 145 years earlier. It had been passed down from actor to actor over the years and finally ended up in Olivier's hands when he did the role in the mid-fifties. Ostensibly whoever held the sword was by default the reigning leading actor in Britain. Not surprisingly, Olivier never gave the sword up...even though legend has it he offered it to Peter O'Toole when he directed him in 'Hamlet.' Allegedly O'Toole, in typical fashion, replied, "I don't need a bloody sword to tell me I'm the best actor in England."

But, alas, as we all know, Hopkins, like Brando, chose not to pursue a life on the stage, although unlike Brando, he occasionally went back to it. He claimed not to 'fit in' on the stage. In fact, even in the interview last night he said, "I never felt comfortable in the theatre community, not like McKellan (Ian) or Judi (Dench)." He went on to say, "All I ever wanted in life was to be a movie star."

Not too long ago I was talking to the brilliant actor, Michael Moriarty, about our favorite film performances. I said (and I still believe this) the best I ever saw was Brando in 'Last Tango in Paris.' Michael agreed it was an astonishing performance. But, he said, the finest film performance he had ever seen was Hopkins in 'Nixon.'

Interesting. Michael and Hopkins are cut from the same piece of cloth when it comes to technique. Moriarty went on to say, "It is Shakespearean in its scope. Hugely tragic. Epic acting." And yes, I agree, it is a towering performance. But the film itself is highly flawed, I think, and that diminishes the performance somewhat.

In any event, my personal favorite Hopkins performance is in a film that not a lot of people saw. It was called 'The Edge' and featured Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in a terrific script by David Mamet. It is Hopkins at his best, doing a slice of 'naked face' work absolutely unparalleled.

Sir John Gielgud weighed in once on Hopkins as well. An interview in the mid-eighties with Dick Cavett, of all people. He said, "Oh, yes, Very good. Wonderful actor. But troubled, very troubled boy. Much like Richard (Burton)."

Hopkins seemed in the Morgan interview to finally be at peace with himself, though. He has never been secretive about his involvement with AA and pointed up that he's been sober for 35 years. He also admitted he had no 'actor friends' at all. He liked to 'stay at home.' He recently turned 73 and had no time for 'negative people.' "God bless you but please go somewhere else with all of that," is how he put it.

I think the chances are slim he will ever return to the stage, but one never knows. Regardless, he's one of the finest actors currently alive on the planet, I think. Along with only a handful of other actors still around, he's one of those guys I really would pay to see 'read the phone book.' He possesses the finest quality an actor can have, the very finest, in fact: no matter what he does, he's never, not for an istant, boring.

And that's really, in the final analysis, what it's all about.

See you tomorrow.

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