Gary Raymond explores the allure of one of Wales’s greatest actors, and asks what it is that makes Anthony Hopkins so great at what he does?
There are two stories passed down in my family that centre around Anthony Hopkins. Less stories, and more sightings, but they’re told as stories, with the impetus of beginnings, middles and ends. In reality, this structure is flimsy at best. We’ll call them stories, though, for the sake of ease. They both date back to before my time, in the 1970s in my hometown of Newport. The first is simple enough. My dad, sitting in his van near Newport bridge, sees Hopkins coming out of Bejams wearing a big winter coat with a fur collar (I’ve always imagined him in the one he wears in that drab melodrama he was in with Shirley McLaine and Bo Derek from 1980, A Change of Seasons, and maybe even the specs he wears too). Hopkins crosses the street with two plastic carrier bags of frozen food in his hands. Bejams was the frozen store in town, hunkered beneath the imposing greys of a multi-storey car park. That’s the story. Hopkins in fur coat (probably) and aviators (maybe) crossing the road from Bejams.
The second story also comes from my dad, and also comes from the 1970s. This time it’s a seasonless afternoon at the bar of the King’s Hotel on Newport High Street, and Hopkins is on his own, perched on a stool, deliriously drunk. That’s as much of a story as anybody needed. Hopkins smashed off his face in the middle of the afternoon.
Hopkins’ mother lived in Newport, so it wasn’t so unusual that he was spotted there a few times. But I wonder if these two stories didn’t set me up for my lifetime of fascination with the Margam-born son of a baker. He was part of the family. Like an errant uncle, and I had plenty of them, so he fit right in. He hadn’t won any Oscars by this point, of course, and his greatest on screen roles were ahead of him, but he was still known as the guy who had been praised by Olivier and who had neglected the stage for the screen. There was something of the hellraiser about him, and his eschewing of the puritanism of the English stage smacked of being anti-establishment as much as anything else. He couldn’t be tied down, couldn’t be owned. You were as likely to bump into him outside Bejams or at the bar of the King’s Hotel as you were to see him on stage at the National or on the red carpet outside the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. And when he won that first Academy Award, for playing the alluring, charming, witty, mass murderer Hannibal the Cannibal in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, he put a kind of blood-soaked rosette on his lapel. The rebel really wouldn’t ever have to answer to anyone ever again.
And the drinking – no: the alcoholism – this won me over too. Hopkins, sober now for forty-odd years, has talked about his drink problem as being part of the Welsh psyche, part of “that dark Welsh soul”. I’ve done the rounds on this subject myself. What is it about the Welsh and booze? It killed Richard Burton, and it’s ruined more than a few people I have personally known and admired, but did Hopkins represent victory over it? Sober, with that Oscar in his hand. Hopkins has spoken of utilising the part of him that drove him to drink and the self-destructive drive at its core. When he erupts into rage on screen, or folds in on himself in a moment of startling vulnerability, he is excavating the same place that made him a drunk.
You can see him erupt and fold up in one of his latest films, one that brought him his second Academy Award last year, the powerful “dementia-drama”, The Father. In it, Hopkins moves from cynical and cruel to child-like, and, in between those two points, he shows us that other thing he does better than anyone else on screen, that pregnant silence, the glassy eyed repression of anything at all. The Father is an excellent, if tricky, film. The tricksiness of it, of its knotted temporality, can only work if Hopkins anchors us. We cannot truly connect with Olivia Coleman’s daughter, as we can never be truly sure who she really is (Hopkins’ dementia keeps us continuously in a state of disconnection, just as he is from the people around him). And we cannot truly connect with anyone else, no matter how much we can empathise with their sadness and frustrations. No, it’s Hopkins we must trust, even when we know this is a film about the untrustworthiness endemic to the disintegration of the mind. If The Father has a failing, it’s that it feels very much a transposition of the French play that it very much is. With its regency apartments, the juxtaposition of the amenities, the middle class intellectualism of the accoutrements and decor, it always feels much closer to Haneke’s Amour (2012) than it does to, say, Richard Eyre’s adaptation of John Bailey’s memoir about the decline of his wife, Iris Murdoch. (British wealthy intellectualism is never quite so neat and tidy as the French equivalent). But this Frenchness, and the nascent unease it supports, underlying the atmosphere that we can’t quite put our fingers on, also gives Hopkins the space to haunt the present just as the past and its shape-shifting figures haunt him. He is never sure where he is although he is sure he knows, just as we do. This is wealthy London. Or is it?
The Father is not just a perfect vehicle for an actor of Hopkins’ primal abilities (is there another around who can come close?) at this age of his life. He can fill the parts waiting for actors who enter their with relative ease. He played Lear too young on stage, he says, but he stamped his authority on it when Richard Eyre directed him for television in 2018. No, he is great in The Father not because he is a great actor and he is old, but because it is about being disconnected from the reality by which we structure ourselves, and about being on the very edge of the accepted regions of civilised life.
Hopkins has often been labelled an actor with unsurpassed insight into the buttoned-up bible black intuitions of the man of honour and duty. Thinks of his C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands (1993), his Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man (1980), his William Bligh in The Bounty (1984), Stevens in The Remains of the Day (1993), Frank Doel in 84 Charring Cross Road (1987), Henry Wilcox in Howard’s End (1992). In those films alone the evidence speaks for itself. That famous scene, where Emma Thompson’s Miss Kenton tries to pry the book from Stevens’ hand, flirtatiously curious as to the inner world of this paragon of English dutifulness, could be the signature scene for this facet of Hopkins’ work. But the reason why we are so drawn to Hopkins, the reason why he is such a powerful screen presence, is not because we are lured by still waters that we suspect run deep, but because silence comes before a storm.
The Father is not the culmination of a career of an actor who excels at treading softly and quietly amongst the gardens of our anxieties. It is another step for an actor who rages at the fault lines of experiences attached to the material world and the intellectual engagement with it. Anthony in The Father (it’s the character’s name, as well as the actor’s) is just the latest in a long line of performances that sculpt from this fascination and fear. He has done it all his life, from his Coriolanus on stage at the Old Vic in 1971, to his first great screen performance in Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978).
There is a mania to Hopkins’ sinisterism, the blackness in the centre of the twinkle in the eye, the thing that makes you uneasy. Which way is this going to go? It’s in the eyes, but it’s in the hips too. Think of that remarkably camp walk into the sunset, panama hat being placed coolly on the head, as Hannibal Lecter saunters after Dr Frederick Chilton as the credits role in The Silence of the Lambs. In Magic he is admittedly more nervous energy, sweaty and knife-edge; but it’s the hips again at the climax of Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) as his Andronicus dances around the dinner table in chef whites, unable to contain his delight that his wretched plan – to serve Queen Tamora her own sons baked in a pie – comes off with grimly absurd theatrical aplomb.
If Hopkins is ever manic, he is surely never having a better time than in Titus. I watched that film over and over, and at a time in my life when I rarely had a pot to piss in, I scrambled together enough shrapnel to buy a copy on VHS from a local charity shop. It connected with me in a way Shakespeare hadn’t done before. I realised that when the child urchin version of John Webster says to Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love that his favourite play is Titus Andronicus because ‘I like it when they cut their heads off. And the daughter gets mutilated with knives… Plenty of blood. That is the only writing,’ that he was, oddly, expressing something from within me too. In school, I had responded much more to studying The Duchess of Malfi than I ever did to The Taming of the Shrew or Othello. There are theories that Titus Andronicus was not even written by Shakespeare, so uncharacteristically bloodthirsty and sadistically cruel is it. But to me, it will always be a pantomimic horror film with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role.
You don’t think of Hopkins as an actor in horror movies, yet this is what Taymor’s take on Titus Andronicus is at its bones. It’s also how The Silence of the Lambs is now classed, (although I always thought of it more in the serial killer chiller thriller category if we want to split hairs). And let’s not forget he was a grizzled Van Helsing in Coppola’s wildly camp telling of Dracula in 1992. And before that, Magic, which is a terrifying movie; and before that Audrey Rose (1977), a forgotten classic in which Hopkins stalks a family, the young daughter of which he believes is the reincarnation of his own who died in a car accident. These are crushingly sympathetic characters who have slipped for one reason or another into the greyest of moral dark areas. But Hopkins recognises, and relishes, the opportunities to go all out darkside. The great release of the eruption. When Hannibal Lecter breaks out of his cage and kills two cops, we are seeing Lecter for the first time in his natural state, a predator elevated on the Goldberg Variations, a psychopathic killer who brings that baton down into Officer Pembry’s face with cool, ferocious precision.
The Silence of the Lambs utterly captivated me. I won’t say how old I was when I first saw it. Too young, no doubt about that. I came away from it knowing there was no greater actor alive than Anthony Hopkins (I also came away with a serious crush on Jodie Foster, which is definitely the most unobtainable woman I have ever fallen for). When the film eventually came on television, I taped it and watched it over and over until I knew every line. I clasped Thomas Harris’s novel like a pilgrim would his Bible, weirdo that I was.
There is a stillness to Hopkins that we keep coming back to, and he brings that stillness to everything, even when he’s letting it all hang out like in Michael Bay’s Transformer movies (Hopkins and I might have to agree to disagree that Bay is “a genius”), or as King Odin in the MCU. He is cast in roles like this not just because it must be a whole world of shits and giggles (and cash), but because he brings gravitas, authority, stillness to these characters – he gives something of a core to the nonsense swirling around him. It’s to Hopkins’ credit that he’s not parading through scenes as if he’s better than these films. He’s all in. He is just as invested, (if and when required by the script, I should qualify) as he was in those great movies of stillness, Shadowlands, Remains of the Day, and Howard’s End.
I remember when Shadowlands came out. There was something weighted even about its composition. Richard Attenborough directing Hopkins for the fifth time and if you whispered it quietly enough you could probably get away with saying their relationship was the British stiff upper lip flipside to Scorsese and De Niro’s profane explosiveness. The problems with De Niro’s characters is that they’re incapable of controlling their rage. Hopkins’s characters put everything into their control. In the case of Stevens the butler, he becomes a statue rather than divulge his feelings. As C.S. Lewis he cannot tell Joy he is in love with her until she is on her deathbed. When he snaps at snobbish xenophobic comments made by his Oxford don colleagues it is a spark of anger. De Niro would have beaten them all to death with antique candlesticks.
Both techniques, both styles, both impulses, are alluring for the viewer, but they are perhaps representations of national character more than anything else. But Hopkins is not restricted in this way. As when the largely forgotten American Beauty (1999) (and it was forgotten long before it’s star Kevin Spacey fell from grace) was laden with Academy Awards in February 2000, much of the credit was given to director and co-writer Sam Mendes. It was his Englishness that gave him such insight into the psychology of middle-America, critics claimed. Only an outsider could nail it so keenly. It was perhaps a surprise that a few year before that, Oliver Stone had asked Hopkins to play Richard Nixon, a figure so embedded into the folklore of the American psyche it’s astonishing to remember he’s such a contemporary figure. Americans like their noble villains, whereas the Brits like their noblemen pure and whitewashed and uncomplicated. Hopkins is both a simple man and a deeply complicated one. It’s easy to understand (and I don’t mind saying, easy to overinterpret) why Hopkins went for his dual citizenship in 2000.
Although Hopkins was Stone’s umpteenth choice to play Nixon, his reason for finally going with him is telling. “The isolation of Tony is what struck me,” Stone said. “The loneliness. I felt that was the quality that always marked Nixon.” For his part, Hopkins’ reason was just as telling. “The scenes in the film when he [Nixon] talks about his mother and father. That affected me,” he told the Boston Globe. On why Stone eventually wanted Hopkins, Hopkins told Barry Norman in 1996 that Stone had “read some of those interviews where I’d been asked about my drinking years, and I think he thought I’d been through the mill a bit… He also said something about being Welsh, about being the outsider.” When Nixon breaks down and cries in Stone’s film, ostensibly he is doing so because his kingdom is crumbling, the one thing he has strived for since his childhood on the farm has been snatched away from him, undermined by the corrosive tools he ended up using to get him there. But he is also weeping for the disconnection he always felt from the parents he loved but could not embrace, the childhood in which he could never find any sort of contentment. He is not weeping for lost innocence; he’s weeping for the lack of any chance to know it.
Watch any number of interviews in the last thirty years and it’s perhaps idiosyncratic that Hopkins has seemed so resolutely contented for so long. Perhaps it was the Oscar in 1992 that brought that to him. The vindication. He had moved to California in the seventies to pursue his film career, and when it didn’t click, he moved back to London in the late eighties. It must have been a blow to a man who had cleaned up his act, aligned his temperament with his skillset. With his Oscar he returned to Malibu where he has been ever since. See if you can find an interview with him post ’92 where he doesn’t seem relaxed, jovial, comfortable.
Perhaps it was this approachable demeanour, added to his Newport connection and his Welshness, that combined to put an idea in the head of my A-level English teacher, Mr Malcom Summers esq. He suggested we, his class, write to Anthony Hopkins and ask him if he’d like to come and talk to us. We were studying the Hare and Brenton play, Pravda, in which Hopkins had played the lead in the West End in the mid-eighties. Mr Summers had seen the production, and so somehow managed to get a play about the corrupting influence of Rupert Murdoch on British media and public life onto the curriculum. (I can’t imagine there was another class in the whole of Wales studying it). Pravda, long before Titus Andronicus and, indeed, Shakespeare, is what turned me on to theatre. I still think of the imagined spectre of Hopkins as Lambert Le Roux, the Murdoch avatar in the play, solitary, isolated at the centre of a bare stage. We never saw the play, of course, (it had one incarnation and that was ten years before it was introduced to me in that classroom), but we did get a reply to our letter to Anthony Hopkins. It was from his then wife, Jennifer, dated April 21st, 1997, and it read, “Thank you for your letter. I am so sorry that it will not be possible for Anthony to come and discuss PRAVDA. At present he is filing in Mexico and he will be there until the end of May. Then he will be going straight to New York to start another film, so he won’t be in this country again until the end of October. It was worth a try though! Good luck with the exams…”
Looking back at that letter, which was kindly dug out of his loft for this article by my old English teacher, Mr Summers, I feel a mixture of emotions. Firstly, I wonder if this might have been the start of my understanding of the “if you don’t ask you don’t get” philosophy that has underpinned a considerable portion of my professional life ever since. I also, admittedly harshly, feel a little hard done by that Hopkins would blow us off for The Mask of Zorro, the film we were to find out the hard way (by which I mean, we watched it) that he was filing in Mexico at the time. I feel less hard done by that he also blew us for Meet Joe Black, the film he would go on to be filming in Brooklyn that summer. Meet Joe Black has many faults, but it has always spoken to the romantic in me, the same part that loves those old black and white fantasy movies like Harvey(1950) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) (it’s actually a very loose remake of Death Takes a Holiday from 1934). That it also has the added attraction of being Brad Pitt’s worst ever performance on screen only sweetens the pleasure in the guilt.
In Meet Joe Black, Hopkins plays billionaire Bill Parish who is forced to face his own mortality when Death, who has cannily come to Earth in the guise of Brad Pitt, asks to be shown around the human experience in exchange for Parish having a few extra weeks alive. It’s easy to see why Hopkins was attracted to the part, and he is the best thing in it (apart from Pitt, who is so hilariously wooden he gives MDF a bad name). Parish is a man forced to evaluate his own life, some time before his twilight, and ask what it is he has apart from wealth. Hopkins visits this topic time and time again. In Shadowlands, in Remains of the Day, in The Father. What does it mean to have lived a life? It is because of his attraction to this question that makes Hopkins a true artist; not because it is a big question and to be an artist is to ask big questions, but because it is another example of his work being an extension of his life, his personality, who he is as a person, not just an actor disconnected from his job of work. To watch Hopkins is to watch these questions being worked out.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster, and is editor of Wales Arts Review.