Given the constant presence of Hopkins in films of all caliber since the early 1990s, it would have been easy to forget his outsized talent. A counterpoint between two tapes from different moments in his career makes it impossible to forget it again.
The setting was scrupulously planned so that the most soulless and boring Oscar delivery in history ended on an emotional note. Against the tradition installed since 1948 of leaving the best picture statuette until the end – with the exception of 1971, when the last was the honorary given to Charles Chaplin – the producers of the Oscar 2021, including the restless filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, prepared the ideal moment for the best actor award to close the ceremony. Everything seemed to indicate that the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman would lead the members of the Hollywood Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote for him, post mortem, as the actor of the year.
Thus, the academy would honor the popular African-American actor – who had already appeared in the segment in memoriam as the most significant deceased figure of the year, ahead of Sean Connery and Olivia de Havilland! – and at the same time would appeal to the sympathy of fans of superhero movies. The latter would see that, finally, one of the most important actors in the Marvel franchise would win an Oscar, if not for Black Panther (Coogler, 2018). But the truth is that the voters of the American academy thought otherwise, and they thought well. What’s more: they thought better.
The last Oscar of this year’s ceremony was unexpectedly for 84-year-old Welshman Philip Anthony Hopkins, for The father (Zeller, 2020). To curl the anticlimactic curl, the actor was not in Los Angeles at the time, nor was he on the stage set in London for the British nominees who had not wanted to cross the ocean. Hopkins was peacefully asleep at his home in Wales and found out about his triumph until the next day, when he recorded a short video for his social networks in which he thanked, between humility and bewilderment, that recognition that – he has sworn and perjured – I did not expect to receive.
In fact, if the Oscar was given, as they say, to honor excellence in the cinematographic arts, the favorite to win the statuette would have been, from the beginning, Hopkins himself. None of the actors who accompanied him among the quintet of nominees – and, much less Boseman, whose best performance in his short career was as Jackie Robinson in the nonexistent biopic. 42 (Helgeland, 2013) – is close to the interpretive density of Welsh.
The father of the title of the film that Hopkins embodies appears to us, from the beginning, as a strong old man, sure of himself, used to command and to be obeyed or, at least, to be taken into consideration. This force that Hopkins so naturally imbues his character – his authoritative voice and intimidating presence – makes even more disconcerting the moments of fragility that come when he himself realizes, amid the perpetual confusion in which he lives, that he no longer lives. it has the power that until recently (but how much?) it had. We are witnesses to the constant transformation of Hopkins – who can go from kindness to rudeness, and from there to blackmail and then to claim – without any cut, with the camera always close to him, following his expressions, his gaze, the way in which he laughs and in which, suddenly, he stops laughing to raise his voice or, worse still, lower it and release some overwhelming insult to his friendly caregiver (Imogen Poots) or his exhausted daughter (Olivia Colman).
His body and voice go from representing the strength of an unappealable monarch – for something he embodied King Lear both in the British National Theater in 1986 and in a daring film adaptation in 2018 – or of a mythological god – for something he is as convincing as the powerful Odin, the father of Thor, in the marvelita saga– to be the body and the voice of a helpless, confused, whining child. A child who cries out for his mother for a moment, then realizes that he is not a child but a helpless old man, collapsing inside his own mind, lost between his memories and between his false memories.
His portrayal as this inevitably crumbling old man closes a circle that began with The good father (1985), a remarkable psychological drama directed by Mike Newell in which Hopkins plays Bill, a man who, after a bitter divorce and losing custody of his young son, sets about helping an acquaintance ( Jim Broadbent) who is going through something similar: his wife has declared herself a lesbian, seeks to divorce him and go to live in Australia with her new partner, so he will no longer be able to see his son. When Bill learns of this scenario, the resentful “good father” of the title takes his comrade’s case as a fierce personal crusade on behalf of all parents abused by ex-wives and by the law.
It’s easy to imagine Hopkins’ Bill growing old into the crumbling old man of The father. Since that forgotten film almost half a century ago, it is possible to see how the actor builds his best characters from contrasting and contradictory elements. If his overwhelming strength serves Hopkins to later prove disturbingly helpless in The father, on The good father the actor turns anger against his ex-wife as an unconscious strategy to hide something he hardly dares to articulate.
When Hopkins starred The good father, he could already boast a long career in British theater, film and television. He had entered the National Theater, invited by Laurence Olivier in 1965, and had made his film debut in a small role in The white bus (1967), directed by Lindsay Anderson. He had immediately drawn attention to the authority of his interpretations in The lion in winter (Harvey, 1968), where he obtained his first BAFTA nomination and, in subsequent years, in The afterlife of Audrey Rose (Wise, 1977), Only for adults (Lang and Black, 1980) and, of course, in The elephant Man (Lynch, 1980), where he takes a step back, with calculated discretion, to let John Hurt shine in the legendary role of John Merrick.
The good father premiered in the United States almost simultaneously with his next feature film, The Delicate Platonic Melodrama I never saw you, I always loved you (Jones, 1987), a film at the antipodes –in theme and execution– to the paternal-virile drama directed by Mike Newell. On his review of the 1985 film, A sharp Roger Ebert underlined something that was already beginning to be evident: Hopkins’ enormous versatility in playing an irascible and unpleasant family man on tape, then incarnating an affable English bookseller who begins a close correspondence friendship with a voracious New York reader (Anne Bancroft). This facility to change skin would lead him, years later, to his definitive consecration, when he played a character originally intended for his admired Gene Hackman: Hannibal Lecter, the dangerous serial killer of The silence of the inocents (Demme, 1991). This character earned him his first Oscar, even though his performance on screen did not reach 25 minutes in a two-hour film.
This triumph finally opened the doors of Hollywood for him. In subsequent years and to this day, Hopkins has pursued a prolific and tireless career, barely comparable to that of his compatriot and contemporary Englishman Michael Caine. Reviewing his filmography, it is obvious that Sir Anthony – made a gentleman in 1993 – has agreed to work on any film that has been offered to him. Either because the project can be transcendent -as What remains of the day (Ivory, 1993), for which he was nominated for another Oscar–, because the director is prestigious –in You will meet the man of your dreams (2010) worked for Woody Allen – or, simply and simply, because the pay is more than juicy – hence his appearance in a Transformers movie or as Odin in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The indiscriminate presence of Hopkins since the early nineties, with leading and supporting roles – two, three or even four times in a year – had made us forget, for a moment, his enormous talent and unappealable versatility. After seeing The father (which is still on the billboard) and having revisited The good father (available on American Prime Video), it will be impossible to forget it again.