You need a thug: Bob Hoskins in ''Long Good Friday''
Up until the late '60s, British actors came in two varieties: old Shakespearian dandies like Laurence Olivier, or young Shakespearian dandies like Peter O'Toole. But when Michael Caine (born Maurice Micklewhite, the son of a fishmonger) donned a pair of black-framed glasses and seduced the ''birds'' with his working-class Cockney sing-song in Alfie and The Ipcress File, everything changed. Being Cockney wasn't something to be ashamed of any more. It was a badge of honor. Suddenly, a once-hoity-toity profession was open to blue-collar East End toughs. And they stormed in like hard-drinking bulls in the proverbial china shop.
My favorite of Caine's laddish disciples has always been Bob Hoskins. With his bald head, fireplug physique, and gruff, barking voice, Hoskins is part actor and part pitbull. Sure, over the years, he's had his share of roles in period pieces and twee arthouse curios that occasionally require him to wear spats. But Hoskins has always been at his best when he's playing bastards, thugs, and tough guys.
Perhaps the greatest, and also one of the least-known, Hoskins pitbull performances is in 1980's U.K. underworld epic The Long Good Friday. As Harold Shand, a Thatcher-era docklands mob boss with a hairtrigger temper, an ambitiously posh girlfriend (a very sexy Helen Mirren), and a traitorous henchman who gets him into a jam with the IRA, Hoskins is a lit fuse. He can both calmly scheme and seduce like Pacino in The Godfather and launch into violent arias like the Pacino of Scarface.
As Shand's criminal empire starts to crumble around him, Hoskins, in a fit of rage, stabs one of his underlings in the neck with a broken whiskey bottle. It's as awesome as it sounds. As he stands above the poor son of a bitch severing the guy's jugular, you can see Hoskins drooling and licking his lips like he's getting off on killing. It's a terrifying scene. And also one you'll want to watch at least three or four times.
Still, Hoskins' best moment comes at the end of the film. In the final scene, he's been outwitted, captured by the IRA, and he's held at gunpoint in the back of a car (the IRA assassin holding him at gunpoint is a young Pierce Brosnan in his first film role). Shand is dead man riding off to his execution. And the camera holds a close-up on his face for two minutes. Two minutes! There's no cuts. Just two minutes of a camera on a condemned man's face. And what a face it is. You can see the full range of emotions wash across it: fear, rage, absurd resignation. It's a knock-out piece of acting. And reason enough to go rent this great film if you've never seen it before.
While The Long Good Friday is, in my opinion, Hoskins's greatest performance, it's by no means the only great one. Far from it. Here are five others:
Pennies From Heaven (1978)
Later remade in the States with Steve Martin, this dreamy BBC musical shows Hoskins' softer side as a lonely, melancholy sheet-music salesman.
Mona Lisa (1986)
Hoskins received a Best Actor Oscar nod for this tough-and-tender romance between an ex-con and the hooker he chauffeurs. For the record, he lost to Paul Newman in The Color of Money.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Robert Zemeckis' candy-colored Toon Town noir has actually aged surprisingly well. But it's Hoskins' brilliantly animated performance that makes you buy the whole premise.
Hoskins taps into his own hardscrabble youth to play a former hooligan who teaches a bunch of ruffians to avoid his mistakes through boxing. It's like a Cockney Stand and Deliver.
This may be a Jet Li film, but Hoskins steals the show whenever he's onscreen as a sadistic mobster in a neck brace who trains Li to be his personal attack dog.
Now it's your turn: What's your favorite Hoskins performance?