B-Movies Extended: The Weird, Weird Career of Anthony Hopkins

Bibbs and Witney ponder the strange film library of Sir Anthony Hopkins, star of The Silence of the Lambs but also stuff like Freejack.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

In our last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (which has now lasted a meaty 32 episodes), William Bibbiani and I reflected on one of Anthony Hopkins’ completely baffling upcoming projects, wherein he plays a psychic who hunts down serial killers. We marveled at the sheer weirdness of this project, and I personally expressed a giddy interest in seeing the knighted actor clutching his temple, while giving grave portents about his psychic visions. We then remarked that Hopkins, like a lot of actors from the British Isles, is possessed of an extraordinary work ethic; that is to say, he’ll take whatever job is readily available, and he’ll give his all to the role. It doesn’t matter if he’s a werewolf (as in The Wolfman), a Shakespearean general (as in Titus), or a serial killer (as in the various Hannibal Lecter movies), Hopkins will bite into his every line with equal aplomb.

This is an admirable trait for an actor to have. Many American actors, especially the big-name, multi-million-dollar stars, are so preoccupied with their “brand” or their precious “image,” that they will pick and choose certain kinds of roles that only support said brand, and do not allow themselves to stretch as a performer. Certain actors, though, thrive on the work. They thrive on it to an extent that they’ll take the most interesting thing to come across their table, no matter what it is. As a result, you have actors constantly stretching themselves, and appearing in a wide variety of roles, from the classic, to the weird, to the forgettable, to the downright awful.

Anthony Hopkins, that indefatigable Welshman, of all the so-called A-list stars, probably has one of the weirdest resumes in Hollywood. He has played Shakespeare, yes, and his performance in the stirring and excellent Titus is something to behold. But he’s also played Pablo Picasso, and Richard Nixon, and, coming soon, he’ll be playing Ernest Hemingway. Aside from his well-known role in The Silence of the Lambs, he’s also been in other horror films like the infamous Bram Stoker’s Dracula, wherein he played a weird, mumbling Dr. Van Helsing, as if he were Herbert Lom from the Pink Panther movies. And for every great performance he’s given, he’s given two in lesser films. How many of you saw Fracture? How about Instinct? How about The Rite? Yeah, didn’t think so.

In honor of one of the greatest (constantly) working actors out there, with a litany of weird films under his belt, I offer the following considerations on the man. Here, then, is one good performance of his, one bad, one weird, and one completely bonkers.

 

THE GOOD

Gosh how do I choose? I do love me some Titus, and I love The Silence of the Lambs beyond reason. Let’s go with a great performance, though, that few people often acknowledge. In 2005, Hopkins gave what is probably his most relatable and gregarious performances in the little-seen Kiwi indie The World’s Fastest Indian, where he played a real-life retired New Zealand gearhead named Burt Munroe, obsessed with breaking a land-speed record with a homemade motorcycle. A feat which Munroe achieved in 1967, by traveling with his bike to the salt flats of Utah. Roger Donaldson’s biopic is a careful and cheerful look at the struggles Munroe encountered on his trip, and how his irrepressible good spirits, and endless streak of resourcefulness, got him out of a lot of binds. Hopkins plays Munroe like a man so unscrupulously innocent and honest, that he immediately feels like an old friend. When he runs into a woman his age on his travels (his trailer breaks down at one point), she helps fix his cart, and they have a quick fling before he moves on. Thanks to Hopkins ability to play friendly, we get the sense that Munroe is a free spirit, and his dreams are only going to come true. Hopkins may have a reputation for playing dark and intense, but I really admire him in The World’s Fastest Indian for being my friendly, cool uncle.

 

THE BAD

I’m often sure he can play anything, but I have to admit, I wasn’t able to stretch my imagination far enough to accept that Anthony Hopkins was a black man in Robert Benton’s turgid 2003 potboiler The Human Stain. Yes, you read that correctly. He plays a black guy. No offensive blackface makeup. Just a black man. Hopkins plays a professor named Coleman Silk who, when he was a young, light-skinned African American man, decided that he would try to “pass” as a white man, and has been hiding in the white ranks ever since. Which, of course, adds a good deal of irony to the fact that Coleman is fired for making a racial slur early in the film. Hopkins does not add any affect to his performance, and looks nothing like the young actor (Wentworth Miller) we see playing Coleman in flashbacks. When the film steers frustratingly away from his racial history, and begins to explore his Viagra-laced romance with a younger woman (Nicole Kidman), the film loses all cohesion, and Hopkins does nothing to pick things up again. The film is a dull, sloggy mess, and Hopkins is bafflingly low-rent on this occasion. I’d rather see him chew scenery in The Mask of Zorro, or battling bears in The Edge than watch this non-committal junk.

 

THE WEIRD

I have to admit, I have no idea what the Hell he was doing. I watched Alan Parker’s 1994 biopic The Road to Wellville when I was in high school, and I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a parody, a broad comedy, or a serious look at health trends in America. Years of reflection and a second viewing didn’t help the matter. While the film is largely about the real-life, late 19th-century health spa founded by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (he of the Kellogg’s breakfast cereal fame), and it focuses mainly on one of its particularly horny and sickly patients (played by Matthew Broderick, an actor I don’t really want to see masturbating in a movie), it is still significantly about Kellogg himself, played by Hopkins in a bald cap, fake nose, and weird buck teeth. Hopkins affects a weird, deep-voiced Southern drawl, and is seen in the film’s opening attached to a large, steam-powered Nautilus machine, ranting loudly about how bowel health, and healthy feces, means a long and happy life. Kellogg, despite some insightful flashbacks, comes across as part mad and completely inscrutable. Hopkins gives what is easily his weirdest and least decipherable performance in what is a pretty gross period all-star pseudo-comedy. What a curio.

 

THE COMPLETELY BONKERS

2007 saw one of the nadirs of my film-going career. I can say, without hyperbole, that Anthony Hopkins’ Slipstream (originally entitled Slipstream Dream) is one of the worst films I have ever seen. It’s as if Hopkins saw David Lynch’s three-hour 2006 vanity project Inland Empire, and tried to write and direct something even more complicated, hugely more mystifying, and decidedly less cogent. Hopkins plays an aging Hollywood screenwriter named Bonhoeffer, whose film is being butchered on a set somewhere. We’re never sure if we’re watching his screenplay, or a film-within-that-film, or something even more elaborately coded. Recognizable stars show up briefly, only to be shot, only to be resurrected in a different form later. Color fades in and out, and identities switch. At one point Bonhoeffer is shot and killed, maybe. Hopkins dies I think seven or eight times throughout the course of the film, and we get the feeling that we may be witnessing the final thoughts of a dying man. Or something. It’s never made clear, and it’s never very interesting.

How did Hopkins, likely possessed of enough clout in 2007 to make whatever the heck he wanted, settle on this very long and completely bugnuts Hollywood allegory? It’s a mystery for the ages. I’m tempted to watch the film on DVD with the commentary track turned on, but that would require watching the film again.

 

NEXT: Bibbs ponders his own favorite, least favorite and most confusing Anthony Hopkins movies, and reveals an embarrassing story from his distant childhood…



FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:

All right, I’ll tell you an embarrassing story: When I was about 8 years old I caught The Elephant Man on HBO. (It gets embarrassing later. Hold your horses.) I was entranced by David Lynch’s black & white historical drama about John Merrick, the innocent soul trapped in a grotesquely disfigured body, but also shocked to see Anthony Hopkins in the role of his benefactor, Frederick Treves. I ran up to my mother, who was in the kitchen doing vaguely remembered “mother things,” and expressed with childlike wonder how well Anthony Hopkins had aged since making The Elephant Man, which I assumed must have been shot in the 1940’s or 1950’s, since the movie was shot in black & white. I wince to this day at my ill-informedness. And my propensity to make up words, but that’s another rant altogether.

Oddly enough, that’s actually my first memory of Sir Anthony Hopkins, even though I obviously had enough context at the time to know who he was. Nowadays, he’s one of the most recognizable thespians in the world, thanks to his iconic performance as Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s truly brilliant The Silence of the Lambs. Before that particular, Oscar-winning performance, Hopkins was a quintessentially British actor, appearing mostly in quality hoity-toity productions like The Lion in Winter and 84 Charing Cross Road. Even his more “Hollywood” film appearances all had a very British slant to them, like the charming terrorist thriller Juggernaut and the bemusingly titled James Bond-ian film When Eight Bells Toll. Only after he broke out in America did he have the freedom, or at least the offers, to appear in any damned movie he wanted. And appear in any damned movie he did. That's when his career got particularly interesting.

I’m a fan of what many consider the “British” attitude towards acting. It’s a job, so you do it as much as you can. You’re not responsible for the quality of the film, just your performance, and you work your ass off at that part. Whereas in America many actors’ think their careers live or die based on the quality of the overall movie, in England that seems to matter much less than how good you actually were in the production. Hopkins’ career reflects this. He’s been in some very bad movies over the years, some very good ones too, and his fair share of mediocrities, but it’s rare for anyone to say “Anthony Hopkins sucked in that.” He works his buns off in every film, appears in a couple just about every year, and we love him for it. We’ll let the occasional Meet Joe Black slide provided he’s got a Titus in him somewhere down the line. Note with interest how we had less patience for the career of Freddie Prinze Jr… a charming fellow who appeared in mostly awful movies, and whom we don’t particularly care for these days because he just wasn’t very good in any of them.

(Fun Fact: I am now the first person to ever directly compare Sir Anthony Hopkins to Freddie Prinze Jr., favorably or otherwise.)

Taking a cue from Witney’s methodology, I have also come up with my own “Good, Bad, Weird & Completely Bonkers” list of films from Hopkins’ significant oeuvre. These are the films that delighted, aggravated, bemused and confused the hell out of me, respectively.

 

THE GOOD

Like Witney, I’m not going to waste your time by telling you to watch The Silence of the Lambs. You’ve already seen it, most likely, and if you haven’t you know you’re supposed to. (You won’t be disappointed.) And yes, there’s Titus, Nixon, and The Remains of the Day, and they’re all great films featuring great Hopkins performances. But the film that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition is The Edge, which Witney name-checked but didn’t sufficiently praise to my satisfaction. The film, directed by Lee Tamahori (The Devil’s Double) and written by David Mamet (you know who he is), stars Hopkins as a rich aristocrat with a trophy wife (played by Elle MacPherson) who winds up stranded in the Yukon with Oz’s Harold Perrineau and a younger, less funny Alec Baldwin. Yes, they fight giant bears, but that’s just the plot. In a curious precursor to Lost, which also co-starred Perrineau, the film is actually about how those of us who appear virile in modern society are actually ill-equipped to thrive in truly primal situations. Hopkins may be a rich tycoon, but he’s introduced as a pathetic individual with a too-young wife, sheltered from reality with his many books. Alec Baldwin is the typical alpha male, but when the fit hits the shan it’s the intellectual Hopkins who proves his mettle and utterly kicks the wilderness’s ass. (I'm guessing Mamet wrote it after some young whippersnapper hit on his wife.) The Edge is thrilling and thoroughly smart, and Hopkins is, of course, amazing in the lead role.

 

THE BAD

I just can’t resist the urge to bitch about Red Dragon here. Academy Awards-producer Brett Ratner directed the third film in Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter series, a remake of Michael Mann’s infinitely superior Manhunter, also based on Thomas Harris’s novel (which starred the also-great Brian Cox in the original Lecter role). After the bugnuts, operatic sequel Hannibal, someone in Hollywood apparently said to themselves “Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott and then Brett Ratner… That’s a logical progression.” Ratner is, at best, a workmanlike director and brought nothing whatsoever to Silence of the Lambs' screenwriter Ted Tally’s actually rather good screenplay. Whereas Silence was a thriller and examination of sexual dynamics in equal measure, Red Dragon is an entirely superficial retelling of Harris's story that wastes an excellent cast, which also includes Ed Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Harvey Keitel and Emily Watson. It didn’t help that Hopkins was playing way below his age range, aided by unconvincing makeup and CGI effects. Hopkins is perfectly fine in the role, but with a rather mindless movie surrounding him it’s a disappointing, seemingly last hurrah for the iconic Lecter character. (Hopkins was spared an appearance in the pathetic, Batman Begins-inspired prequel Hannibal Rising. Thank god.)

 

THE WEIRD

Lots to choose from here. I’m fond of his appearance in The Wolfman, in which he reimagined Nick Nolte’s performance in Ang Lee’s Hulk in a film that was, in itself, ostensibly a remake of that same film. I also remain amused by his casting as Zorro in Martin Campbell’s classy, stunt-filled The Mask of Zorro, which seemed like an odd casting decision at first but worked out fabulously. No, instead I think I’ll call out Geoff Murphy’s odd cyberpunk thriller Freejack, from 1992. Emilio Estevez plays a race car driver who dies in a fiery wreck and awakens in the far-flung year of 2009 (Wow!), where Anthony Hopkins has hired bounty hunters, including Mick Jagger (in a rare – and surprisingly good – cinematic performance), to retrieve our hero unharmed. It turns out Hopkins is dead and needs Estevez’s body so he can download his consciousness into it and make time with Estevez’s once-fiancee Rene Russo (who would go on to play Hopkins' wife in Thor).

Yeah, it’s a weird movie. But it’s actually very fun indeed. Estevez rarely gave a better leading performance (which, yes, says as much as you think it does), and Jagger is a lot of fun as the bad guy’s sympathetic minion. Hopkins mostly shows up at the end as a mysterious computer program, which probably meant this was an easy paycheck for him, but his presence lends dignity to an otherwise wonky movie that’s seems unjustly forgotten.

 

THE COMPLETELY BONKERS

Again, many possibilities here, but after much debate I kept coming back to one “Dear God, What Were They Thinking?” vanity project: Beowulf. It’s not Hopkins’ vanity, no… It’s director Robert Zemeckis’s. He seems to think that "photo-realistic" motion-captured movies are the way of the future, even though every film he makes seems to prove otherwise. Sure, they’re getting better, but so are the works of Uwe Boll. They started so low that there was nowhere to go but up.

Beowulf had a better pedigree than most, starting with an interesting adaptation of the old legend written by Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), and some cool casting in the form of Hopkins, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, and Ray Winstone in the title role, but the plastic look of the characters doesn’t mesh well with the over the top performances and distracting cinematic stylings that obscure nudity with Austin Powers-like foreground elements. Like Polar Express and just about everything else he’s done lately, Beowulf is on the wrong damned side of The Uncanny Valley, and proves that there’s no particular advantage to this medium that can’t be found in either CGI-assisted live-action or traditional animation techniques. Hopkins, or rather a semi-realistic Hopkins marionette, is fine as tragic old King Hrothgar, but can’t save the film from its own crapulence.

 

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE ANTHONY HOPKINS PERFORMANCES…?