By John H. Foote
He really did become a full-blown movie star portraying one of the most repellant, terrifying movie characters to ever grace the silver screen. Dr. Hannibal Lecter was brilliant beyond any known human measurement, his IQ soaring into the stratosphere too high to be measured. He was elegant, well read, possessed with immaculate manners, spoke several languages, and was fond of killing and eating people, hence the nick name Hannibal the Cannibal. For the first 20 minutes of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) we hear about him, as described by FBI agent Jack Crawford, and a snooty Doctor at the mental hospital where Lecter is housed. Everything about him sounds monstrous, yet when we finally meet and see him, he is standing erect in the middle of his cell, behind protective Plexiglas, neatly dressed, his hair freshly combed, offering a cordial, warm, and polite “good morning” to his visitor FBI Agent Clarice Starling.
His heightened senses size her up within seconds and he knows more about her than she knows about herself within minutes of meeting her. His mind goes to work the second he meets her, his eyes taking in her clothing, her fresh scrubbed skin, the smell of her skin cream, he picks up her accent, her ambition, her courtesy towards him but most of all her genuine fear of him, but a grudging admiration and respect for his intelligence. He likes her, thus beginning a bizarre cat and mouse game as they attempt to find a killer known as Buffalo Bill.
Anthony Hopkins had been a working actor for 30 years before his extraordinary performance as Lecter earned him rave reviews, countless accolades, including the coveted New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor, and the Academy Award for Best Actor. Overnight this lifelong Actor was suddenly a star!
Hopkins had earned accolades before – excellent reviews for his performance in The Lion in Winter (1968) with Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, a bold exciting performance in Magic (1978) as a ventriloquist losing his mind to his dummy, and an Emmy winning turn as Adolf Hitler in The Bunker (1982). He gave a deeply moving performance as the compassionate, kind Dr. Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man (1980) for David Lynch, his underrated performance among the highlights of the film.
But it will forever be Dr. Lecter to whom Hopkins owes his stardom.
Through the nineties and beyond he became one of the most beloved actors in modern film, thrilling audiences with an array of superb characters in a diverse variety of films. From his sterling work in Howard’s End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993) for James Ivory, his wacky Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for director Francis Ford Coppola, to his extraordinary performance as disgraced President Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), Hopkins seemed an annual Oscar nominee.
He gave a spectacular performance in Legends of the Fall (1994), a grand epic adventure which saw him as the patriarch of a family of young men in love with the same woman and their fates. Stealing every scene he was in, especially the last one, Hopkins gave the film great weight with just his presence. Wildly enjoyable, it was both a critical and mainstream hit.
In 1997, under heavy aging makeup, he gave a superb performance as John Quincy Adams in Amistad for Steven Spielberg again placing himself in the Oscar race. He was choosing to work with directors that interested him, doing roles that piqued his curiosity. One year after Amistad, he worked in The Mask of Zorro (1998) portraying the aged Mexican hero realizing his age has caught up with him and he is training the next Zorro, portrayed beautifully by Antonio Banderas. Hopkins remained among the finest actors on the planet, even when the films did not quite work. He would revisit Hannibal Lecter twice – in Hannibal (2000) for director Ridley Scott, with Julianne Moore as Clarine Starling, and again a year later in Red Dragon (2002) opposite Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes. Neither had the impact or success of The Silence of the Lambs, not even remotely close.
The last 20 years he has lived the life of a movie star and great actor, working only when the role interested him, or when he wanted to work with a fine filmmaker. His performances over the last 20 years range from exceptional to ordinary, an actor usually failed by a screenplay or filmmaker.
Hopkins was superb in Titus (2000) for director Julie Taymor, as the mysterious seer in Hearts of Atlantis (2001), brilliant as the mad math genius in Proof (2005) for John Madden, did fine work in The Wolf Man (2010) despite the silly plot, was superb as the sexual predator filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock (2012), perfectly aged and eccentric in Noah (2014) as Methuselah, and made a return to the Oscar race, for Best Supporting Actor as Pope Benedict XVI in The Two Popes (2019). Just as all great actors are capable of stunning us with their artistry, they are equally capable of failure, and Hopkins has had a few of those too. His warm narration never suggested the magic of Boris Karloff’s for the feature film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), a horrid mess of a film because director Ron Howard allowed Jim Carrey to run amok. Hopkins appeared in Oliver Stone’s grand folly Alexander (2004) and was among the actors to escape with his reputation intact. He was part of a magnificent ensemble for All the King’s Men (2006) which included Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson, and Mark Ruffalo, but the film was a crushing flop with both audiences and film critics. His outing with Woody Allen was met with disinterest from film critics and audiences, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) remains among Allen’s biggest failures. I am not sure why Hopkins took work in the Marvel universe Thor films, other than a hefty payday and greater audience, but his appearance brought neither.
HBO came calling in 2016 with Westworld, a mini-series adapted from the film of the same name in 1973. Theme parks for adults have been created for the wealthy, offering them the chance to experience the old west in great detail utilizing robots that are shockingly lifelike. Hopkins portrayed the strange master and apparent creator of all these worlds. The series, the first year, was a big hit with audiences and critics and the actor was an Emmy nominee, but subsequent seasons failed to entire viewers to return.
It was his work as Pope Benedict XVI in The Two Popes that brought him back to the Oscar race and reminded audiences of his great gifts. More than 20 years had elapsed since his last nomination in a supporting role in Amistad, an entire generation did not really know who he was. In a superbly written film, his Benedict gently eases the next pope, portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, closer to the Vatican. Like a fine two-handed play, the two actors bounce perfectly off one another and each earned attention from the Academy – Pryce for leading actor, Hopkins for supporting.
A year later, after earning the best reviews of his career as an Alzheimer’s afflicted man in The Father (2020), Hopkins would win his second Academy Award. Some have bitched, unreasonably, claiming Boseman was robbed of the award. As far as I know the Academy Award is promised to no one. The Academy did a very foolish thing setting Boseman up for the win, an insult to both his family and his fans. He was expected to win by the media, predictors of the awards, the film industry, and the Academy played right into it, bumping Best Picture to the third last award given and allowing Best Actress and Best Actor to be the final awards. Their thinking was perhaps to allows a celebration of Boseman’s life, something more than the speeded up In Memoriam section we were witness too. Silly. Remember a few years ago when Martin Scorsese was nominated for The Departed (2006) and it seemed that the great director was finally going to win? Out came his lifelong friends Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to present Best Director. Having already won the coveted Directors Guild of America Award, Scorsese was a good bet for the Oscar but what if Clint Eastwood had won for Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)? The Academy would have had egg on their face. That is what they have right now, egg all over their collective faces, they screwed up, huge. It is never over until the envelope is opened and the name of the winner is being read aloud. Even then, thinking of La La Land losing to Moonlight four years ago, you just never know. They thought they knew for sure Boseman was going to win, they knew nothing of the kind.
I hope truly that Hopkins win is in no way tainted by what the Academy tried to do, because his performance is for the ages and deserves to be treated as such. Hopkins is among our greatest actors and it would a shame if he were treated any less than that because of the blind arrogance of the Academy.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.