The Classical Appeal of Anthony Hopkins

By Johnson, Rachael | CineAction, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Classical Appeal of Anthony Hopkins


Johnson, Rachael, CineAction


PLAYING FATHERS AND MONSTERS

Anthony Hopkins is now sixty-three years old and has for the last decade enjoyed a cult popularity and iconic status transcending age and gender. Given his remarkable screen charisma, it is worth considering our particular attraction to one of the greatest actors of our time. He has portrayed presidents, tycoons, scientists, artists and warriors. Most famously and definitively, he has incarnated the psychopathic, cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and Hannibal (Ridley Scot , 2001). Perhaps the primary appeal of Anthony Hopkins lies in his extraordinary ability at playing symbolic fathers and patrician 'monsters.' From psychological thrillers to historical dramas, from Hollywood mainstream cinema to art-house literary adaptations, from Hannibal Lecter to Titus Andronicus, Hopkins reveals an understanding of the mythic nature of fatherhood. He understands how fathers may seduce and terrify us and how they may disenchant us. Hopkins' roles thus ach ieve a mythic character and it is the classical and often pathological power of many of his performances which resonate. His roles invariably explore hegemonic and extreme masculinity and many concern timeless themes of power, violence madness and romance. While hey reflect contrasting types of male sexuality, from the erotically predatory Picasso to the withdrawn celibate C.S.Lewis, Hopkins' physical appearance and manner are unmistakably masculine and characteristic. He has a small bull's physique, a muscular Celtic stockiness coupled with a nimble, powerful voice and eloquent eyes. Portraying ugly and attractive men--or a combination of both--his presence on screen may convey both intelligence and violence. While he inhabits his often unconventional yet mythic characters, Hopkins frequently lends his own classical, fatherly charm and unconventional physical personality.

Embodying Power and Its Perversions

Many of Hopkins' performances are studies in power's effect on the male personality. While he has played conventional dominant and wealthy men, he has often portrayed the passions and pathologies of power. In The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980) Hopkins is the enlightened Victorian man of science while in Howard's End (James Ivory, 1992) he is the characteristically visionless and hypocritical Edwardian husband. In Meet Joe Black (Martin Brest, 1999) and in The Edge (Lee Tamahori, 1998), Hopkins plays successful tycoons, establishment stereotypes, while in Legends of the Fall (Edward Zwick, 1994), he portrays the sovereign, leonine Colonel Ludlow. However, Hopkins is particularly gifted at playing extraordinary and unusual men. He has memorably incarnated political 'freaks' such as Adolf Hitler for television (The Bunker, 1980) and Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's biopic, Nixon (1995). His most effective and celebrated roles are characterised by compulsive and seductive violence. He has definitively played the old vengeful warrior Titus Andronicus in Titus (Julia Taylor, 1999) as well as, of course, the aberrant mythical cannibal, Dr Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. These historical and mythic characters are all marked by the extremities and pathologies of power.

In Oliver Stone's Nixon, Hopkins impressively impersonates the father of the nation as a fundamentally flawed man of power, psychically warped as well as physically restless and tormented. Richard Nixon of course is a modern historical figure who has become the very index of patrician deceit. He is merciless at snaring and humiliating his political rivals although he remains consumed by self-doubt. Nixon's career exhibits the natural capacity of power to alienate and corrupt its masters. It also reveals the sadomasochistic dynamic of power. This disturbing dynamic of power permeates Nixon's psyche and his relationship with America. He is haunted by the death of his two brothers and marked by the bonds of maternal love and faith.

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