The Age. Australia - March 7, 2004
The lost genius
He was the greatest actor of his generation, tormented by inner demons, driven to drink. Now Anthony Hopkins is at peace with the world, but at what price? By Stephanie Bunbury.
Sir Anthony Hopkins often says how much he detests talking about acting. He likes to jeer at the Method, at actors who want to be called by their characters? names or make a great meal out of analysing their work. Actors, he says, are so pompous. Just show up, block the scene, get the director to point the camera at you and say your lines. That's the job. If you try to analyse it, you'll just kill it stone dead.
In fact, he says blithely, he just pulled out of a film because the director was silly enough to want to talk about his character before shooting began. "I said, 'What is there to talk about?'" he says in that beautiful, melodious voice. "He said, 'Well, don't we need to discuss the script?'" Boring! So he walked.
How very grand he is, this belligerent baker's son from Wales. Grand and chippy as hell with it.
Anthony Hopkins is here to discuss The Human Stain, an adaptation of Philip Roth's novel about an academic who is the victim of spurious charges of racism. Run out of his faculty, he compounds his scandalousness by taking up with a poor, much younger woman who describes herself as "trailer trash". Hopkins plays the academic, Coleman Silk; Nicole Kidman plays the woman. It is not a good film. Somehow, all of Roth's moral force and scatalogical energy has been stripped away to leave nothing but a weak plot. Roth has never been about plot. For this we can blame Robert Benton, who gave us Kramer v. Kramer and Nobody's Fool, and the writer Nicholas Meyers, who did some Star Trek movies and one of my all-time hates, Fatal Attraction.
But we can also thank Sir Tony who, as one critic put it, seems to have faxed his performance in. Kidman, meanwhile, is wildly miscast. She plays a grotty member of the underclass, but anyone can see this is Nicole, luminous and classy as ever though apparently wearing someone else's clothes.
Hopkins is an even more curious bit of casting. The great irony of Coleman Silk's persecution, as only he knows, is that he is black. Pale of skin, he discovers at college that he can pass as white, an enormous advantage in the academic world of the 1950s (and now, no doubt). Anxious to enjoy all the fruits of his intelligence and ambition, he rejects his decent African-American family, explains his vague brownness by saying he's Jewish and embarks on the life of an East Coast intellectual.
There are numerous flashbacks in which the young Silk is played by Wentworth Miller, himself the pale son of a light-skinned African-American and a white mother. But Hopkins, as we all know, is a white Welshman. There is a horrible whiff of the days when "blacking up" was acceptable, whether to play Othello or Charlie Chan. Hopkins is not wearing boot polish, but he's not the real McCoy either.
Sir Anthony Hopkins in Snowdonia, Wales.
Picture: Steve Peake/APL
Young Wentworth Miller, understandably enough, is not about to knock a casting decision that allows him to play the young Anthony Hopkins.
Given that The Human Stain is a film about looking white, he says, it is reasonable to cast a white man. "If you had a recognisably black actor in the first frame of the movie, the rest of it would unravel," Miller says. "You need an actor who you believe is white to give that dramatic arc its punch."
As for Hopkins, this is exactly the kind of argument he would pack his bags to avoid. It all smacks too much of analysis. "I'm very detached from it all," he says. "I do my work and I enjoy it but at the end I go home and I don?t worry about it."
Long ago, Tony Hopkins was one of the greatest actors in the history of British theatre. He also had a superhuman energy. In the mid-'80s, his performance as the press baron Lambert Le Roux in David Hare's Pravda was the talk of the whole theatrical world. Five days after that run ended, he began rehearsals as both King Lear and Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra (opposite Judi Dench), which played back to back at London's National Theatre.
I was lucky enough to see him then. He was unbelievable. It was not simply the quality of that high, mellifluous voice that was mesmerising, or even the raging emotional force he brought to both roles. It was that when he was Lear, you felt the wind against your face as he shrieked at the Fool through the storm. With his Mark Antony, you felt the boat and his stomach roll as he described seeing Cleopatra's ships inexplicably in retreat.
His first mentor was Sir Laurence Olivier, who took him on at the National as a tyro in the '60s. In 1967, he shot from bit parts to stardom when he stood in for Olivier in Strindberg's Dance of Death when the great man came down with appendicitis.
Olivier wrote in his memoir that this "new young actor of exceptional promise (had) walked away with the part of Edgar like a cat with a mouse between its teeth". Richard Attenborough, who directed him in Shadowlands, calls him "unquestionably the best actor of his generation".
Yet he says he felt he never fitted into the English theatre world, with its knights and dames, its smart-alecks and intellectual talk. "I think it goes back to when I was a kid," he has said. "The British theatre is very academic and I'm a very bad student. I don't like being taught and I'm very stubborn."
In 1973, doing Macbeth at the National, he reacted to bad notices by coming on stage drunk and blathering improvisations that made the play run half an hour over time. Then he walked out altogether.
Olivier, his mentor, was sick of Hopkins, of his drinking and his temper. When someone offered to try to talk Hopkins into returning, Olivier screamed "I never want to see that little shit again."
Hopkins stopped drinking, quite suddenly, in 1975, when he discovered he was in Arizona and had no idea how he got there. He says he does not regret being an alcoholic. "Some days I'd drink a bottle of tequila and didn't care if I died," he said once. "I loved tequila. I'm glad I'm an alcoholic. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Being an alcoholic was an amazing and powerful experience."
But it wasn't the drink that gave us his Pravda or his Lear. They came 10 years into his sobriety. Of course, he was still angry. Even now, he seems to have the addict's conviction that he is uniquely wronged by the world. He admits he is selfish, self-absorbed, "a bit of a nihilist".
After years of estrangement, he was reunited with his daughter from his first marriage, Abigail, but the rapprochement did not last. "I can't do anything right as far as Abigail is concerned," he said in 1996. "I hope she does all right with her life, but that's her business."
Judi Dench said Hopkins "lives with the burden of genius". David Hare called him a perfectionist.
"He can't bear not to be on top of his game all the time. I think all Tony basically cares about is acting, and when he falls short, he becomes incredibly angry with himself." But now, watching him trot out his bag of tricks in The Human Stain ? the melodramatic pauses, the hammy whispers, the bits of business he does with his shoulders ? it's hard to believe this is the same great thespian.
Anyway, Hopkins says nothing would get him back to the theatre. Movies are faster. They are also where the money is. He has often recalled the moment in his childhood when Richard Burton came back to Wales for a visit, driving a Jaguar. The young Hopkins, a miserable loner who was failing at school, was inspired. "I thought: I'm going to do that. Success. Freedom." Now, with a price tag of $US5 million a film, he has exactly those things.
"I think success has been very important to me," he said in 1996, four years after Silence of the Lambs had catapulted him to Oscarhood. "I wanted it to heal some inner wound of some kind. I wanted revenge. I wanted to dance on the graves of a few people who made me unhappy, and I've done it."
In 1998 he went to America and settled on the west coast. He and his English wife, Jennifer Lynton, maintained a marriage of phone calls and set visits before giving up in 2002. They had been married almost 30 years. A few months later he wed a former antiques dealer, Stella Arroyave.
He loves his adopted country to bits. His favourite relaxation, in true American style, is driving. "The desert," he said once, "burns off your memories" He drives alone, thousands of miles in a week, eating up those big open spaces and staying in motels straight out of Psycho where nobody recognises him as Hannibal Lecter or would care if they did. Where fitting in doesn't matter.
"It's a big place and I live a quiet life," he says now. "I live on the coast and I'm not part of the actual acting, if that's what you want to call it, movie profession. I don't mix with actors at all. I don't have many friends. I have a couple of friends, acquaintances, and I'm happy that way."
Living in the sun, he has finally given up seeking the approval of British snobs. "It's none of my business what people say of me. It's their business."
He's convinced the British hate him, his 1993 knighthood notwithstanding. (He's been an American since 2000, but the Brits let him keep the title.)
He still works like a demon; his filmography includes close to 100 films, telemovies and television plays. His crowning film performances are probably the ones that propelled him to stardom: as Hannibal, as the repressed butler Stevens in Merchant- Ivory's The Remains of the Day, as Nixon for Oliver Stone. His fellow actors make no bones about it: he is the maestro. "No one," says Alec Baldwin, who starred alongside him in The Edge, "delivers a line better than Tony."
Very often, however, he will put that extraordinary voice to work for anyone who will pay him. There has been some terrible tosh, such as Victory at Entebbe or Hollywood Wives, and lots of middling drivel, of which The Edge is fairly typical. He says he used to find it impossible to say no. "Insecurity, I guess. I always thought I would never work again."
But it is also true that some of those awful films would have been a lot better if he had been better.
Periodically, he says he has seen the light and has decided to slow down. When he married Stella, he said he intended to stop work for a year. Then he was convinced to do The Human Stain. And now he has four more roles in the pipeline: as Ptolemy in Oliver Stone's Alexander; as a faded genius mathematician in John Madden's Proof; as Ernest Hemingway in Adrian Noble's Papa; and as a reprised Don Diego in the Zorro sequel.
Still, he says he is more relaxed now. Perhaps it is just that he is not so angry any more. Perhaps he is even happy. Perhaps the demons could only ever leave him if he let his monstrous, muscular talent grow pasty and pedestrian and gave up Lear for a treadmill of roles he could do without thinking.
Or perhaps it's just that other sorts of demons - the sort that have plenty of money and are rather pleased with themselves - have moved in now.
The Human Stain is now showing.
Sir Anthony Hopkins Fanatic Asylum