These days, acting against invisible characters has to be part of a star's repertoire; barely any tentpole is made by a major studio without some kind of CGI-rendered character, friend or foe, cropping up. Some actors are great at it (Mark Wahlberg in "Ted," most recently). Some aren't (everyone in the "Star Wars" prequels). But virtually everyone owes a little something to Hoskins, who essentially pioneered the technique in the modern era (with a little hat-tip to predecessors in "Song Of The South," "Mary Poppins" and "Bedknobs & Broomsticks," among others), in Robert Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Hoskins plays Eddie Valiant, a bigoted PI who's hated cartoons (who share a world with humans in the film) ever since one dropped an anvil on his brother. After becoming embroiled in a complex murder plot, Valiant reluctantly aids toon star Roger Rabbit as he tries to clear his name and win back his not-bad-just-drawn-that-way wife Jessica. In his first Hollywood lead, Hoskins was an inspired choice; he's characterful enough to convince as a hard-boiled L.A. private eye to sit alongside Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer and Sam Spade, but his theatrical training and sheer commitment is invaluable in selling his 2D co-stars not as post-production additions, but as living breathing characters. The actor throws himself ass over elbow into the part, and it's almost impossible to imagine the film working with anyone but him in the part.
As much as he was hotly in demand in Hollywood, Hoskins never abandoned the British film industry (two of his last three screen roles were in UK movies), and one of his greatest successes, came from taking a chance on a young, unproven British helmer. After the success of his short film "Where's The Money Ronnie?," 25-year-old helmer Shane Meadows followed up his little-seen first feature "Small Time" by writing a role directly for Hoskins in his follow-up "Twenty Four Seven." In the film, Hoskins plays Alan Darcy, a man who seeks to give hope to the teenagers of a small working-class Midlands town (who include future Tony-winner James Corden, in his first screen role) by opening up a boxing club. Despite Meadows' relative inexperience, Hoskins snapped up the chance, and the result is one of his very best ever performances, and one a world away from the tough guys that made his name. Meadows shoots the film in glorious black-and-white, appropriate for a film that owes more than a little to the British New Wave works like "Billy Liar" and "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning," and elicits a wonderful range of performances from a cast made up principally of Meadows' old friends. But it's Hoskins at the center, and he's wonderful; with a more Northern inflection that his usual Cockney tones, the actor's warm, funny and caring, but with the echo of tragedy just in the background. It's an almost revelatory turn. Hoskins and Meadows would work together again in "A Room For Romeo Brass" three years later, but this one certainly remains their finest hour together.
Once again, one of Hoskins' lesser-seen films might be one of his very best. The actor played his fair share of villains over the years, but few were as complex, and indeed sympathetic, as the one in Atom Egoyan's underrated adaptation of William Trevor's novel. Irish girl Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) comes to the UK in search of the boyfriend she's pregnant by, and encounters Joe Hilditch (Hoskins), the catering manager at a local factory. The son of a famous '50s TV cook, he's initially friendly and helpful, but we (if not Felicia) soon discover that there's a much darker side to him. Some of the psychology of the part is a little rote (the Norman Bates-style mother issues), but Hoskins, taking on a Black Country accent, makes Joe a rich, compelling character; blandly friendly, stuck in the past, and unexceptional on the surface, but chilling and predatory underneath. And yet Hoskins also invests him with enough pathos and tragedy to make the character far more than a simple creep, to the extent that the ending is almost heartbreaking. It's not Egoyan's best work, but it might be close to Hoskins' finest performance.
Honorable Mentions: Among the many other memorable parts across a long career, there are plenty of others that were perhaps less substantial than the 5 we picked, but are still good value. The actor contributes a scene-stealing cameo to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," as one of a pair of sinister air-conditioning-repairmen (in an odd precursor to career low-point "Super Mario Bros"). He also stole the show as J. Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone's "Nixon," in a performance that makes more recent takes on the same figure by Billy Crudup and Leonardo DiCaprio look like little boys.
There've been more strong parts recently too including an incredibly touching turn alongside Michael Caine, David Hemmings, Ray Winstone and Tom Courtenay in the undervalued "Last Orders" in 2001; big-hearted, open supporting roles in comedies "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and "Made In Dagenham" and as sinister, possibly murderous MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix in decent noir "Hollywoodland." Even in what seems to be his last role, as blind dwarf Muir in this summer's "Snow White And The Huntsman," he brough real dignity and gravitas to a film that didn't have much of either.
- Oliver Lyttelton, RP