One of the greatest joys of moving from Akron, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., in 1980 was the ready access to foreign and indie movies--movies that wouldn't necessarily reach Midwestern multiplexes. (Note to younger readers: this was LONG before streaming, DVDs or even VHS.) One of the very first foreign movies I saw in Washington was a then-new British gangster film, "The Long Good Friday." I knew Helen Mirren, the film's leading actress, from a couple of Masterpiece Theatre productions, but the lead actor, Bob Hoskins, was totally unknown to me.
By the time I finished watching the movie, Hoskins had become one of my favorite actors. I had never seen any actor quite like him before: squat, bullet-headed, with an accent that made Bill Sikes sound posh, Hoskins projected an overwhelming, terrifying power as Harold Shand, a London crime boss who suddenly finds his organization attacked by persons unknown. But along with that was a vulnerability that was strangely coherent with the more brutal side of his character. Harold could tenderly embrace his mistress Victoria (Mirren) in one scene, then cut a man to pieces with a broken bottle shortly after. The only remotely comparable performances before that, at least in my experience, was James Cagney in "Public Enemy" and "White Heat." (I woiuldn't be at all surprised if James Gandolfini watched "The Long Good Friday" a few times before playing Tony Soprano.)
For weeks after seeing "The Long Good Friday," I annoyed friends and family with my imitations of Hoskins' Cockney accent, delivering some of Harold's best lines"
"Lads--try to be discreet, eh?"
"The only decent grass is the grass that grasses to me!"
"Poor Mother--she went to church to say her prayers, not to get blown up!"
Though Bob Hoskins had more famous roles--including his Oscar-nominated, Cannes-winning performance in "Mona Lisa" and his delightful clowning opposite Roger Rabbit--"The Long Good Friday" was for me his masterpiece, indeed one of the greatest performances ever recorded on film. His final scene in that movie--in which, finally cornered by his enemies, he seems to go through the seven stages of grief in less than two minutes--deserves to be screened forever in every acting class in the world. It is pleasant to think of this performance as the accomplishment of a kind and genial man, universally beloved by his colleagues, who loved life and lived it to the fullest. It is unbearably sad that his life ended far too soon.