Herewith, a first-person account of how Bob Hoskins -- by traditional reckoning too short and broad, too ill-educated and much too Cockney to be a Proper British Actor -- won this year's best actor honors at Cannes, for his portrayal of a hood with a heart in "Mona Lisa."
It was, Hoskins marvels, "amizing."
The film got a prolonged standing ovation from the tough Cannes crowd, and its producers suspected it might take an award or two. But Hoskins, despite the pleasures of the Riviera, was growing anxious about his two children back home in North London.
"Me and Linda, it was the first time we'd been away from the kids," he relates. Here on a brief bicoastal tour, he is lying on the brocade couch in his hotel room, feeling the ill effects of jet lag and the cheese-and-pickle sandwich he had for lunch. "They're only 3 and 1. So we thought, we'll go back. They said, if you've won anything we'll know by Sunday . . .
"Two o'clock Sunday, I was in the garden with the kids, doin' a bit of weedin'." He talks that way. "They phoned up and said, 'You've won best actor; you'd better get down here.'
"I said, 'What do you think I am, a expletive pigeon? 'Ow the expletive am I going to get there?' Me and Linda go out to Heathrow, change into evening clothes on the plane, fly to Nice airport. They had a racing driver in the car and two cops on motorcycles . . . We got goin' at a fair whack. This guy must have been going 120 miles an hour."
Arriving at the awards ceremony, Hoskins learned that the best actor award -- he'las -- had already been announced. "Too late." He shakes his head. "Some woman comes up and says, 'Here's your prize.' I say, 'Oh. Yeah. What now?' "
But while he was standing awkwardly backstage, director Sydney Pollack spied him, grabbed him and brought him out before the audience.
"Turns out they'd been making announcements all along:
" 'Bob Hoskins is on his way!'
" 'Bob Hoskins is in France!'
" 'Bob Hoskins is in Cannes!'
" 'Bob Hoskins!'
"Very dramatic. A big cheer went up -- ''e's here!' And that little French fellow Michel Blanc star of "Tenue de Soiree" -- I shared the prize with him -- we're both small. Two little baldies standin' there, the best actors . . .
"It was just amizing."
Postscript: Hoskins' victory was front-page news in Britain, where he's well known for theater and television roles. Shortly afterward, "I was walkin' in London and a John Cleese-type, obviously in the diplomatic corps or something, grabs onto my hand and says" -- here Hoskins assumes Gielgudian tones, though he normally sounds like Eliza Doolittle before Henry Higgins taught her about the rain in Spain -- " 'I would like to say on behalf of myself, and probably the entire country, how terribly proud we are. Well done.'
"I nearly burst into tears," Hoskins concludes cheerfully.
Hoskins has any number of reasons for teary pride these days. "Mona Lisa," which opens today in Washington, is just one. Its director, Irish poet and novelist Neil Jordan (backed by George Harrison's HandMade Films), cowrote the script specifically for Hoskins. He plays George, a foot soldier of the London underworld whose mingled violence and romanticism lead him on doomed, chivalrous quests on behalf of the elegant prostitute he's assigned to chauffeur.
No Proper British Actor, Jordan thought, could do justice to the role. "The current style of English acting is suppressed emotion," Jordan says with polite disdain. "Think of Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Pryce, Alec Guinness. Clipped understatement, isn't it? Bob is the opposite of that . . . He's got extraordinary emotional power and presence."
American critics have echoed the Cannes verdict: Newsweek called Hoskins' performance "ferociously good"; New York magazine's David Denby deemed him "an actor who is loved by the camera -- loved, that is, the way Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney were loved -- as a possibility of honor and courage." Hoskins has had ardent reviews before, as a brutal but somehow sympathetic gangster in "The Long Good Friday" and, in British theater, as "the sleazebag" brother in Sam Shepard's "True West" and Nathan Detroit (singing like "a melodic foghorn," he says) in the National Theatre's "Guys and Dolls." But the actor himself thinks his work in "Mona Lisa" is remarkable. "I think George is the best thing I've ever done," he says.
Herewith, an explanation of why such accolades are particularly sweet, by Bob Hoskins.
"It used to be, quite a few years ago, if you spoke like me, you wouldn't stand a chance in the theater . . . When I started, they said, 'You've got to learn de-port-ment' " -- he is back to Oxbridge tones -- " 'take e-lo-cu-tion.' I thought, 'ang on a moment. I'm going to learn how to talk like I don't? I'm going to learn to be what I'm not? Who the expletive am I going to be at the end of this? I'll stick with what I've got."
He was a working-class North Londoner -- his "mum" was a nursery school teacher, his father a bookkeeper -- who'd held a succession of unengaging jobs, studied to be an accountant ("I hited it"), and one day happened to be at a King's Cross pub where auditions for an amateur theater production were under way. "A guy came up and said, 'You're next.' I was just drunk enough to go up and do it . . . The first night an agent came and said, 'You ought to do this professionally.' I said, 'Get me a job and I will.' I've never stopped since."
Along the way he has learned to sound upper class when necessary ("I've done quite a bit of Shikespeare") and even to sound American when necessary (he played the owner of the Cotton Club in Coppola's movie and a crazed screen writer in "Sweet Liberty"). But most of the time he sounds the way he grew up sounding.
Postscript: Cockney speech is becoming one of those characteristics that's so out it's in. "When I was at the National doing 'Guys and Dolls,' a fellow turned up, upper crust, and said, 'I'd like to employ you' " -- Hoskins makes the fellow sound like a member of the House of Lords -- " 'I'd like you to coach me, so I can talk like you. Actually, I'm frightfully hip, but nobody takes me seriously talking like this.' " Hoskins, with his usual unprintable interjections, graciously advised the chap that he thought such affectations unnecessary, "since you are so frightfully hip." He still chuckles about the encounter.sk
So Hoskins is having a go, as he puts it. He's 43 and not squeamish about admitting it because "it's not going to make a lot of difference, is it, lookin' like this?" (Herewith, Bob Hoskins' self-description: "Face like a squashed cabbage, bullet between the shoulders, a 5-foot-6 cube.") He's married to a teacher and totes his family, including little Rose and Jack, with him to movie locations. Come spring he'll direct his first film, based on an old gypsy legend, from a script he wrote. HandMade films is bankrolling; Hoskins will probably star because "the kind of budget we've got, we can't afford to pay any actors."
But writing, directing and starring in his own film, as nice a prospect as it is, is not Hoskins' ultimate desire. Nor is winning at Cannes or playing Hamlet. Herewith, Bob Hoskins' dream role: Fungus the Bogeyman, star of a picture book he reads to his kids and "a longstanding hero of mine . . . He's a bogeyman" -- pronounced in English English BOH-gey-man -- "who's beginning to think it's rather pointless. He wonders if it's all worthwhile."
Fungus, Hoskins reports, has a strip of red hair, is covered with grime and loves dampness. He's the creation of writer Raymond Briggs, whom Hoskins has come to know, and there's a possibility Hoskins may actually get this fondest of wishes, especially if "Mona Lisa" is the moneymaker it seems on its way to becoming.
"He's all the things kids are really interested in: snot, slime, foul smells," Hoskins says of Fungus. "And I'm the only actor in the world who has 'is ears.