Monday, January 3, 2011

Pete Postlethwaite, 1946-2011

Like all mourning film fans, I awoke this morning to the terrible news of Pete Postlethwaite's passing.One of my favorite character actors, Postlethwaite will leave a hole that cannot be filled by any ordinary "that guy."

One of the great character actors, Postlethwaite carries a particular resonance in my life, as he was the first supporting player I ever noticed. When I was 7, I watched Dragonheart with a friend, not a film that set my wee mind ablaze even at such a young age, I nevertheless enjoyed but, more than the dragon or any of the action, I was mesmerized by this goofy side character, Brother Gilbert, a monk and aspiring poet who turned up at the oddest times and had the best lines. To this day, I remember giggling like the little brat I was when, during the climactic action scene, Gilbert secreted himself up a tree with a bow and arrow, inadvertently shot a man in the ass and said with hilariously focused glee, "Turn the other cheek, brother!" I was hooked. Who was this loon?

Since then, I've been delighted by him at nearly every turn, no matter how brief his appearances. He recently lit up an already strong cast in The Town with but two scenes that transcended the cops vs. robbers plot to show what real evil looks like. I didn't notice him at first in Inception, playing the dying but still disapproving billionaire father of Cillian Murphy's heir to the corporate throne, but when I did I got the same wash of elation I do whenever I recognized him in a movie.

It was part of the reason I never actively looked for his movies, never surfed IMDb to fill the gaps in the Postlethwaite canon, if you could call a series of roles that usually amounted to no more than a few lines of dialogue and one or two scenes each a "canon." I preferred to meet him as an old friend, randomly running into him on the street, thus preserving that constant delight I got from seeing him. Every time I got to see how he was doing, to briefly exchange pleasantries and move on to a day that suddenly seemed brighter.

Postlethwaite had "unconventional looks," though it's funny how the vast majority of people who have appeared in films since the medium's inception have not lined up with "conventional" beauty. He emerged looking fatherly, as if this man never existed as a youth but simply sprang up from the ground ready to look after children of his own. That paternal charm was double-edged: to take his two most prominent film roles, both of which were fathers, look at the difference between the man in In the Name of the Father and the tyrant of Distant Voices, Still Lives. In the former, he wants to help his son stay out of trouble, only to be used as leverage by outside for condemning the boy. In Terence Davies' anti-nostalgic poem, he captures the vicious, domineering, frightful side of patriarchy, a man who is violent and monstrous yet all the more terrifying before being raggedly, recognizably human. When he pauses while decorating the house for Christmas, a moment that occurs just before and after examples of his horrid abuse, his moment of gentle love, a touch that may have seemed a scripted, hollow moment in any other actor's hands becomes psychological and real.

That was his specialty: no part, no matter how small and even stilted, didn't leap off the page when he embodied it. Take his part as the hunter, Roland, in Steven Spielberg's misguided Jurassic Park sequel: The Lost World: he has killed beasts of all kinds and casually mounted some of the last of endangered species in a parlor, but when he sees the corporatization of animal herding, a cynical amalgamation of breeding and spectacle that outstrips even the most corrupt and abusive zoo, he blanches. It is a moment that makes no sense, the idea of a hunter suddenly leaving behind his ways when the only change in his usual ways is a matter of scale, but the look of utter disgust in his eyes, the dawning self-loathing that accompanies his friend's meaningless death and the capitalistic monetization of a primal impulse makes you feel the wrongness of what happens in that movie far more than Spielberg's overly suggestive camerawork and the speechifying of the good guys.

I'd follow Postlethwaite anywhere, always placing my trust in him but reserving enough wariness to expect his intensity. Sheila O'Malley already has a piece up on the actor that focuses on his devilish scene in The Town, where he sadistically and theatrically carves the thorns off roses while laying out why and how Ben Affleck's character will continue to work for him. It is a keenly acted piece, each thrust of the knife down the stem a punctuation to the mounting horror of his monologue. It's also a clever visualization of what Fergie is actually saying, his pruning of the rose matching up eerily to his descriptions of what he did to Doug's mother and what he'll do to his girlfriend if the disillusioned robber does not carry out his missions. The scene fits perfectly into Affleck's genre mash-up, a deliciously vile and exaggerated moment that taps into the character as totally as Jeremy Renner's own psychological development of his sociopath.

To say that I will miss Postlethwaite is an understatement. I would have loved to see his King Lear on the stage -- I cannot imagine an actor better suited for the role -- and to be left with a series of cameos seems unfitting for a talent that huge. But those performances still exist, some of which I've yet to discover, and I can still stumble upon his work with that same elation that I felt before when his sharp, foreboding but faintly kind face appeared on the screen. Steven Spielberg called him the best actor in the world, to which Pete responded in characteristically British fashion, "I'm sure what Spielberg actually said was, 'The thing about Pete is that he thinks he's the best actor in the world.'" But I have to side with Spielberg: even among the finest of character actors, few could do as much with as little as Pete Postlethwaite. May he rest in peace.

1 comment:

  1. That was lovely.

    I feel exactly the same way, though my first memory of him was as Guiseppe from In the Name of the Father. As good as Daniel Day Lewis was, it is Pete Postlethwaite who I will always remember from the movie. His performance affected me in a huge way, overshadowing many other performances by supporting actors since then.

    His craggy yet beautiful Dickensian face and working class voice were so distinctive, I don't know how I could have missed him in some of the movies he was in, and yet, I did sometimes. Postlethwaite seems to have been a modest man, working to benefit the movie itself rather than doing any grandstanding. It's a shame we will miss out on so many great characters, the future roles he would have inhabited and invested with rough magic.