Personalities

Anthony Hopkins: Oscar-winning dementia role cements legacy of greatness

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LOS ANGELES: Anthony Hopkins has spent a glittering career exploring the full depths of human experience, whether playing the sadistic Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” or a frail and frightened dementia sufferer in “The Father”.

But long before making the transition from psychopathic cannibal to a weakened man facing his own death, the Welsh-born naturalised American had earned his place in acting’s halls of fame with decades of stage and screen performances.

“I keep it simple. Just learn the lines and show up,” was how the 83-year-old described his method of acting, preferring to endlessly go over his script so he could “do it without thinking”.

On Sunday, he added another shiny award to his trophy case — his second Oscar for best actor. Hopkins was not present in Los Angeles or at a separate London venue to accept the golden statuette.

But with it, he became the oldest actor in Oscars history to win a competitive award, surpassing the late Christopher Plummer, who won at age 82. Born on December 31, 1937 in Port Talbot, South Wales, Hopkins has played hundreds of roles, from Adolf Hitler to Richard Nixon, Pablo Picasso, Quasimodo, and Richard the Lionheart to Macbeth, King Lear and Prospero in “The Tempest”.

An only child born to a family of bakers, Hopkins showed little of his later brilliance at school — he described himself as a “slow” learner — and found confidence only in playing the piano.

DRANK ‘INTO THE GUTTER’

When he was 15, Hopkins had an encounter that would change his life — a meeting with the actor Richard Burton, who was also born in Port Talbot and had returned to the town for some filming.

Hopkins was entranced and, summoning up his courage to ask the legendary star for a photograph, he decided an acting life would enable him to escape both his home life and personal solitude.

Yet he later said it was partly this solitude and introspection — and for years, a battle with alcohol that saw him drink himself “almost into the gutter” — that helped him produce some of his best work.

Hopkins studied at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and after a time in repertory theatre, joined the National Theatre Company, working under its lead star, Laurence Olivier.

While continuing his stage work, he made his film debut as King Richard I in “The Lion in Winter” (1968), alongside Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. A steady stream of film and television work followed, and in 1974 he decided to try his luck in the United States, where he stayed for 10 years.

The 1970s did not provide any great breakthroughs, although he did appear in “The Elephant Man” (1980) with John Hurt and John Gielgud, which was nominated for eight Oscars.

He finally cracked the US market, winning an Oscar and critical acclaim — as well as terrifying a whole generation of cinema-goers — as Lecter, the fine art and classical music-loving cannibal in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

ROYAL RECOGNITION

The film — to which he returned 10 years later with the sequel “Hannibal” and prequel “Red Dragon” (2002) — was followed by a series of successes. Hopkins was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993, the same year in which he played the buttoned-up butler Stevens in “The Remains of the Day”, for which he earned an Oscar nod.

He was nominated again for a towering performance in the title role of “Nixon” (1995). Another nomination came for “Amistad” (1997), while he won a Bafta for playing C.S. Lewis in Richard Attenborough’s “Shadowlands”.

His fifth Oscar nomination came in 2020 for his portrayal of Benedict XVI in “The Two Popes”, starring alongside Jonathan Pryce.

And then he made “The Father”, a film that melds the thriller and horror genres to take viewers on a disorientating journey inside his character’s fast-slipping mind. Hopkins’ performance won him a Bafta this month as the best male leading actor.

“He is very known for parts where he is always in control of everything,” said the film’s director Florian Zeller, who won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

“I thought that it would be powerful to see that very same person now starting to lose control… in a way, to let go of what we know about him, this Hannibal Lecter face,” he added, calling the actor the “master of subtext”. “It’s like magic in a way…. We were all crying on set.”

In later life, Hopkins has turned his attention to other arts, taking up painting and adapting his musical talent to composing.

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