Profile: Anthony Hopkins - A wild man at heart

What has happened to the great actor who created Hannibal Lecter? Last week he took to the Welsh hills in a big way. David Thomson thinks it's a good sign

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GIVING ANTHONY HOPKINS an Oscar and putting a "sir" in front of his name was never going to tame his demons. After all, he is past 60 now, he has had several years of the glory, celebrity and wealth he used to insist was all he was after. He has had many more years of doing without the beast - drink - that drove him beyond most brinks recognised in Port Talbot, and that nearly killed him, 15 years or so before Hannibal Lecter dreamt of Chianti. And when a man is given what he says he wants, and when he denies himself the thing that his soul craves - well, by 60 or so, if he's strong enough to be alive still, you may expect odd, impulsive behaviour.

I see great hope and some cracking in the rocks that last week Sir Anthony Hopkins, the redeemed child of Port Talbot, pledged pounds 1m to the Save Snowdon Campaign. "Snowdonia is one of the most beautiful places in the world," he said, "and Snowdon is the jewel that lies at its heart." I have no doubts about that claim; I rejoice in the generosity and the momentum it may spur; and I am touched by the reawakening of Welshness in the man. But I am more encouraged still to think that maybe this great actor in the English language (he doesn't speak Welsh) is stirring again, is torn, troubled and emotional, and that he might be thinking of work that is equal to his talents.

In the same week, in America, his new film, The Mask of Zorro, pushed its box-office earnings over $70m. It's a jolly, smart film well directed by Martin Campbell, in which the real Zorro is Antonio Banderas and the true star Catherine Zeta Jones. Hopkins plays the old Zorro, Antonio's father. He narrowly survives a dire wig, makes a few sporting gestures with a rapier, generally disdains ze Spanish axent used by other cast members, and spreads his lordliness around, as if it were port after a good dinner. This is the kind of movie work Olivier did in his last decade or so - and there are moments when Hopkins's pale, faraway gaze might be conjuring up Snowdonia, or murmuring, "What am I doing here, boy?".

It's a good question, for in the years since the unequivocal breakthrough and stardom of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, Hopkins in America has been a figure of increasing concern. He did Freejack (mercifully forgotten); he was Val Helsing in Francis Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (an idiotic frenzy); he tried to be a patriach in Legends of the Fall; he pretended to be the inventor of corn flakes, Kellogg, in The Road to Wellville; he lost every round in the 115-round points decision on Nixon, in which he was so inventive and hard-working that the crowd begged for the towel to be thrown in; he was Pablo in the very questionably titled Surviving Picasso; he was thick-sliced ham in Amistad and he was troubled by the camera-hungry boar in The Edge.

Granted, there's a lot of opinion in the paragraph above. He was nominated for Amistad and Nixon. But Olivier was nominated for Marathon Man as was Alec Guinness for Star Wars. Nixon had its admirers, but to me the human ordeal of that part, the flop-sweat of the photographed face, was always that of a great actor who knew he couldn't get or match one of the most famous TV voices and faces of our time. And I'd guess the defeat meant a lot to Hopkins, because on the face of it this was the only worthwhile role in the list above.

In the same years, however, working in England, he was Wilcox in Howards End, the butler in Remains of the Day and C S Lewis in Shadowlands. If not one of those three was a masterpiece, and if the latter two compelled Hopkins to be restrained, if not repressed, still they were decent pictures in which he faced and met a real challenge. They are the recent films that remind us of his greatness. And greatness in an actor has to be allowed to breathe; if not, it may do as much damage as drink, or the self-loathing that drink seeks to hide.

Hopkins has always had very mixed feelings about acting and greatness. By his own account he was rescued from a grim, glum and forlorn Welsh youth by the sight of Richard Burton in a limousine. That's what I want, said Hopkins. Yet, on another occasion, when David Hare noticed all the women at the stage door after Pravda and asked "Why don't you cash in?", Hopkins said, "Oh, no, no. Get into that and you get into emotion. I don't want any of that." It's an extraordinary line that leaves one wondering about so many things.

Is great acting rooted in the fear of real emotions? Is Hopkins an inward romantic and sensualist, frightened of letting go? Does he believe he is not attractive? Has he deliberately become scold and scourge to his own talent? In fact, there is no need to think of him as just a monk. He was once a very wild guy - and he may have become terrified of that monster. There has been talk lately that his eye has wandered beyond the second wife who has done so much to sustain his career. After all, he has the voice and blue eyes of a great lover - Lecter didn't even need to touch Clarice.

He had big moments on the London stage - Antony, Lear, Pravda and M Butterfly - yet he has publicly despaired of stage work, national theatres and that British tradition, despite the fact that he was once an Olivier favourite, having challenged the master in his audition with scenes from Othello. Over the years, too, Hopkins has done some remarkable work on television - Pierre in War and Peace; Bruno Hauptmann in The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case; the great actor, Kean; Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Guy Burgess in Blunt.

It's a strange career, untidy, absent-minded, inexplicable - for instance, he was brilliant for Attenborough in Magic, years ago, but hopeless and silly in the same man's Chaplin. But think of the range - from the butler to Lambert Le Roux in Pravda, from Hannibal Lecter to John Quincy Adams. It's as if in the same body there were the conflicting urges of Charles Laughton and Alec Guinness. So why seek to settle the confusion, you may ask, by picking on his Snowdonia generosity?

Well, in part because it may show some urge to be reconciled with Wales and Britain. Hopkins is not the only great actor who has needed to shrug off humble origins or a feeling of British social inferiority. Still, he has found no greater satisfaction or peace in Los Angeles. He could work in Hollywood all his days, and he might easily pick up a couple of supporting actor Oscars playing fruity villains or urbane British scoundrels. He might become so secure he went back on the bottle.

On the other hand, Sir Anthony Hopkins is neither too old nor, it seems, too uncertain in health to take on Uncle Vanya (he has directed a small film, August, based on the Chekhov play), The Tempest, John Gabriel Borkman, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Entertainer, Falstaff, or so many others, and to be a central figure in a few worthwhile English films. Is the gesture to Snowdonia a sign of that thinking? Is it possible that somewhere along the way he bumped into Kevin Spacey who told him the amazing story of the small theatre in Islington, north London, where he was able to do The Iceman Cometh.

There are English actors who died in California, or thereabouts, as "successes" (and failures in their own mind) - Laughton, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, even, to say nothing of Burton. And there are younger English actors - Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, say - who for their own good might be barred from entering into the US. None, I think, has done Hollywood and come back to greater things. The challenge would be not just in the work, but behind the bleak distant gaze. But Hopkins is so good I would give him a chance - if he's thinking of mountainous tasks.

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