English actor Bob Hoskins died a few weeks ago at the age of 71. Short, balding, with a quirky tough-guy persona, he was one of the more unlikely candidates for stardom. To learn how he came to the fore as a film actor, just need look at a lot of his earlier work in British films. I would recommend starting with Mona Lisa, a 1986 drama directed by Neil Jordan.
Hoskins plays a petty criminal named George, a flunky who took the rap for his gangster boss and is now getting out of prison after seven years. He knows how to talk tough, but as the film goes on we realize that it’s a show he puts on, as much to convince himself as other people. When he shows up at his wife’s place with flowers, she slams the door in his face—not a very promising start. Eventually a crook played by Michael Caine, with the kind of arrogant callousness that only Michael Caine can pull off, mysteriously hires George to chauffeur his favorite call-girl around, a tall, wispy-thin black girl named Simone, and played by Cathy Tyson. Even though she’s a hooker, she’s embarrassed to be seen in the company of George, who has zero social graces and dresses like an outcast from the 1970s. Her clients are all upper class: bankers, government officials, Arab businessmen. George sticks out like a sore thumb, so she tries to give him some class, teach him how to talk differently, get a new wardrobe, be more presentable.
Meanwhile this pugnacious little guy, this loudmouth, is secretly horrified in a moralistic way by the whole word of prostitution, while at the same time gradually falling under the spell of this lovely young woman. After she enlists George to search for a close girl friend of hers, a junkie who’s gone missing, he winds up taking some pretty big risks trying to help her out. The plot doesn’t go where you might expect it to—the drama is mostly played out in the conflicting ideas inside George’s mind.
Neil Jordan is one of those directors whose films continue to explore similar aspects of a few central themes, and here we experience the viciousness and corruption of London’s West End in the 80s, but then—and here is the typical Neil Jordan touch—there is the sense of something beautiful and loving that is possible even in the midst of this cesspool.
Cathy Tyson, barely 20 at the time, has a quiet, touching presence that clashes nicely with some of the harsh things her character must do and say. But Bob Hoskins carries the film. There is a comic aspect to his performance—George’s exasperation is mostly due to his own unexamined assumptions about life—but he also conveys a core of emotional hurt at the center of his bewilderment. He got an Oscar nomination for the role. Mona Lisa is available on DVD.