Greatish Performances #38


#38 — Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)

Bob Hoskins had to invent an entirely new style of acting when he was recruited to play the lead in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The most obvious challenge Hoskins faced was interacting dynamically with beings that weren’t in place on set. Robert Zemeckis’s film imagined a classic Hollywood where humans and classically rendered cartoon characters lived together. Animated figures and human actors had certainly shared the screen before, but never in a manner that was meant to be particularly convincing. It was a gimmick, nothing more. That’s not what Zemeckis wanted, though. He wanted to bring a pliable yet compelling verisimilitude to the conceit.

Well before the advent of motion capture acting and the digital manipulations that make it possible, Hoskins was acting to tennis balls and other ad hoc contraptions to keep a physically consistent sight line. At best, he had Charles Fleischer, who voiced the hyperactive, conspired-against bunny of the title, sputtering lines just off set while adorned in an appropriately fluffy costume. Actors were already adjusting to a relatively new professional requirement to stare at some ominous something in the distance, knowing it was be added during the post-production phase. Ahead of the CGI revolution, sharing the screen with a whole cast of pending co-stars was unfamiliar terrain.

No matter how impressive the work of the animators or the efforts of other creative inventors to integrate the ink and paint with the flesh and blood, it was up to Hoskins to sell it. For the film to work, he needed to make the emotions and motivations in a highly fantastical environment feel completely, perfectly right. Importantly, that doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to make those elements feel real. And that speaks to the other components of the performance that are more elusively revolutionary and perhaps yet more impressive.

Hoskins hits a sliver of a sweet spot where realistic and cartoonish overlap, and does so while simultaneously offering the most loving and gentle spoofs of classic film noir private detectives. The performance is miraculously broad and grounded at once, in part because Hoskins seems to know he can push little mannerisms — especially the character’s defining gruffness — a little more robustly, knowing the popping, bounding crowd he’s within will make him look understated in comparison. It’s an invitation to indulgence, but Hoskins still keeps the performance in a precisely calibrated balance, making intricate adjustments depending on the moment and exactly which riotous rapscallion is sharing the screen.

Eventually, there would be a whole fleet of actors who could speak to similar experiences, shaped by the need to plaster every screen in the multiplex with superheroes, boy wizards, and other products of the wildest imaginings. There’s now a cohort that can offer mentoring in the strange art of acting against the future work of digital craftspeople. Three decades ago, Hoskins faced a untended landscape and simply got down to blazing a trail.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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