Saturday 25 February 2017

Born to be stars: who are our finest actors of all time?

We have a strong history in Hollywood, but who are our finest actors of all time?

PAUL WHITINGTON

Deadly talent: Saoirse Ronan wowed
as a young assassin in Hanna
Deadly talent: Saoirse Ronan wowed as a young assassin in Hanna

Michael Fassbender is one of Hollywood's hottest properties at the minute. He's also a supremely versatile actor. In the last year alone he's starred in the superhero hit X Men: First Class, played Mr Rochester in an acclaimed adaptation of Jane Eyre, pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, and a hopeless sex addict in Steve McQueen's Shame.

That last performance has earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and later this year he will star in Ridley Scott's Alien reboot Prometheus. Fassbender looks on the verge of an extraordinary career, and may become the most celebrated Irish actor yet. His success got me wondering about who were the finest Irish screen actors of all time.

In selecting them we have to be careful: Irish-American actors like James Cagney, Gene Kelly and Spencer Tracy do not qualify, otherwise Mr Tracy would be at the very top of my list. Neither do borderline cases like Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Peter O'Toole maintains he was born in Connemara but I'm not sure I believe him: anyway, he was raised and learnt his trade in England, and so doesn't make our team.

Those who do, however, are united by an excellence and intensity in front of the cameras that has made them famous far beyond these shores.

Barry Fitzgerald

Barry Fitzgerald could fairly lay claim to being Ireland's first movie star. Born William Joseph Shields in Dublin city in 1888, he joined the Abbey Theatre in its early days and made his name starring in the plays of Sean O'Casey.

In 1936, John Ford brought him to America to star in a film version of The Plough and the Stars. He soon become one of Hollywood's most respected character actors.

His roles ranged from the broadly comic to the sternly dramatic. He won an Oscar playing a priest in the Bing Crosby comedy Going My Way, but also starred in John Ford's multi-Oscar-winning 1941 drama How Green Was My Valley, and is probably best remembered for his eccentric portrayal of Michaleen Og Flynn in Ford's The Quiet Man.

Star appeal: With his twinkling eyes and tricky manner, he epitomised how Americans imagined the Irish.

Best film: He's marvellous as the excitable gardener Aloysius Gogarty in Howard Hawks's screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Private life: A Protestant from Dublin's south inner city, Fitzgerald returned from Hollywood in the late 1950s to spend his final years at home.

Memorable quote: "A golf course is nothing but a pool room moved outdoors."

Colin Farrell

Castleknock boy Colin James Farrell was plucked from obscurity by Joel Schumacher in the year 2000 and cast in the lead role in Tigerland. Set in a US army training camp in the 1960s, the film starred Farrell as a rebellious draftee who's opposed to the Vietnam War. The film made him an instant star at the age of 23.

He more than held his own opposite Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg's sci-fi drama Minority Report (2002), and teamed up with Schumacher again to star in the clever 2002 thriller Phone Booth.

Since then, Farrell's film choices have not always been inspired, and his colourful private life has tended to obscure his acting. But he has returned to his best recently in films like Crazy Heart and Ondine.

Star appeal: Rakish, charming and prettier than most women, Colin has a devoted army of female fans.

Best film: Showed he has a real gift for comedy playing the troubled hitman Ray in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges.

Private life: Life is rarely dull around Colin. He battled addiction, has two children with different women, and in 2006 was stalked by a sex worker.

Memorable quote: "Fame was something that seemed incredibly exotic -- but it eventually became one of those 'be careful what you wish for' things."Gabriel Byrne

Born in Crumlin in 1950, Gabriel Byrne worked as a history teacher before finally deciding to take up acting full time at 29. After working at the Focus and Abbey theatres, he starred in the RTÉ rural dramas The Riordans and Bracken before making a name for himself in British films like Gothic and Defence of the Realm.

He moved to New York in the late 1980s and was chosen by the Coen brothers to star in Miller's Crossing in 1990. Since then he's starred in everything from Little Women and Smilla's Sense of Snow to dark thrillers like Spider and Jindabyne. And he won a Golden Globe for his role in TV series In Treatment.

Star appeal: Unconventional good looks and an edgy authenticity.

Best film: Byrne excelled playing charismatic cop-turned-criminal Dean Keaton in Bryan Singer's 1995 thriller The Usual Suspects.

Private life: Has two sons with ex-wife Ellen Barkin.

Memorable quote: "All actors play themselves."

Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy has a uniquely charismatic screen presence and an impressive acting range. His terrifying portrayal of a teenage sociopath in Kirsten Sheridan's 2001 film Disco Pigs caught the eye of Danny Boyle, who cast Murphy in his hit sci-fi thriller, 28 Days Later.

This led to supporting roles in films like Intermission, Cold Mountain and Girl with a Pearl Earring, and he was a memorably convincing transvestite in Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto. But Murphy has proved a particularly effective villain.

He terrorised poor Rachel McAdams in Wes Craven's Red Eye, and plays a demented psychiatrist called Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan's Batman films.

Star appeal: Elfin looks, icy stare.

Best film: He was outstanding as a young medical student driven to join the IRA in Ken Loach's Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Private life: Married his longtime girlfriend Yvonne McGuinness in 2004, and has two sons.

Memorable quote: "Journalists have a myopic view of your personality -- they're like 'you only play the creep'."

Saoirse Ronan

She may be only 17 but Saoirse Ronan is one of the most talented film actors this country has produced. Born in New York but raised in Carlow, she began acting at a young age. In 2007, Joe Wright picked her to play the crucial role of Briony Tallis in Atonement. Her portrayal of a 13-year-old girl whose pubescent imaginings lead to tragedy, won her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

She was superb in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones as a teenager who gets murdered and looks on from heaven as her family try to cope, and stood out as a Polish wartime orphan on the run in Peter Weir's The Way Back. And last year, she played her most physically demanding role to date, as a young female assassin in Joe Wright's Hanna.

Star appeal: Ethereal looks, onscreen intensity.

Best film: Atonement.

Private life: Now 17, Ronan divides her time between Carlow and Hollywood

Memorable quote: "Be the person you're playing -- that's what acting is. You're pretending to be someone else."

Brendan Gleeson

Brendan Gleeson took to acting fairly late, and was in his mid-30s by the time he made his movie debut. But he's certainly made up for lost time since, and is now a hugely respected film actor whose credits include everything from action movies like Green Zone to the Harry Potter films.

He first got noticed playing the shy Lester in Stephen Frears's The Snapper, which earned him larger supporting roles in the likes of Braveheart and Michael Collins.

He won several awards for his turn as Martin Cahill in John Boorman's The General. In the early 2000s, he worked with Martin Scorsese on Gangs of New York, and with Anthony Minghella on Cold Mountain.

But his best performances have come in recent years, as the philosophical hitman Ken in In Bruges, and as a wily rural police sergeant in The Guard.

Star appeal: Imposing physique, impressive range.

Best film: Was terrific as the philosophical killer Ken in In Bruges.

Private life: Sons Domhnall and Brian are both up-and-coming actors.

Memorable quote: "I tend to look for interesting parts; you try and turn down the dross for as long as you can, until you get lucky..."

Richard Harris

Richard Harris was probably the biggest Irish film star of them all. Born and raised in Limerick city, Harris arrived in London in the early 1950s and got his breakthrough in a stage adaptation of JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man.

After a scene-stealing appearance in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Hollywood called, and and he spent much of the 1960s and 70s earning a crust in mindless war films and westerns. But he returned to form in the last decade of his life, in films like Gladiator and Unforgiven.

Star appeal: Roguish charm, raw charisma.

Best film: Was outstanding in This Sporting Life (1963), playing an embittered rugby league player.

Private life: Was one of the 1960s' hellraisers, and a drinking buddy of Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.

Memorable quote: "If I was ever miscast in my life, it was in the role of husband. I was the worst husband in the world."

pwhitington@independent.ie

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