It was with a niggling scepticism that I read yesterday that the big man from Ballymena had topped a Sky Movies’ St. Patrick’s Day poll to find the viewing public’s favourite Irish actor.
Winning a fifth of all the votes cast, Neeson had easily bagged first place on a list that included Lawrence of Arabia’s Peter O’Toole, In Bruges’ Colin Farrell, and Harry Potter duo Richard Harris and Brendan Gleeson, while critically-lauded stars Michael Fassbender and Saoirse Ronan had failed to even make the line-up.
Seeing those words in print causes my inner film snob to flare up, to wince at the thought of Neeson’s leaden presence in countless Hollywood blockbusters. As far as I am concerned, he always seems just to stand there, albeit taking up considerable space on the screen, his drawling monotone voice unable to fasten itself around the phonemes and diphthongs of any other accent than his own – which is so gravelly it may as well be lining the driveway of an Antrim bungalow.
Bemused, I sat wondering just how Neeson could have struck such a cord with movie fans across the British Isles to such a comfortable victory. In my opinion, compared to his acting peers, this tall thespian comes up somewhat short.
He doesn’t have the dramatic gravitas of a Peter O’Toole, whose regal blue-eyed stare, framed by a keffiyeh and the timeless expanse of the Arabian sands, has become an abiding icon of cinematic history. Nor is he as charming as a Colin Farrell, the loveable rogue whose genuine talent and considerable comic timing is often forgotten behind tattletale tabloid headlines and an ill-advised sex tape. I’d even go so far as saying that Neeson’s not as gifted a character actor as a Brendan Gleeson, or even any number of Cillian Murphys, Stephen Reas, Fiona Shaws or David Kellys.
Seriously, Liam Neeson, Ireland’s greatest? Isn’t there a couple of Cusacks to choose from? Or Daniel Day-Lewis? All right, he sounds like the plummy public schoolboy son of a British Poet Laureate, but he does at least have an Irish passport, and is the plummy public schoolboy son of a British Poet Laureate.
With increasing incredulity I decided to Google Neeson, to fully flesh out my knowledge of the man and his cinematic metier, in an effort to comprehend just what everyone else sees, but which eludes my notice. And frankly, I think I may be mistaken.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still not convinced that he’s a particularly gifted actor. He lumbers through movies, phoning it in or banking on his sizeable bulk to give him the necessary presence. As Oskar Schindler, Michael Collins or Alfred Kinsey, when he was good, he was very very good. But when he was bad – The Haunting, Darkman, Clash of the Titans – he was boring.
But the Sky Movies’ poll was to find Ireland’s greatest movie star, not the most technically capable or dramatically proficient. In a Hollywood career that is longer than my conscious movie-going life, Neeson has duly earned that title, Ireland’s greatest movie star, thanks to a back catalogue of work with some of the most influential filmmakers of all time.
You name it, chances are Neeson’s been in it. A Jedi knight, the leonine voice of Jesus, a Miyazaki animation, a bread thief in revolutionary France. An old west cowboy, a transvestite’s priest, he’s even mentored Batman and fought in the Crusades. He’s helped define the city of New York, leading Scorsese’s gangs, meddling with Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives and has even hosted Saturday Night Live. He’s recited the alphabet on Sesame Street and converted Bart Simpson to Catholicism. He loves it when a plan comes together, but if you attempt to sell his daughter into sexual slavery, he’ll hunt you down, and kill you.
So whether or not you regard Liam Neeson as Ireland’s best actor is somewhat irrelevant, because his prolific career clearly defines him as the greatest.