Thursday 21 March 2019

The greatest Irish movie stars of all time

In Bruges, Gleeon and Farrell
In Bruges, Gleeon and Farrell
Irish actress Maureen O'Hara...circa 1947.
007 Pierce Brosnan
Maureen O'Hara
Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement

Derek O'Connor

From young bucks to feisty screen sirens, our small country is home to some of the most recognised faces in film history.

In an era when the movie business is all about superhero flicks and relentless CGI assaults, proper movie stars are an increasingly rare breed. No better time, then, to celebrate Ireland's greatest contribution to the silver screen: its leading men and women. Elephant in the corner time: this list is regrettably male-centric.

Truth be told, this says more about the gender imbalance that has informed Hollywood cinema since, well, forever. But we digress: this is a celebration! In no particular order, here are our favourite ever Irish movie stars representing us on the silver screen throughout the decades. Up ye boya!

Saoirse Ronan

Is it too soon to call Saoirse Ronan a screen goddess? This year already, she's been in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, had a cameo in a Muppet movie (now that's what we call screen immortality) and starred in Ryan Gosling's much-reviled directorial debut Lost River, a future cult classic in the making. Right now, she's shooting the screen adaptation of Colm Toibin's novel Brooklyn, having reportedly turned down a Marvel superhero gig. Oscar nominated at 13 (for Atonement), she just turned 20 - and she's only getting started.

Colin Farrell

At present, there are two Colin Farrells making movies. One is the perfectly adequate leading man collecting a tasty paycheck for turkeys like Total Recall and A New York Winter's Tale; the other is the edgy, unpredictable character actor stealing scenes in Horrible Bosses and Saving Mr. Banks.

It's fair to say that reformed character Col's heart lies in the indie world: he recently returned to Ireland for challenging roles in The Lobster and Miss Julie.

To say that it's been a wild ride would be an understatement; we eagerly anticipate a Robert Downey-esque renaissance in the none-too-distant future.

Maureen O'Hara

Now enjoying her tenth decade, and residing in Co Cork, life-long Shamrock Rovers supporter O'Hara will forever be remembered as the definitive feisty Irish screen beauty, and for her work with legendary director John Ford (who directed her in five pictures) and leading man John Wayne (who starred with her in five) - together, they gave us The Quiet Man.

Friends and family are petitioning for Ranelagh-born O'Hara to be given the Freedom Of Dublin City - the Technicolor Queen sure deserves the keys to the place, if anyone does.

Liam Neeson

At 62, the big man from Ballymena is a bigger star than ever, thanks to his unlikely transformation from well-regarded serious thespian to the screen's foremost bad-ass - you know that he could eat The Expendables (all of them) for breakfast.

Neeson's currently shooting (and punching, and kicking) the third movie in the Taken saga, and has just wrapped another thriller with his Unknown and Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra, entitled Run All Night.

He also has a neat sideline in comedy, rocking Anchorman 2 and The Lego Movie, and even walking away from laughter-vacuum A Million Ways In The West with his dignity intact. We wouldn't mess with him.

Richard Harris

They simply don't make them like Dickie Harris any more. Fact is, they never did. Limerickman Harris won a Best Oscar nomination in 1963 for his breakthrough role in This Sporting Life; he'd bag a second Best Actor nod a quarter-century later as The Bull McCabe in The Field.

In-between Harris tasted superstardom, unlikely pop success (with McArthur Park) and a fondness for wanton excess. In his latter years, he made peace with his demons, and played Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. Today, there are two statues of him, in Limerick and Kilkee

Kenneth Branagh

His name is rarely mentioned when it comes to Irish movie stars, but make no mistake, Belfast boy Kenny is one of our greats.

Raised in protestant North Belfast, Branagh's family moved to the UK when he was nine, whereupon he dropped his Irish accent to avoid being bullied at school - his acting breakthrough later came in a trio of BBC NI productions based on Graham Reid's Billy plays.

Five times Oscar-nominated (for directing, acting, and screenplay roles), Ken's been busy directing blockbusters like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Disney's forthcoming live-action Cinderella, but remains a formidable - and very welcome - big-screen presence, stealing scenes in everything from Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets to My Year With Marilyn.

No future history of Irish film will be complete without In Bruges, The Guard, and Calvary, a trio of films written and directed by the brothers McDonagh (Martin made the first, John the latter two) and starring their unlikely cinematic muse, the amiable man mountain once memorably described as ‘The Gaelic Depardieu’. A late bloomer who spent years as a secondary school teacher, Gleeson has portrayed Michael Collins, Winston Churchill, Martin Cahill and Mad-Eye Moody, and been directed by Scorsese, Spielberg and Scott (Ridley). He makes any movie better by sheer virtue of his considerable presence. And his sons lead the next wave of Irish leading men.

Barry Fitzgerald

In the 1940s, Dubliner Fitzgerald achieved a feat never again matched: he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role, starring alongside Bing Crosby in Going My Way (the rules were changed shortly thereafter), winning for the latter. One of the great character actors, William Shields (his real name) went from the civil service to the Abbey players to Hollywood — via John Ford’s film of his former roommate Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough And The Stars — and never looked back. He later, as legend has it, broke the head off his Oscar practising his golf swing.

Michael Fassbender

Having spent a decade putting in his dues as a jobbing actor (remember his Guinness ad?), the Kerry-German sensation broke through with roles in Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and really hasn’t put a foot wrong since. In artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen he’s found a trusted collaborator: they’ve since reunited for Shame and award magnet 12 Years A Slave, while Fassbender has a pair of up-market franchises to hand in X-Men and Prometheus (sequel due 2016), and a proposed film of hot videogame Assassin’s Creed, to boot. Fact: he’s still a star wearing a giant papier-mâché head. And wants to play Cú Chulainn. We’d buy a ticket.

Pierce Brosnan

It’s all too easy to take what Pierce Brosnan does for granted, possibly because he’s so damn good at being a Movie Star. The role of 007 casts a very long shadow, and Brosnan has handled life after Bond-age with considerable aplomb, mixing it up with a tangible glee, whether letting it all hang in a skimpy pair of swimming trunks (in The Matador) or fearlessly belting out an Abba tune despite being tone-deaf (in Mamma Mia, the highest grossing musical of all time). His recent cameo in The World’s End rocked, proving yet again that he’s more than capable of surprising audiences. And we’d definitely go to a Remington Steele movie.

Brenda Fricker

She’s announced her retirement, and has won plaudits for her no-nonsense attitude to life (plus its attendant struggles) and the business she left behind, but Brenda Fricker will always be remembered as the first Irish actress to land an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress, as Christy Browne’s mammy in My Left Foot. She followed that triumph with a spell in Hollywood, popping up in blockbusters like Home Alone 2 and A Time To Kill, and remained a fixture in Irish cinema as recently as 2011’s Albert Nobbs, which won her an IFTA nomination.

Cillian Murphy

Cork’s own movie star isn’t one for publicity. All that truly matters is the work, and over the past decade or so Murphy has impressed again, and again, from early breakthroughs in Intermission and 28 Days Later to supporting roles in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Then there are his two finest roles thus far; as a transvestite small-town misfit in Breakfast On Pluto, and an idealistic freedom fighter in The Wind That Shakes The Barley. He’ll break your heart in both.

Peter O'Toole

To some, Peter O’Toole never bettered his iconic Hollywood debut, in 1962’s Lawrence Of Arabia. They might be right: it’s pretty hard to top. That said, eight Oscar nominations for Best Actor (they eventually gave him an honorary one) suggest otherwise.

Sure, O’Toole gave old mucker Richard Harris a serious run for his money in the hell-raiser stakes, and starred in some right old rubbish, but upon those occasions when he truly clicked with a role, from A Lion In Winter to Pixar’s Ratatouille, make no mistake, he was the greatest.

Gabriel Byrne

He’s found a very comfortable groove in up-market TV of late (most recently in Quirke and Vikings), but Walkinstown Wonder Gaybo has shared the big screen with everybody from Schwarzenegger to Di Caprio, while starring in stone cold classics like The Usual Suspects and the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing.

Back in the 80s, he blazed a trail for the nascent Irish film industry, while co-producing key films like Into The West and In The Name Of The Father. Dare we say it — he’s still underrated as an actor. Respect is overdue.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

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