Saturday 20 January 2018

The Irish who have made it in Hollywood

In contention: Fassbender has been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Steve Jobs.
In contention: Fassbender has been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Steve Jobs.

The 88th Oscars are just two weeks away, and before an award is ever presented, we know it's going to be a special year for the Irish. A record nine nominations have been awarded to Irish films and talent, including Best Picture nods for Brooklyn and Room, and a best director nod for Lenny Abrahamson.

In addition, this is the first time ever that Irish performers have been nominated in both the Best Actor and Actress categories in the same year. And while I don't think either Saoirse Ronan or Michael Fassbender are likely to win Oscars on February 28, it's probably only a matter of time before both of them ultimately do.

They are without doubt two of the greatest we've ever produced, and join my list of the best Irish film actors of all time. I haven't, though I would have loved to, included Peter O'Toole, because his connection with this country was more spiritual than actual in the end. Similarly, Hollywood legends like James Gagney and Spencer Tracy are Irish-American rather than Irish. But Ireland's relationship with Hollywood begins with Barry Fitzgerald.

Born William Joseph Shields in Dublin in 1888, Fitzgerald could fairly lay claim to being Ireland's first movie star. He joined 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 O'Casey The Plough and the Stars, and he quickly become one of Hollywood's most respected character actors.

With his twinkling eyes and tricky manner, he epitomised how Americans imagined the Irish, and 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 is probably best remembered for his eccentric portrayal of Michaleen Og Flynn in Ford's Quiet Man. I liked him best, though, playing the excitable gardener Aloysius Gogarty in Howard Hawks' 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby.

Peter O'Toole might not have been Irish in the strictest sense, but his drinking buddy Richard Harris certainly was. Born and raised in Limerick City, Harris arrived in London in the early 1950s determined to make his name as an actor: big, robust and full of raw energy, he quickly made his mark in in a stage adaptation of JP Donleavy's Ginger Man.

After a scene-stealing appearance in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Hollywood came calling, and Harris spent much of the 1960s and 1970s living it up and earning a crust in mindless war films and westerns. But he returned to form in the last decade of his life, in films like Ridley Scott's Gladiator and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. His best performance of all, though, was in Lindsay Anderson's 1963 kitchen sink drama This Sporting Life, playing an embittered rugby league player

Gabriel Byrne is a quieter, calmer, more thoughtful kind of actor, and his rise to stardom was all the more remarkable given that he started his career in an Irish soap opera. Born in Crumlin in 1950, Byrne worked as a history teacher before deciding to take up acting full-time at 29. After working at the Focus and Abbey theatres, he became a national heartthrob in the RTE rural dramas The Riordans and Bracken before making a name for himself in British films like Defence of the Realm.

He moved to New York in the late 1980s, and was chosen by the Coen brothers to head the cast of their 1990 gangster thriller Miller's Crossing. Since then, he's starred in everything from Little Women and Smilla's Sense of Snow to dark thrillers like Spider and Jindabyne. He won a Golden Globe playing a put-upon shrink in the TV series In Treatment, but I liked him best playing the charismatic criminal Dean Keaton in Bryan Singer's 1995 thriller The Usual Suspects.

Stephen Rea first showcased his unusual talents in the films of Neil Jordan. He was a jobbing theatre actor when Jordan cast him as a sensitive IRA man in his hit 1992 drama The Crying Game. Fergus is on the run in London after a botched kidnapping when he meets the girlfriend of a British soldier he helped abduct. This girl is actually transgender, but Fergus falls for her anyway.

His nervy turn as the reluctant terrorist earned Rea an Oscar nomination. He's worked with Jordan many times since, in films like The Butcher Boy and Interview with the Vampire, and in 1996 co-starred in Michael Collins with another charismatic northerner, Liam Neeson.

Neeson, too, started his career in the theatre, first at Belfast's Lyric, then at the Abbey. A small role in John Boorman's Excalibur (1980) brought him some recognition, but success was not instant and for most of the 1980s he had to content himself with minor parts in films like The Mission and The Bounty.

He was 40 by the time Steven Spielberg came to see him in a Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. The director was impressed by Neeson's presence, and offered him the lead role in his Oscar-winning 1993 epic Schindler's List.

He was excellent as Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten-German ladies' man who becomes an unlikely hero during the Holocaust, and starring roles in films like Rob Roy, Michael Collins and K-19: The Widowmaker followed. And in recent years Liam has reinvented himself as a grizzled action hero in the Taken trilogy and other movies.

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 character actor whose credits include everything from action blockbusters like In the Heart of the Sea to the Harry Potter films.

He first got noticed playing the painfully shy Lester in Stephen Frears' The Snapper, which led to larger supporting roles in Braveheart and Michael Collins. He won several awards for his turn as Martin Cahill in John Boorman's The General, and in the early 2000s he worked with Martin Scorsese on Gangs of New York. But his best performances have come in recent years through his collaborations with the McDonagh brothers in films like In Bruges, Calvary and The Guard.

With his slender frame and piercing blue eyes, Cillian Murphy has a uniquely charismatic screen presence and an impressive range. His terrifying portrayal of a sociopath in Kirsten Sheridan's 2001 film adaptation of Enda Walsh's play Disco Pigs caught the eye of Danny Boyle, who cast Murphy in 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, and is eerily convincing as the demented psychiatrist Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan's Batman films.

Castleknock boy Colin James Farrell was plucked from obscurity by Joel Schumacher in the year 2000 and cast in the lead role in Tigerland, playing a rebellious 1960s 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 sometimes obscured his acting. But he's an innately gifted film actor, and has returned to his best in recent times in films like Crazy Heart, Ondine, Saving Mr Banks and The Lobster.

The relentlessly macho nature of this list may be depressing, but accurately reflects the limited success of Irish actresses in Hollywood to date, with the obvious exception of the late, great Maureen O'Hara.

But Saoirse Ronan is changing all that. She was just 12 when Joe Wright picked her to play the crucial role of Briony Tallis in Atonement, and 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 otherwise average drama The Lovely Bones, and showed her range as a young female assassin Joe Wright's chase thriller Hanna. But Brooklyn, and her Best Actress Oscar nomination, has eased her onto the Hollywood A-list - and big things surely await for the woman who may yet become the most celebrated Irish film actor of all.

A cut above the rest

The first time I saw Michael Fassbender was in a 2003 Guinness TV ad about a man who swims the Atlantic to make amends with his brother. He was rather good in it, too, but gave little clue of the extraordinary career that awaited. His breakthrough came in Steve McQueen's Hunger (2008), a harrowing re-imagining of the 1981 hunger strikes in which Fassbender played a fiercely resolute Bobby Sands. He was brilliant, and a lot of people noticed: within a year he'd worked with Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds, and been cast in the X-Men superhero franchise.

His development as an actor since then has been extraordinary. His on-screen intensity is remarkable, and he was perfectly cast as a moody Mr Rochester in Cary Joli Fukunga's 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. The same year he gave a compelling portrayal of a Manhattan sex addict in Steve McQueen's unsettling drama Shame, and took real risks playing a sadistic slave owner in McQueen's Oscar-winning 2013 historical drama 12 Years a Slave. 2015 was a landmark year for Fassbender, who shone in Macbeth, was outstanding in the western Slow West, and truly remarkable as Steve Jobs in Danny Boyle's biopic. He's the best Irish screen actor yet.

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