Image Credit: Everett CollectionPete Postlethwaite, in his long, sturdy, and vibrant career as an actor, first in theater and television and then, beginning in the late ’80s, in the movies, was the face of a great many things: rage, fatherly tenderness, criminal brilliance. Whatever he was playing, though, Postlethwaite, who died yesterday at 64, was always a face: a face so lumpen and craggy you could never forget it, with its ruddy broken nose and thin-lipped scowl of protest, its flesh that hung down over cheekbones that were prominent enough to look like a pair of jutting apples, and those eyes that burned with some fierce dark private anguish that seemed to reach back into the centuries. It was a face that was all angles and emotion — one that could have been drawn by Picasso. It was a face that haunted you with how haunted it appeared to be.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw him, in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Terrence Davies’ powerful autobiographical drama about growing up in working-class Liverpool in the ’40s and ’50s. This was the role that brought Postlethwaite to prominence, but he was already 40 years old. He had been a repertory actor (including one stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company), and also a sheel-metal worker and welder, and what appeared to be a lifetime of hard living was already etched — welded — into those features. He played the hero’s brutal alcoholic father, a man who flew into slashing fits of anger, and Postlethwaite made those explosions so feral and terrifying, such a stark bulletin from the bottom of the whiskey bottle, that you felt, almost physically, how they could have battered his son’s heart into something delicate and fragile and cringing. Yet Postlethwaite also showed you the human side of this domestic monster. He was scary enough to make Robert Duvall in The Great Santini look like an amateur dysfunctional abuser, but he also had an authentic, almost childlike interior soft woundedness. He had layers, and as Postlethwaite now planted himself on the world movie stage, he brought that same stubborn complexity of feeling to role after role.
As an actor, Postlethwaite possessed such an edgy, hungry intelligence, expressed in the brusque snap and cut of his rhythms (it was a voice that didn’t have the time, or patience, for anyone else’s baloney), that he could always be counted on to show up and charge a scene with his burnished, saturnine intensity. He did that in lots of mainstream films, like The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Clash of the Titans and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Inception. Probably his most noteworthy appearance in a pop movie was as Kobayashi, the mysterious wily lawyer for mysterioso über-bad guy Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects — a performance that was all ferocity on the surface but really, just beneath that, all play.
For that was the thing about Pete Postlethwaite: He portrayed tense and grave and dyspeptic men, but he gave them such a crackling feeling of life that you ended up charmed and hypnotized by his actor’s joy. He raised the stakes in Ben Affleck’s The Town, infecting the role of a Boston Irish mob boss with so much understated menace that it took you a scene or two to grasp just how bloody ruthless the character really was. His cover business was running a flower shop, and you could taste Postlethwaite’s delight as he issued veiled threats while trimming a rose bush, the perfect activity for a character who specialized in hiding his own thorns.
What role will Postlethwaite be best remembered for? It depends on who you ask. Given the realities of movie distribution — of what’s “mainstream” and what’s not — a lot of people would probably say Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. But for a lot of us, the apex of his artistry was his performance as Daniel Day-Lewis’s dour, sickly, judgmental, and finally inspirational father in In the Name of the Father (pictured above), that powerful 1993 Irish drama of IRA sympathy and resistance. The two actors were old friends (Postlethwaite had directed the young Day-Lewis in a play in the early ’80s), and they acted together like veteran chamber musicians. As part of a British clampdown, the two characters in In the Name of the Father, who have never gotten along, are thrown into prison, and the movie doesn’t oversimplify their reconciliation. Postlethwaite quietly suggests that his bitterness toward his wastrel son is the dark underside of an affection he can’t express. Once again, he’s a distant voice of paternal wrath. Yet as the picture goes on, the voice softens, becomes warmer, more accepting. It’s one of the most moving transformations in modern movies, with Pete Postlethwaite accomplishing the uncanny, evoking a lifetime of anger and bitterness and disappointment and then melting it into a face of love.
So what’s your all-time favorite Pete Postlethwaite performance?
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