Bob Hoskins was one of those measured character actors whose face transcended whatever project he happened to appear in. Whether a bumbling detective surrounded by animated schemers in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or the driver for a high class prostitute in Neil Jordan’s “Mona Lisa,” Hoskin’s round face, cocked bushy eyebrows and befuddled expression suggested a confidant figure constantly trapped between thought and expression. He was a sympathetic tough guy.
In the aftermath of an actor’s death, the same few titles that defined their career tend to get repeated ad infinitum, and certainly it makes sense in Hoskins’ case to discuss “Mona Lisa” and “Roger Rabbit” as crucial achievements in his filmography. But a quick glance over the years shows that Hoskins never really slowed down, and even if some of the projects he took on over the last few years were less reputable, he emerged unscathed. However, one credit in particular stands out from Hoskins’ last burst of output over the past 10 years: The Baron, the stern, feisty manager of a Chelsea strip club on the verge of going under.
Abel Ferrara’s 2007 comedy-drama played in competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival before dropping out of view for a number of years in distribution limbo. Over time, it accrued some mild cult support, and reasonably so — its lively and oddly sweet, fable-like story felt like a Frank Capra feel-good portrait with extra nudity. As club owner Ray Ruby, Willem Dafoe memorably portrayed a frantic, overconfident man battling to keep his doors open over the course of one wild night as he and his peers attempt a desperate lottery scheme. Over the years, “Go Go Tales” has accrued a steady amount of praise for its unlikely mixture of Ferrara’s typical gritty New York setting and a startling degree of humanism, a balance shouldered to a large degree by Dafoe. And yet Hoskins is the one secretly running the whole show.
As Ray constantly dashes from from one corner of his lounge to another, trapped in a broken world of his own making, it’s The Baron who constantly brings him back to reality. “Ray,” he growls as lights flash and music blazes around them, “you’re giving away champagne every night at 8:30 every night. We’re fucking empty!” Hoskins is a perfect fit to play the straight man in this offbeat comedy in which Dafoe’s character can never quite get a handle on the situation around him. While never a source of calm, The Baron conveys the hard facts with scowls and sudden outbursts that constantly prevent Ray from going over the edge. It’s largely thanks to Hoskins’ character that the movie arrives at a fairy tale ending. Few actors are able to convey anger and frustration without entering menacing territory. Hoskins wasn’t the cheeriest screen presence, but in roles like The Baron, he still managed to project a measured temperament. Such nuance will be missed.