It’s Quality We Are All Craving

I was intending to settle in and watch Young Victoria for a second night in a row. I still might. My wife and I were both floored by how much we loved it.

But I’ve just seen a Facebook post from an actress friend that mentioned the passing of Pete Postlethwaite, and now I have different thoughts in my head.

But I think I can connect them if you’ll stick with me.

Our tastes in films are so subjective. What we like and dislike, hate and love, admire or abhor. But I think it’s pretty safe to say what we are mostly looking for in films, or maybe in art in general, is quality. Well, what is quality? Pretty subjective in of itself.

For me, quality is defined by the level of craftsmanship being put on display. What I found so intoxicating about Young Victoria last night, sitting beside my wife while it snowed on our cars and lawn, was just how well made the film was – frame by frame by unbelievably well-crafted frame. Sure, the acting is first-rate – Emily Blunt was born to play the lead role and she is sublime – the script is smart and elegant and genuine – written by Julian Fellowes who won the Oscar for his 2001 Gosford Park script – and the film is directed with a sure hand by a relative newcomer, Jean-Marc Vallee. But the overall achievement of the film is…the overall achievement of the film. Every inch quality, a film made by people who take pride in their work and cared to deliver something special. It’s one of the things I admire most about AMC’s Mad Men. Creator Matthew Weiner has insisted on quality across the board. And, consequently, for my money it is the best thing on television. I often grab my remote and freeze frame the screen at random to just look at the composition and art direction. Each time I do it I marvel at the craftsmanship.

Now let’s look at the career of the late Pete Postlethwaite, who died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. He was only 64.

Postlethwaite began his career at the Liverpool Everyman’s Theatre (what a great name for a theatre company!!!!), and went on to become a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Not too shabby.

But I won’t remember this great actor for any of the Bard’s roles I’m sure he handled with deftness and grace. Nor will I remember him as an “everyman,” although he surely was not cut from a leading man’s cloth. He had a character actor’s face times ten.

He will always be the slippery and dangerously evasive ‘Kobayashi’ from The Usual Suspects (1995). The perfect actor to give just enough menace to keep the audience on edge, yet so much dignity and panache to reassure us that the story being told was well worth following.

He received his only Oscar nomination for playing Daniel Day-Lewis’ sad sack, but earnest dad in Jim Sheridan’s heartbreaking IRA film, In the Name of the Father (1993).

Look no further than this quote from the one and only Day-Lewis: “Pos was the one. As students it was him we went to see on stage again and again. It was him we wanted to be like. Wild and true; lion hearted. Unselfconscious, irreverent.”

That is some pretty amazing praise from a pretty significant source. “Unselfconscious” is the word (?) that leaps out at me most. What a compliment to an actor. It’s what we all strive for in the craft. Or at least is should be.

From James and the Giant Peach to Brassed Off to The Lost World: Jurassic Park to Romeo and Juliet, Pete Postlethwaite always made us take notice. His voice commanded our attention. His piercing gaze always so direct and alive. His craftsmanship – his ability to work “unselfconsciously” – was always on display.

One sign of a truly powerful actor is one who can make a lasting impression in a story with limited screen/stage time. So we need look no further than this past year to see how powerfully Pete Postlethwaite demonstrated that quality.

One of the emotional hinges of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Inception is the moment within the depths of the dream within the dream within the dream when the mogul’s son (Cillian Murphy) sits bedside to the mogul to hear his dying words. Turns out they were not words of condemnation, but instead words of liberation. One scene. One moment to give the arduous dream journey its purpose. Pete Postlethwaite was cast as the mogul – because Christopher Nolan knows the value of placing a quality actor in a moment that can only resonate in the hands of the right craftsman.

Ben Affleck has also come to appreciate quality and craftsmanship. The Town may soon be overlooked by Academy voters, but make no mistake, it’s one of the best films of the year. And in that genre, the “one last job and then I’m done!” genre – one of the most cliché’ rich genres in the biz – you better have a good villain, someone to hang your hate on, or you end up with half a movie.

Just a few scenes was all it took for Pete Postlethwaite to capture the history and callous cold-heartedness of the criminal subculture of that region, passed down from one wretched Irishman to the next. Stripping the thorns from those long stem roses like he’d done it for three decades. By the time Affleck’s character comes to deliver the reckoning we can’t wait to see it. We know he deserves it. Postlethwaite gave us a villain with a total lack of self-consciousness. His stumble to the ground reminded me immediately of Brando’s garden collapse in The Godfather

In 2004 he was honored by Queen Elizabeth II, who made him an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). And two years ago the actor fullfilled a career dream by returning to the Liverpool Everyman’s Theatre to portray King Lear. Man, I would have loved to have seen that.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I shut down my keyboard tonight. And bid farewell to a quality craftsman who set a high standard in his craft. Thank you, Pete Postlethwaite.


2 thoughts on “It’s Quality We Are All Craving

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