Sad To See You Leaving 2011: Pete Postlethwaite

by George_East on December 24, 2011

Maybe he will be remembered most for playing Mr Kobayashi, the lawyer, in The Usual Suspects or the band leader in Brassed Off but for me his greatest film performance was the one that originally made his name as a film actor: as the violent father of a working class Liverpool family in Terence Davies’ hugely powerful Distant Voices, Still Lives. Indeed it was while writing my review of The Deep Blue Sea that I remembered that this year was only a couple days old when his death was announced.

It was in that role billed simply as Father (as the great Freda Dowie is billed as Mother) – suggesting both an archetype and that the film, told through the perspective of a child, could only conceive of one father, the child’s own – a wife beater, cowardly controlling little man, that Postlethwaite showed what a startlingly brilliant actor he is. Father is a real human being, not a two dimensional villain or cipher for the issue of domestic violence that the film in part depicts. It is a master class in acting.

Although from a middle class background, he was often at home in working class roles – playing them with humanity and dignity. Gerry Conlon’s father in In The Name of the Father in which he showed that most intense (and intensely irritating) of English method actors Daniel Day Lewis what acting is. Danny, the band leader from the colliery in Brassed Off leading his men for one last triumph while their livelihoods are taken from them with pit closures.

His King Lear, towards the end of his life, was considered by those who were lucky enough to see it as extraordinary. ‘The best actor in the world’ said Steven Spielberg. And when Postlethwaite was at his best it was difficult to disagree. He was rarely any worse than the part he was given and sadly he was not given anywhere near the parts that were worthy of his talent, particularly in his brief sojurns in Hollywood.

As a life long heavy smoker with a distinctively smoker’s gravelly voice giving a depth to his wonderful slightly nasally Lancashire accent, perhaps you would have expected that lung cancer would have killed him, but it was his pancreas that succumbed, at the tragically young age of 64. That nose, which looked like it belonged an alcoholic – prominent, swollen, purple almost.

A former teacher and quiet man in his personal life, success came to him late. He was in his early 40s by the time he made Distant Voices, Still Lives. He was rarely seen amongst the luvvies of British stage and screen, and shunning the celebrity circuit. He was though famously a regular writer in the late 1980s and 1990s to the Guardian’s letter page and was a political activist throughout his life. His Labour sympathies were sorely tested over environmental issues towards the end of his life – the building of the Kingsnorth coal fired powered station in particular enraged him. He threatened to return his OBE and campaign against Labour if they allowed it to go ahead. Somewhat ironically given that one of his most famous roles was proudly leading a coal miners’ brass band.

He is a sad loss to world cinema and the limited pool of truly world class British screen actors. Unlike many others of his generation he was not an actor who needed to tell you all the time how great he was by over-acting or by appearing in cameo roles in Hollywood period pictures to give them a veneer of ‘quality’. He had nothing prove and even if had he was not the kind of bloke who would make a song and dance about things. And that makes him all the greater.

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