Friday, September 23, 2011

The unforgettable face of an unforgettable actor

Film just won’t be the same without Pete Postlethwaite. Despite a lengthy battle with cancer, the news of his death in January was still a shock. With his unique name, his rugged, raw-boned face and his resume of versatility, Postlethwaite was a casting director’s go-to guy for conveying characters with brutality and violence as well as those with sweet stoicism and gentle kindness. That’s how I remember Postlethwaite’s roles – supporting characters of opposite poles; at times brutish, bad, menacing and violent; at other times tender, heroic, loving or amused.

I was introduced to Postlethwaite when he played a good guy in Jim Sheridan’s true-life drama about the Guildford Four, In the Name of the Father. In the film, Postlethwaite plays law-abiding, protective and fiercely loyal father, Guiseppe Conlon, on a doomed mission to save his son who is falsely accused of murder. In the end, both father and son are wrongfully arrested for being Irish Republican Army terrorists, and Postlethwaite’s character becomes the sacrificial figure that dies in prison before his son’s release. Postlethwaite’s role was impressive and powerful and it earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

In what has become an iconic supporting role, Postlethwaite played a bad guy in Bryan Singer’s mystery thriller The Usual Suspects. In the film, Postlethwaite emerges as Mr. Kobayashi, an enigmatic, sinister figure who works for the mythical, criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. Postlethwaite’s unconventional looks perfectly befit the role of the shady lawyer shrouded in mystery and guile, suspected at times to be Keyser Söze himself.

One of my favourite Postlethwaite roles is his turn as the good friar in Baz Luhrmann’s modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet. Postlethwaite was perfect as Friar Lawrence, the kind, well-intentioned confidante to both Romeo and Juliet who is always ready with a plan. Postlethwaite’s delivery of the famous “two households” monologue to set the scene was masterful (the iambic pentameter just rolled off his tongue), likely something his Shakespearean stage acting helped to perfect.

In another role as the meanest of men, Postlethwaite portrayed the unrepetant, villainous and ferocious lawyer intent on suppressing evidence of illegal slave-trading in Steven Spielberg's period drama Amistad.

Postlethwaite strayed from period pieces and edgy thrillers when he starred in the action-packed, special effects film – The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The film is a needless sequel after the stellar original, but Postlethwaite’s turn as a wild game hunter tasked with hunting and killing the male Tyrannosaurus Rex makes the film worth watching.

In 2010, Postlethwaite returned to his wheelhouse of playing bad men and delivered a superb performance in The Town, proving that he could do more in a small role than some actors do in a lead one. In the film, Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, a Boston crime boss who works out of his flower shop. Postlethwaite commanded the screen in his few scenes in the film, exuding understated terror as he casually trimmed long-stemmed roses while delivering deadly threats and ultimatums to his lackeys.

His name may have been hard to pronounce, but his face and his work, are unforgettable.

What are your favourite Pete Postlethwaite movies? Let us know in the comments section.


  1. Well said, Mr. Small. Couldn't have said it better. I will miss this guy, but at least he went out blazing with that superb performance in "The Town." After being introduced to him from "In the Name of the Father" like you have, I think that's a nice career bookend.

  2. Wow, that's tough. The guy is definitely a great actor with no bad performances. He will be missed.

    I know people will not go for this but this is the performance that I remember most as the priest in Baz Lurhman's adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. He was brilliant in that.

  3. I'm going to go with his Brassed Off role, I think. It's poignant enough how Thatcher strangled all the coal-mining communities, but then you add his character's demise too 9and some stirring brass band music) and you gotcherself a winner.

  4. Postelwaite was a fantastic actor - loved him in "The Usual Suspects"

  5. @Dave - While I would love to take credit, this post was all Jenny (JBT)'s doing. She deserves the praise.

  6. This is what happens when I don't read the fine print. My apologies. Wonderful piece, regardless.

  7. @ Dave - no worries, and thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

    I will miss seeing Postlethwaite in movies too. He was a superb actor and he definitely went out with a bang. His role in The Town was remarkable. I concur - it's a great bookend.

    @thevoid99 - I'm completely onboard - his role in Romeo and Juliet is one of my favourites.

    @Colin - Brassed Off is one Postlethwaite movie I haven't seen, but writing this post has definitely inspired me to check it out.

    @Duke - he was a fantastic actor indeed. The Usual Suspects is a great movie made that much greater thanks to Postlethwaite's role in it.

  8. I agree about his role in The Lost World. It is not that great of a film but he is great in his supporting role. When I think of Postwaithe, I think of Usual Suspects followed closely by Lost World.

  9. The most recent movie I saw him in was The Town, but I loved him in Romeo and Juliet! Man, I can't believe I haven't seen Usual Suspects yet!

  10. @Ryan - Postlethwaite is definitely one of the few redeeming things about the Lost World. I also think of The Usual Suspects first when I think about Postlethwaite's filmography, tied for me, with his role in Romeo and Juliet because I thought he was just superb as Friar Laurence.

    @Aziza - you MUST see The Usual Suspects. Postlethwaite is but one of numerous great things about the film - it's got great acting, great suspense and a killer ending. It's smart and so brilliantly executed. You won't be disappointed.

  11. I'm ashamed to say that I haven't seen as many of these as I should have, but that scene in The Town was truly unforgettable.

  12. A brilliant actor and a great man. Significantly, I've seen him make poor films watchable - I was watching The Omen remake recently and he brings another level of class to the film. I think my favourite performance by him would be in Brassed Off. A perfectly understated performance of a subtly tragic figure.

  13. @NeverTooEarlyMP - Pete Postlethwaite has been in a lot of great movies that are worth checking out. I'd put In the Name of the Father, The Usual Suspects and Romeo and Juliet at the top of the list. I haven't seen all of his good stuff myself, but I'm going to make a point to.

    @Dan - great point. His role was among the few redeeming aspects of The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I've never seen Brassed Off, but I read great things about the film while I was doing research for this post, and I intend to watch it hopefully very soon!


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