Thursday, November 29, 2007

Don't be a Dummy

For me Anthony Hopkins' greatest cinematic role was as schizophrenic ventriloquist Corky Withers in psychological thriller Magic (1978). Withers is an acutely shy entertainer who is bullied into committing murder by his sinister alter ego Fats - a ventriloquist's dummy.

For this highly demanding part Hopkins had to learn how to cut a card deck with one hand and roll a coin across his knuckles. He also had to master a New York accent. And, most importantly of all, he had to learn how to throw his voice.

Director Dickie Attenborough decided to record Hopkins' ventriloquised voice rather than take the easy option of artificially dubbing it onto the dummy. Hopkins was therefore coached in ventriloquism in LA. For the part of Fats he pitched his voice higher than normal and based the rhythm of his speech on brash Vegas comedian Don Rickles.

The dummy used in the film weighed 16 pounds with its facial features echoing that of the Welshman. It is said that while on location Hopkins slept with the dummy in his bed. Hopkins, who himself has suffered from shyness, was able to relate to the dual nature of Withers - the modest exterior and the monster within. He reckoned it was one of the easiest parts he's ever had to play.

Oddly enough one aspect of this shyness manifested itself during the shooting of the film. Hopkins and female co-star Ann Margret were required to enact a fairly explicit nude love scene. The tension between them was apparently so bad (due to their mutual coyness) that Hopkins stormed off set and had to be persuaded to come back and finish the job, so to speak.

Infamously this was the only time Ann Margret's boobs ever appeared on celluloid. Stills printed without her consent in High Society magazine led to a court case for invasion of privacy which she eventually lost.

Magic was modestly successful at the box office but the Academy Award for Hopkins' performance predicted by Attenborough never materialised. Instead it turned out to be the film that broke him in America. Where once he'd driven around LA at night, parking his car outside the former houses of Hollywood greats such as Humphrey Bogart (as was his habit), Hopkins himself was now well and truly on the road to cinematic glory.

Above is a still from the movie - Tony is on the right.