The Flowering Of A Late Bloomer

A GREAT SUCCESS DOESN'T always come when one is ready for it, or able to handle it, or even when it's most deserved. In the case of Anthony Hopkins, however, the time couldn't be more ripe. The 56-year-old Welshman has been on a glorious run ever since he won the 1991 Oscar for playing Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs." just after that, he triumphed in "Howards End" and received a knighthood. Last year was best of all: he played two of the richest roles of his career--as the self-abnegating butler Stevens in "The Remains of the Day" and as the Oxford don C. S. Lewis in the current "Shadowlands." "I've always wanted to be different or successful," Hopkins says, "and now it's happened and I'm having a ball. I do actually walk around like a kid in a toy department."

The question in Hollywood at the moment is not whether he'll get an Oscar nomination but for which of two superb performances. In "The Remains of the Day," playing a man pitiably incapable of expressing his emotions, Hopkins demonstrates what a great physical actor he's become. He reveals everything about Stevens through his body language: his stiff, servile "invisibility" when waiting on his masters; his pretensions to grandeur expressed in the wave of a cigar while lording it over the understaff; the pathetic way he touches his dying father--only with the tip of his fingers--like a snail too terrified to emerge from his shell.

Hopkins describes Stevens as "pathologically afraid to love." In "Shadowlands," his C. S. Lewis overcomes his repression to fall deeply in love, in midlife, with an American divorcee dying of cancer. Here Hopkins achieves the most moving performance of his career, showing us the passion and vulnerability of a cloistered intellectual without a trace of mawkishness. It's hard to imagine the younger Hopkins, for all his gifts, hitting these notes. Since his auspicious screen debut as Richard the Lionhearted in "The Lion in Winter" in 1968 he's been a commanding presence on film, but a chilly one. His acting could seem studied and rhetorical, showing the seams of technique. Watch his twitchy, neurotic performance in the reincarnation horror film "Audrey Rose" (1977) and you can see why he was sometimes dismissed as the bargain-basement Richard Burton.

Richard Attenborough has directed him in five movies since 1972, and, working with him on "Shadowlands," he was struck by the fact that Hopkins "has changed fundamentally as a person. He simply could not have given this staggering performance a few years ago. He was prepared to reveal himself He was prepared to stand naked in front of the camera."

For years Hopkins had struggled in shadowlands of his own. First it was the shade of Richard Burton, who came from the same small town in Wales. Burton was both his role model and his phantom rival, the man whose reputation always eclipsed his own. At the National Theatre, Hopkins was known as Olivier's understudy. The young and angry actor hated authority figures and was too fond of the bottle. In 1973, rehearsing "The Misanthrope" under director John Dexter, he suddenly walked out of the company. "Shifty, spineless Welsh c--t," wrote Dexter in his diary. 'And oh my God, the similarity to Burton. The self-deceptions, combined with ambition and cowardice."

Hopkins looks back on himself as a young man who desperately wanted to be at peace with himself but couldn't sit in a chair without "jumping out of my skin. I was being hailed as the new young hotshot in the British theater, full of Welsh passion and furor and all that. And it scared me. Because at the same time I had my detractors, like John Dexter. John and a few others were trying not to destroy me but to mold things for me. And I didn't appreciate any of that. I would just lash out." A year later he made peace with Dexter and triumphed in Dexter's production of "Equus" on Broadway.

In Hollywood, where he came to pursue a movie career, he became intimately acquainted with the best watering holes in town. Movies such as "The Girl from Petrovka" with Goldie Hawn didn't do much for his career. In 1975 he woke up in Phoenix after a binge and, having no idea how he got there, marched into an AA meeting--and hasn't had a drink since. He began the process of reinventing himself. "I did decide I'm not going to be depressed anymore. I was playing a role of being artistic, troubled. I've been a student of pop psychology, from William James to Norman Vincent Peale--I've read it all. I've gleaned enough to know that a lot of our behavior is role playing. Once I got the knack of that, you start playing another role."

The "new" Tony Hopkins is a self-described "Amerophile." He loves L.A. (he splits his time between there and London) and the vast, mythic sense of freedom America offers him. He delights in crossing the country in his car, driving for 13 hours at a time with classical music blaring. His wife of 21 years, Jenni, who prefers to stay in London, attests to his transformation. "He's quite fascinated with the changes one can make on oneself. He uses himself as a sort of guinea pig. He went about doing what was necessary to lighten himself up, to take life less seriously."

An avid reader, he will walk around with six books. "Five of them are keep-your-head-on-straight books, the sixth will be a novel," she explains. "Over two or three hours he will dip into them all." A far cry from the temperamental man she met in the late '60s, she concedes he's still "not the most restful man to be around. He still has this spontaneity which is sometimes difficult...He doesn't want to know about an invitation next Friday. He wants to know about it at lunchtime Friday, then decide. And life isn't like that. But he is calmer. He is a magic man to be around."

Hopkins, who grew up worshipping actors like Brando and Cagney, thinks of himself as a Method actor. He'll read a script 150 times to bury himself in the part. But he's not the sort who glowers around the set to stay in character. Emma Thompson, his costar in "Howards End" and "Remains of the Day," found him not at all the "frozen Welsh type" she expected. "We get a bit larky from time to time. Of course one takes one's work very seriously, but we both try not to take ourselves very seriously. It means you can have a laugh. You have to understand that Tony is a volcano in human form. Occasionally lava must spill over."

Hopkins agrees he's doing his best work now. "Yes, because I'm not obsessed with [technique]. I know I can do it now. I went through my difficult years when I was in the theater and I was scared. The last five or 10 years have helped to put those fears to rest." He's recently finished shooting "Legends of the Fall," a family epic spanning two centuries, and is currently shooting Alan Parker's "The Road to Wellville," playing Dr. John Kellogg, the turn-of-the-century health guru and inventor of the cornflake.

Hopkins may be the first self-help knight of the realm--he insists that reading affirmations helped him conquer his demons. "But I haven't reached nirvana," he laughs, his piercing blue eyes sparkling. Which is just as well. If Anthony Hopkins gets too well adjusted, he may not need to act. That would be very bad news for the rest of us.