R.I.P., Pete Postlethwaite

There is a scene in The Town where Ben Affleck comes to the flower shop, run by Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite) and confronts him. It is a dangerous and risky move. Fergie Colm is no one to be trifled with. We know this, we know we are supposed to be afraid of him, we know the power he wields. It’s in the dialogue. But Postlethwaite, in this particular scene, chose a certain piece of business to make the danger manifest: He sits behind the counter, a pile of roses in front of him, and as he talks to Affleck, he ruthlessly shaves the thorns off the rose stems. I would call this a psychological gesture, something that brilliant actors are so adept at. It is not literal, it is poetic, it is psychological. Yes, we know he is dangerous. We see his cronies, we know what he does. But none of that backstory is as frightening, as ominous, as the WAY that Postlethwaite deals with those thorns. The sound design of the scene is fantastic as well, making the sound of the knife against the stems as jarring and scary as a gun shot. But none of that would be possible without Postlethwaite’s talent and deep understanding of his role, and what it signifies, and his commitment to that physical action. His movements are deliberate, and yet jagged. It takes some doing to get those thorns off. You can’t be gentle. You have to hack at it. Postlethwaite keeps his gesture specific and grounded in reality. On the one hand, it is just a task that Fergie Colm, as owner of a flower shop, must tend to. There is a casual everyday feel to it. But on the other hand, it is a warning. A clear signal to his enemies: I am just as ruthless to my fellow man as I am to this rose stem.

This is the type of acting that turns me on. This is the type of acting that I remember.

Psychological gestures of this kind are inherently theatrical. They play to the cheap seats. I love acting that plays to the cheap seats. To me, it is the meaning of generosity. It is the understanding that the actors job is to communicate what they are doing and who they are clearly and without apology to the audience paying to see them do it. That gesture with the roses would work onstage. You would remember it. You would know what it meant. The people in the balcony could see it. That’s what acting is all about.

Lesser actors often shy away from psychological gestures like this one because the gestures seem too “obvious”. That is their misunderstanding of their own craft. Postlethwaite had no such misunderstanding, and you can see it in role after role of this man’s phenomenal career. The way he coughs in Brassed Off, hankie pressed to his mouth. It is so specific, so real, that you actually believe that black-gook is coming up out of Postlethwaite’s diseased lungs. You can smell his rancid breath. You can feel the pain in those coughs, it is there in how hard he presses the hankie to his mouth.

There is certainly a place for subtlety and nuance in acting. None of the big gestures would be possible without it. But don’t skimp on the big gestures! Don’t be afraid to shave off the thorns of a rose stem, making a “bit” out of it, reveling in the bit. After all, the character is reveling in the “bit”. The character knows what he is doing. He has turned a casual everyday task into a warning and a threat. The character is “acting” in that moment. It is fearlessly theatrical. It is terrifying.

Postlethwaite’s career was long and distinguished (NY Times obit here), and he obviously was working up until the end. There are many memorable performances, things that will stay with me always, but right now, I am thinking about those roses. And the way he chopped off those thorns.

Rest in peace, great actor.

This entry was posted in Actors, RIP. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to R.I.P., Pete Postlethwaite

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention R.I.P., Pete Postlethwaite | The Sheila Variations -- Topsy.com

  2. Craig says:

    Lovely piece. I first noticed him, like so many others, in “The Usual Suspects,” and he makes the most of his 10 minutes of screen time. Because Keyser Soze is in hiding, it’s really up to Postlethwaite to make the villain’s evil palpable. When he’s ambused by Byrne’s crew, his bodyguards killed, it’s astounding how he turns the tables on them using only words: “I assure you, Mr. Soze is very real…and very determined.” He’s so good at conjuring a sense of dread.

  3. Jake Cole says:

    I put up a brief piece of my own, and like I said there, he was the first character actor I noticed. I was still very much into cartoons and couldn’t even identify a star, much less some bloke who worked on the sidelines. But I saw Dragonheart, a film that didn’t make an impression on me as a 7-year-old and makes none now except for for Postlethwaite. I loved him, loved him in a way that made me watch him and only him. To put Dennis Quaid up against him was almost cruelly unfair, as if someone made a movie about Orson Welles hawking those peas and made the peas the protagonist and cast Welles as himself. He was focused but loony, and I don’t think I’ll ever mature to the point that I don’t think of his absurd use of “Turn the other cheek brother” and not start laughing to myself.

    Finally getting the chance to see Distant Voices, Still Lives, even in the wholly inadequate form of a cut-up series of YouTube videos, only reminded me of his power. No matter how exaggerated he gets — and The Town is him at his most blissfully villainous — there’s always something behind those eyes. He’s no moustache-twirling goof in that movie: he really communicates an evil beyond the cops and robbers game (one that suddenly feels as airy and meaningless as the child’s game named for it) that just chills the bone. In Davies’ film, he tempers the horrifying vision of a dogmatic tyrant with a humanity that makes him all the more troublesome. He’s not a projection of a resentful memory: he’s flesh and blood and all the scarier for it.

    Oh, how I wish I could have seen him in King Lear. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see play that part, with its amazingly homogeneous mixture of cold, rational patriarchy and the madness of creeping humanity and empathy.

  4. Rob says:

    He was so severe in everything I ever saw him in but then I saw him as “Da” to Daniel Day-Lewis in In the Name of the Father. How those two fantastic actors developed their terms of endearment in that film is moviemaking at its best. He’ll be missed.

  5. sheila says:

    Rob – yes, that is killer. He’s completely heartbreakingly endearing in Brassed Off too. You just LOVE that man.

  6. sheila says:

    Craig: // He’s so good at conjuring a sense of dread. //

    I agree. Humphrey Bogart said that good acting was always “six feet back in the eyes”. Postlethwaite had that down. You never catch him winking at the audience.

  7. sheila says:

    Jake – I too wish I could have seen his Lear. It must have been magnificent. I always thought he would have made a great Fool, too – but wow, to hear him shout, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

    I love to hear your memories of your first encounter of him as a child, before you knew what a star was, and all that. You responded to something in him, you “got” him on a visceral level as a child. I guess that’s what I mean by “playing to the cheap seats”. Actors who pooh-pooh such things really don’t get it at all, in my opinion.

    Good actors know how to act in closeup. Great actors know how to reach the cheap seats – whether in close-up or long shot.

    He was a true original.

  8. Doc Horton says:

    Whenever he showed up in something, I’d think, “Oh, goody! Pete’s in this.”

  9. Doug C. says:

    Man, I can’t believe he’s gone. I saw the news on IMDB.com and I was like, Whoa. I love this guy in so many movies – The Shipping News, Usual Suspects, The Lost World, and DragonHeart (“If a dragon falls in the forest and nobody gets to hear about it, does it make a thud?”). There are so very few good character actors these days it’s a tragedy to loose such a talented one. Pete, you will be missed.

  10. Todd Restler says:

    It’s funny, I feel like I’ve seen him a lot, but I really haven’t seen most of these.


    But I agree with Craig that he was great in The Usual Suspects. I actually think he was the best thing in that otherwise overrated movie. Between that and In the Name of the Father, he made quite an impression on me.

  11. Mary Eman says:

    I always think of him as Obediah Hakeswill in the Richard Sharp movies. At first, he just seems like a sadistic SOB. But as time goes on, something snaps and he’s mad. Truly scary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *