Harvey O'Brien
University College Dublin, Ireland | Views:

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In November 2006 Brendan Gleeson became the fourth recipient of the Magner’s Irish Film Festival Boston Excellence Award, honoring his contribution to Irish film and film culture. For an actor only sixteen years in the profession, his has been a remarkable career. In 2006, his profile was higher than ever,  following his appearance as ‘Mad Eye’ Moody in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005) and the short Six Shooter (Martin McDonagh, 2005), which won an Oscar in March.

In 2006, Brendan Gleeson’s film work included three features: Paul Mercier’s adaptation of his own play, Studs (Paul Mercier, 2006), the low budget Irish-American drama Black Irish (Brad Gann, 2006), and the actor’s fourth collaboration with John Boorman (following The General (1998), The Tailor of Panama (2001), and In My Country (2004)), The Tiger’s Tail (Boorman, 2006). In documentary, Gleeson contributed a voice over to Flann O’Brien: The Lives of Brian (Maurice Sweeney, 2006), and announced his plans to develop an adaptation of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds. The actor also appeared on the Irish television talk showThe Late Late Show where his impassioned assault on the Government’s handling of Public Health (having been through the crumbling system with his own parents) brought huge public response, and later directly inspired the emergency room sequence in The Tiger’s Tail.

Writing in Cineaste in 2006, Patrick McGilligan quoted Lee Strasberg on the qualities of ‘great’ acting saying «The things that fed the great actors of the past as human beings were of such strength and sensitivity that when these things were added to conscious effort, they unconsciously and subconsciously led to the results in all great acting,» This observation seems particularly apropos for Brendan Gleeson, who, has that unique ability as an actor to appear both wholly and completely in character and yet remain identifiably himself. This is not to say that watching Brendan Gleeson on screen is the same as knowing Brendan Gleeson the person, but that his ability to bring elements of his personality and his experience to bear on his characterisations through his skills as an actor makes him a powerful anchor of authenticity in any film.

His early experiences as an actor were on the student stage at UCD. It was here he began his association with Paul Mercier, who speaks of Brendan’s «tremendous leap of faith» in participating in Mercier’s early work, including Rock Musicals in the Irish language. When Mercier moved up to the professional stage with the Passion Machine productions of the 1980s, Gleeson largely devoted his professional life to teaching at Bellcamp College in Dublin.

Perhaps his years as a teacher had the kind of impact on his later acting of which Strasberg spoke. Certainly his capacity for observation, seen in the precision he brings to deportment, movement, and vocal and gestural interpretation; his attentiveness to other actors, seen both in the flowing naturalism of his interaction with others on screen and attested to by those who have worked with him in terms of the generosity he shows in rehearsal and with advice for younger performers; and of course his ability to shift from fearsome to friendly in exploring multi-faceted characters; all indicate a depth of human experience drawn from the personality of a teacher.

Gleeson first came to notice for his portrayal of Michael Collins in the television drama The Treaty (Jonathan Lewis, 1991) where his uncanny physical resemblance to the real-life Collins belies the subtlety of his performance. His Collins is an intelligent, determined man very much aware of the political issues at stake in the Treaty negotiations, a section of Irish history omitted entirely from Neil Jordan’s later film of Collins’ life (in which Gleeson also played a small role). Gleeson went on to play a number of supporting roles in Irish films including Into the West (Mike Newell, 1992) and The Snapper (Stephen Frears, 1993), where he succeeded in bringing a quality of authenticity to roles that otherwise might easily have descended into cliché.

His international breakthrough came in 1995 with Mel Gibson’s multimillion dollar epic Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), filmed in Ireland. Gleeson’s broad but earthy performance as Hamish, the huge highland warrior who initially combats, then befriends William Wallace, not only introduced Gleeson to a larger audience, but gave the film one of its most quoted lines as Hamish, made up and armed for a fatal battle the Highlanders know they cannot win says «Well, we didn’t get dressed up for nothin'»

Braveheart gave Gleeson an opportunity to explore ‘larger than life’ type of roles, bringing again a discernible quality of authentic humanity to potentially shallow strong-jawed characters. This is something he did again in Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, 2004) and Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005), producing very different characterisations by emphasising different core emotions in the bearded and barrel-chested warriors he played in all three cases. The loyal companionability of Hamish evaporates in the lusty envy seen in Menelaus, and this in turn is replaced by a sinister righteousness in his Christian Crusader Reynald.

Gleeson’s most well known roles in Irish cinema came also through genre performances, but in films which self-consciously re-interpreted the conventions of those genres. In 1997 Gleeson won strong notices as the secondary lead in the gangster comedy I Went Down (Paddy Breathnach), a slightly dim but streetwise hit man called Bunny Kelly. Gleeson observed of the character that he was «a chaotic steamroller of a man, a big Dublin lulagh with an exaggerated sense of his own importance – the sort of mad gobshite who could never even arrive in a Tarantino movie.» This role was followed by his most acclaimed performance, as real-life gangster Martin Cahill in The General. This performance earned him several international awards and notices, though not without controversy. Cahill’s role in comparatively recent Irish history left many victims of his brutality deeply uncomfortable with his on-screen representation. Cahill was, in reality, famous for shielding his face from the public, and his personality and identity were only to be gleaned from supposition or unreliable testimony. Gleeson’s performance explored the layers of masks worn by the man, moving past and through the ‘fun loving criminal’ side of his antics and revealing both Cahill’s humanity and monstrosity. Said Gleeson: «Maybe I got it completely wrong, but I tackled it with integrity. There’s nothing more I can do if somebody’s going to take umbrage at it.»

Gleeson has continued to work steadily and impressively in a wide variety of international projects, with directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York), Danny Boyle (28 days later…), John Woo (Mission: Impossible II), Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain; where his actual skills as a musician were demonstrated as he played fiddle in a poignant scene as a doomed musician), and M. Night Shyalaman (The Village). However, he has also continued to work with Irish filmmakers, including giving a small but beautifully judged performance as a Christian Brother in The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan, 1997), a brave rendering of a simple-minded circus performer in Sweety Barrett (Stephen Bradley, 1998), and a funny turn as a TV chef who loses his memory and believes himself a teenager in Wild About Harry (Declan Lowney, 2000). He has also worked on smaller scale projects with directors including Conor McPherson (Saltwater), Gilles MacKinnon (Trojan Eddie), and Stephen Rea (A Further Gesture), showing his willingness to invest himself in riskier films if he believes in the role.

Gleeson’s work of 2006 gave him an opportunity to re-unite with two of his most important collaborators – Paul Mercier and John Boorman. Though neither Studs nor The Tiger’s Tail elicited strong box office or critical support in Ireland, both films again showed Gleeson’s strength and diversity. In Studs he employed his ability to shift registers in exploring the mind games played by a football manager.The Tiger’s Tail offered him the always desirable thespian opportunity to play two characters in the one film: one a successful Irish businessman, the other his dark doppleganger, the latter played with a kind of black comic relish that was entirely suited to the film. Black Irish saw him tackle the role of an Irish-American patriarch, the grumpy and emotionally unavailable father of a boy who longs to be a baseball star. This low budget indie film opened the Magner’s Irish Film Festival in Boston and saw director Brad Gann and producer Todd Harris speak after the screening of Gleeson’s tremendous generosity and support for the film.

It is clear that Gleeson’s is a talent of particular note and importance in the contemporary Irish cinema. His ability to perform both in the lead and in support, to play in drama, comedy, epic, and intimate films seems to come from a tireless work ethic that somehow never lends itself to introversion or self-importance. On 11 November 2006, Gleeson modestly accepted his Excellence Award following a retrospective overview of his career to date and video testimonials from Boorman, Jordan, Mercier, and Jim Sheridan, with the gentle remark «Well, that was embarrassing,» then spoke with the packed audience at the Harvard Film Archive in a characteristically amicable and honest Q & A