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Anthony Hopkins came close to becoming the first actor to win a Best Actor Oscar for playing a stiff-upper-lip servant in The Remains of the Day (1993). (John Gielgud had won the supporting award for playing a butler in Arthur in 1981.) Though he lost Hollywood's golden boy, he still came out with five critics' awards on two continents for his work as possibly the most self-effacing and self-sacrificing butler in screen history.
James Stevens first appeared in the acclaimed novel by Japanese-born Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro in 1989. Playwright Harold Pinter read the book in galleys and immediately optioned the film rights. He offered his script to director Mike Nichols, and they agreed to cast Jeremy Irons, the Oscar-winning star of Reversal of Fortune (1990) as the butler who gives up all dreams of a personal life and romance to remain true to his post. As the housekeeper he loves and loses, they wanted either Meryl Streep, Glenn Close or Anjelica Huston.
But though Ishiguro's novel had been an international bestseller and won the Booker Prize, Columbia Studios was reluctant to commit $26 million to the project. As a result, Nichols stepped down as director, though he remained as producer. In his place, he hired James Ivory to direct. On the whole, it was an inspired choice, as Ivory had earned a reputation for directing sumptuous period pictures on a shoestring. Among his international hits had been two adaptations of E.M. Forster, A Room with a View (1986) and Howards End (1992), the latter teaming Hopkins with Emma Thompson, who won the Oscar for Best Actress.
Ivory decided to re-team his previous co-stars, even though Hopkins bore no resemblance to the slender, white-haired character in the book. As a result, some pundits dubbed the film The Remains of Howards End. Fleshing out the cast were Edward Fox as the English lord who ultimately betrays Hopkins, Christopher Reeve (in one of his best performances) as an American employer and future stars Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs, 1996) and Lena Headey (the upcoming Ripley's Game). Ivory also turned to his usual screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, to re-write the script (though she kept a few of Pinter's scenes). Although some critics complained that she had sacrificed the novel's darkly ironic tone, others found her more emotional approach to the story deeply moving.
One of Ivory's smartest choices in making the film was to hire Cyril Dickman, once the personal attendant to Queen Elizabeth, as a consultant on protocol and period manners (the film's action spans the '30s through the '50s). With a larger budget than usual for him, he shot on locationsaround England, including Powderham Castle and Badminton House. But for all his care, he didn't catch the contemporary bank sign that turns up behind Hopkins in one street scene.
Despite complaints from a few critics and less-than-spectacular box office, The Remains of the Day performed very well in the year-end awards. Hopkins was named Best Actor at Italy's David di Donatello Awards and by the London Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review and the Southeastern Film Critics Association. The film received eight Oscar nominations - including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress (Thompson), Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay - more than any other film that year except the ultimate winner, Schindler's List.
Producer: Mike Nichols, John Calley & Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Art Direction: John Ralph & Ian Whittaker
Music: Richard Robbins
Principal Cast: Anthony Hopkins (James Stevens), Emma Thompson (Miss Sally Kenton), James Fox (Lord Darlington), Christopher Reeve (Jack Lewis), Peter Vaughan (Mr. Stevens, Sr.), Ben Chaplin (Charlie), Hugh Grant (Cardinal), Tim Piggott-Smith (Tom Benn), Lena Headey (Lizzie).
by Frank Miller