TOUGH GUYS DO DANCE. Behind the anti-hero image of Oscar nominee

BOB Hoskins has become the latest silver screen anti-hero in the true Bogey and Cagney tradition - and the genre has carried him to an Oscar nomination for his latest role as a small-time crook. His pugnaciousness and smoldering inarticulateness has set a stamp on his celluloid image (as if head-bashing dialogue were not sufficient). So it comes as a shock to discover that behind this remarkable presence lies a clear-eyed self-deprecation - ``Love, look at me: 5-foot 6, bald and fat; what do you want, James Bond?'' - and a well-honed humanity, proving that tough guys do indeed dance.

``I may look like a sort of mug, but, you know, Rambo, I ain't,'' comes the actor's colloquial rumination about his role in ``Mona Lisa,'' for which he may take home an Oscar Monday night and which has just won him the British version of an Oscar. ``I don't know why I've picked up this tough-guy image. I'm the last tough guy.''

In fact, Hoskins is currently co-starring with the likes of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and a four-foot rabbit in a new animated thriller by Steven Spielberg being shot just outside London. On television and on stage, Hoskins's range includes the classic villain Iago in ``Othello,'' as well as the comic gambler Nathan Detroit in the musical ``Guys and Dolls.''

Be that as it may, Hoskins's performance as George, the small-time, soft-hearted crook who chauffeurs and eventually falls in love with a beautiful young prostitute (played by Cathy Tyson) in London's gritty King's Cross, has captivated the international critical community like nothing else the self-taught English actor has done.

In addition to the Oscar nomination, Hoskins has already been showered with best-actor awards, including the one from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Golden Globes, and an award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Hoskins was the first British actor to receive the latter honor in more than 20 years.

Hollywood is currently courting the barrel-chested East Ender with the Roman praetor haircut as the next Marlon Brando. But for this street-smart Cockney, an admitted social and economic remove from the well-trod Laurence Olivier tradition, such accolades elicit all the savoir faire of a child running amok in a toy store.

``We got this enormous shelf in my lounge and we're running out of space,'' says Hoskins during a lunch break in the filming of the animation film. ``Linda, my wife, says, `Do you think your Mum'd have it [the Oscar?]' I phone up mates and say, `If I get an Oscar, can you keep it?'''

For Hoskins, it is a success built out of the illumination of a hoodlum's inner humanity. After playing an unrelieved series of hard-nosed toughs ranging from the gang boss in ``The Long Good Friday'' to the Hell's Kitchen mobster in ``Cotton Club'' to Il Duce in the TV miniseries ``Mussolini,'' Hoskins has found in the ``Mona Lisa'' character George a role more indigenous to himself: a hamfisted loser with heart.

``He's an ordinary man,'' says Hoskins in the twangy cadences of his native East London. ``You can walk out of here and find 20 Georges in five minutes. Although he's a crook, he's got some sense of decency. Plenty of people out there fight, but in their hearts they're the softest people in the world.''

Hoskins characterizes the R-rated ``Mona Lisa'' (which takes its title from Nat King Cole's silken standard) as ``a love story.'' And he explains his preparation for the role as a ``study of the man's spirit.'' Unlike his preparation for ``The Long Good Friday'' and ``Cotton Club'' - for which Hoskins actually ``went and visited gangsters and said, `Teach me how to be a gangster''' - for ``Mona Lisa'' he ``went to the zoo with my daughter Rosa and watched her go through the aviaries, looking at the beautiful birds. George is like that, he's trapped in his own ignorance, his own passion.''

Hoskins originally turned down the role, which was written specifically for him by Neil Jordan, the film's Irish writer and director, as too violent. ``Violence is an everyday occurence [but] I just find it boring or distasteful,'' says Hoskins. In `Mona Lisa' I was far more interested in the relationship between the guy and girl. Neil Jordan turned up on my doorstep and ... together we worked out what film we'd like to make.''

Working it out meant redefining Hoskin's character - including some on-the-set improvisation by the actor - to produce the highly nuanced role which critics have labled his richest to date. ``If I've got a success [as an actor], I think it's that I'm a very ordinary person, like the milkman,'' says Hoskins, running a blunt hand over his balding head. ``I could turn up on your television or turn up with your bottle of milk. It's the way people see me; [I'm] their Uncle Charlie. Someone they know.''

It is a self-assessment that sets the seal not only on the garden-variety villains Hoskins has played but also the actor's personal life, which is filled with family and his ``mates.'' He's been called an actor with ``a boxer's fists and a poet's soul.'' For Hoskins that translates into working nonstop - he's booked at least four films in advance - but also means living in the unfashionable working-class neighborhood in which he was born and evincing an obvious devotion to his family.

During the lunchtime interview with two reporters, Hoskins refers repeatedly to his wife, Linda, and their two young children. (Hoskins has two other children from a previous marriage.) He seldom travels without them, even lacing his description of the Cannes award ceremony with familial references. ``Everyone was going bananas. Neil and I thought [the audience] didn't like it. Linda had to grab me by the scruff of the neck and stand me up [to accept the award.]''

About the upcoming Oscars, where Hoskins's only real competition is considered Paul Newman, he simply laughs. ``Linda will dress up in her best frock. I might even buy her some diamonds. It'll be great.''

Yet for all this common-man braggadocio, Hoskins maintains a genuinely sanguine attitude about his current success. ``Right now I'm Flavor of the Month. Whether I'll always be making this kind of money, I don't think so. But I do think I'll always be working.''

For someone who originally trained as an accountant and served briefly as a porter in London's Covent Garden, as well as doing a two-week stint in the Norwegian Navy - ``I wanted to be a Viking, but it didn't work out'' - Hoskins's introduction to acting has all the earmarks of a fairy tale: he stumbled into a local theater audition on a whim - and landed the part - more than 10 years ago.

Although he has also performed on London stages, Hoskins says he most enjoys working before a camera. ``That's what's so exciting about filmmaking: The cast and the cameraman dance. And you do it again and again until you get it,'' he says snapping his fingers. ``I love filmmaking.

``It's the most social way of being creative, because you join as a family; you become a team. I get a bit lonely sitting on me own at the typewriter.''

Nonetheless, screenwriting is what the future apparently holds. After finishing the Spielberg film, ``Who Shot Roger Rabbit,'' Hoskins will begin shooting the first movie that he will write and direct. Entitled ``Raggedy Rawney,'' it is a film that will incorporate much of Hoskins's own gypsy heritage.

``Raggedy Rawney'' is where ``you'll get the Bob Hoskins philosophy,'' says the actor quietly. ``Humanity, I suppose. You know, we've got a very delicate world. Let's be gentle. I'm a very gentle fellow, really.''

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