Game over, man! A Bill Paxton Tribute
This morning we woke up to the news that Bill Paxton has tragically died at age 61. While I’m sure many people will start talking about all the talented artists, musicians, actors and just all round beautiful humans that we lost last year, I think it is important to remember that death is, unfortunately, a part of life and it’s important not to sully this heartbreaking and devastating news by internalising it as part of a crummy year. It’s much more than that. A family is mourning a loved one and the world of cinema loses one of its most humble stars. What I think is always more conducive to commemoration is celebrating the life of an incredibly talented character actor who resided in many of our childhoods.
Bill Paxton wasn’t a box-office movie star, but he danced around that company. Fact is Bill Paxton was one of those actors where while you may not have remembered his name, you would spot him in literally anything and say to yourself, “Oh him, he’s great!”
As myself, a child of the 90s and a prolific movie renter, I would notice him in some of my favourite movies throughout the decades. Whether it was as part of an ensemble in epic historical pictures Tombstone and Apollo 13 as slime ball face punchable villains in Vertical Limit and 2 Guns, scene stealing supporting roles in u-571 and Edge of Tomorrow or in delightful unexpected cameos in Terminator and Predator 2, you saw in his resume a multi-faceted career. While he was never the million dollar headliner, he made the million dollar headliners’ movies more memorable and human.
While I’m sure many lists of this nature will pop up in the coming weeks, I want to point out that this is an entirely subjective list. These aren’t the definitive Bill Paxton roles, they are simply my...
TOP 5 BILL PAXTON PERFORMANCES
5. Bill Harding - Twister (1996)
Yes, I am sincerely starting with Twister. Largely forgotten today, this movie was Avatar big in the mid 90’s. School playgrounds and family dinner parties were peppered with discussions about a movie where a bunch of people follow a tornado - oh and there’s a flying cow at one point! While it’s easily scoffed at, particularly the ending with the pipe – those who’ve seen it know what I’m talking about and are already rolling their eyes – I think it speaks to Bill Paxton’s prowess and craft that during a movie about weather, he manages to make Bill Harding charming, heroic and palpable. It’s also one of the fewer times where he was the leading man, an honour he should have received more often than he did.
4. Simon - True Lies (1994)
This is where Bill’s command of character acting is superbly on display. While he may have been type-cast as a weasel, villainous or as just plain dislikeable characters, the too cowardly for a last name Simon, of both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most criminally underrated movie, is a masterstroke in a character so snide, creepy and sleazy that he oozes off the screen. The genius with this role is the layers of one character which Bill seamlessly blends in and out of. Simon is a slick-mouthed, sleekly dressed and charming “spy” who then slithers into a fast-talking, insidious, chauvinistic used car salesmen and then finally a snivelling, petulant, cowardly man-child. Bill manages to merge all three effortlessly and the result is the best compliment an actor can receive: you really want to just punch this guy right in his fucking face.
3. Dad Meiks - Frailty (2001)
This is actually one of my favourite movies and probably my favourite Bill Paxton role but it’s higher up on the list due to its obscurity for some people. First off, Bill was also the director of this film and yet still managed an eerie powerhouse performance. Second off, it showcases Matthew McConaughey’s brilliance before the McConaughsance, when this was drastically against type for the hunky rom-com star at the time, so Bill gets extra credit for recognising and harnessing the talent of one of today’s biggest A-listers. Thirdly, this movie is just one of those diamonds in the rough you’d discover by accident at a video rental store. Told primarily in flashbacks, McCounaghey plays a tortured man who confesses to an FBI agent (years before True Detective) how he spent his childhood: murdering “demons” based on his religious fanatic father’s visions. Paxton’s Dad Meiks is probably the most underrated horror movie villain but what makes him so terrifying his how seductive his extremist faith is. And you know what; he’s actually more of a Dexter-esque vigilante than just a crazed villain. But where Bill really sells it is the benevolence flickering behind his eyes at all times; the mixture of anger, fear, loathing and dutiful faith as he is empowered and horrified by his holy war.
2. Hank - A Simple Plan (1998)
Directed by Sam Raimi, but could easily be the Coen Brothers, A Simple Plan is, like the name implies, a simple premise: three “friends” find millions of dollars and plot to keep it to themselves, which doesn’t turn out to be so simple after all... I know that sounds maybe a bit bland, “Oh well the friends are obviously going to fall out and start mistrusting one another” but this is very much a film about the journey and not the destination. Yet it’s not without its twists and turns. While many people rave about Billy Bob Thornton’s turn as Jacob, as they should because the performance is phenomenal, I still think the everyman of Hank, played by Bill, demonstrates that whilst Paxton could delve into character work, he also had severe play-it-straight chops with enough nuance and idiosyncrasies to make a simple role layered and complicated with gut-wrenching humanity.
1. Private Hudson - Aliens (1986)
Yeah, I know. I said this list was subjective and yet the number one is what most number ones will be. While the hysterical cowardice of Private Hudson may appear too similar to Simon in True Lies, what Paxton manages with this role is he essentially plays a cartoon character: so unreal it’s believable whereas we unfortunately can probably name some Simons we’ve had the misfortune of meeting in our lifetime. Hudson is definitely wet behind the ears from his introduction in Aliens, and his machismo act is still believable, so is his immediate downfall into pessimistic panic. And yet, the genius with this role is the transformation and the arc itself. Not only does Hudson represent the audience’s fear and desperation, but he essentially undergoes the metamorphosis in under 2 hours which took Ripley two films worth of battling xenomorphs. Lastly, this is easily his most iconic role. Even if you don’t know the name Bill Paxton, you do know the quotes, “Game over, man!” or “What you put her in charge!” It’s the delicate dance of Paxton’s vulnerable voice cracking delivery, spittle flying and manic bravado. Despite the seemingly dislikeable traits of Hudson, he’s oddly loveable and the most relatable character in the situation.
Honorable mention: Zachary Cody - The Last Supper (1995)
I really wanted to make this number one because it is an absolute wonder of cinema packed full of amazing actors from a young Cameron Diaz, mid-Seinfeld Jason Alexander, pre-Hellboy Ron Perlman and Bill himself. This movie is actually timelessly fits today’s rift between left and right wing politics. The premise is bat-shit insane but deliciously devious. A group of five liberals start inviting extremist conservatives to their dinner table for debates on society, culture and politics where the final toast spells death for their unlucky guest. The movie is an interesting note on civic debate whilst also questioning morality with some twists and turns along the way. While Bill isn’t in this movie a lot, like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenross, with just a few minutes of screen-time, his Zachary Cody impacts and idealistically drives the core characters for the entire course of the film.
Bill Paxton really was one of the great supporting actors who are a testament to their craft. They don't need top-billing to be the most arresting character on the screen. They are team players, and the work is the reward.
However, a man’s life can’t be reduced to a handful of times I watched him on a theatre screen or television set. When an actor or celebrity dies, the cynically minded are quick to point out any note of mourning with the retort, “It’s not like you knew them”. But that’s the thing. Through the work of an incredible actor like Bill Paxton, we got to know ourselves and we rejoiced when a recognisable face marched on screen like an old friend...
Vale, Bill Paxton. Rest in peace.