Tom Jolliffe with a retrospective on the career of cult actor Rutger Hauer…
In a career that has encompassed indie, cult, mainstream, and cinema from a range of different countries, Rutger Hauer has offered movie audiences a vast array of characters, in an eclectic grouping of genres. Born in Holland, Hauer was something of a scallywag as a youth. Troubled, rebellious, unpredictable. Stints in the army and in psychiatric institutions followed his young life before becoming an actor. As an actor too, he’s remained somewhat rebellious and unpredictable. His choices have raised eyebrows. As for his on set antics? He’s well known for his intensity. Very much a method actor, Hauer gets under the skin of his characters, bringing to his roles, especially his most memorable turns a depth beyond what’s on the page. Often his fellow actors have felt actual intimidation when Hauer gets in the shoes of his darker characters.
Not only does Hauer put himself into his characters intently, he does so with aplomb. Hauer is not simply a deep thinker, he’s a very capable actor. The places he goes to, the emotions he dredges up, work. Even in some of the low rent films he’s appeared in, Hauer offers something to the audience, and a certain energy that suggests he’s embellishing the writing.
Despite his ability, Hauer has remained a cult artist though. Rising in prominence in his homeland, alongside Dutch compatriot, Paul Verhoeven, Hauer gained a reputation as a promising young actor, in particular when working with Verhoeven. Turkish Delight brought the two together having previously worked on TV show Floris, and it was Soldier of Orange (a film that perfectly demonstrates his ability as a leading man) that helped really catch the attention of the world for Hauer, and indeed Verhoeven. It was enough to give Hauer his break into American cinema, with Sly Stallone’s somewhat forgotten action thriller, Nighthawks (which incidentally is a re-working of what was going to be The French Connection 3). Though Nighthawks is a somewhat formulaic film, it remains reasonably effective thanks to it’s cast, but in most part down to Hauer’s scene stealing turn as Wulfgar. Wulfgar is almost a pre-cursor to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in Die Hard). Though Wulfie lets himself down when he somehow gets fooled by Sly Stallone (sporting full on Jesus beard) dressed as a woman! Still, the intensity offered by Hauer made the film more exciting than it may have been without such a strong villain.
Two years later came Hauer’s career high, at the time and indeed still to this day. It was of course, Blade Runner. This was big budget, coming out in a year stuffed with big blockbuster movies. This was the early 80’s, with cinema still riding the escapist blockbusting waves of Star Wars. Spielberg was at his apex having delivered sharks, aliens and Mr Jones to movie going audiences. Blade Runner was supposed to tap into this and deliver the studio huge gate receipts. But of course, it was not that sort of movie, despite the concepts, designs, and big budget. Mis-marketing, and a theatrical cut with too much push and pull from different corners, meant that Blade Runner was a financial disaster and critical bomb on its initial release. This was all the more saddening given the many great aspects of the film that got overlooked, particularly with award recognition. Be it Jorden Cronenworth’s cinematography, which should have swept up all the majors, to Vangelis’ unique and brilliant score, the film to an extent was brushed under the carpet. It did no great favours for Hauer’s career.
It was Hauer who stole the movie. Of course in retrospect and with re-cuts since, Blade Runner is now considered a masterpiece. But Hauer should have ridden a bigger wave following the movie than he actually did. While other actors on set clashed with Ridley Scott, especially regarding his pre-occupation with the visuals, Hauer relished being left to his own devices. Consistently thinking outside the box, and immersing himself into such a unique character, so completely, Hauer perfectly brings to life Roy Batty. It’s a fantastic performance that, had the film not misfired so much, could have earned him a slew of award nominations, even deservedly an Oscar nomination. Batty was something new, with a performance that gave the character a sense of existence, reality. The replicants are amped up in every regard. They’re on fast forward. “The light that burns twice as bright, burns for half as long.” Hell, they’ve been switched to 11! Stronger, quicker, but with only a four year lifespan. They consume their emotional experience at speed. It’s like they take in their childhood in one lump. As such they are prone to uncontrollable emotional responses, with an inability to properly consider. We see fits of rage, uncontrolled. It’s through inexperience mixed with experience too quickly gathered. It’s also through chemical imbalance. The mood swings in some regards almost mirror that of side effects suffered by some steroid users. The replicants are not the bad guys, merely victims of their own existence. To effectively put this into character and onto screen with such believability and such power, is testament to Hauer’s performance. Despite the horrific actions, we sympathise for the replicants, Batty in particular, because they are the Frankenstein’s Monsters. Hauer got himself to the point where he could act instinctively during his takes. When he could embellish and add a dash and stroke here and there, to paint Batty fully. It’s a work of art. Famously Hauer added his own finishing lines to Batty’s death, which brilliantly and poetically brings to a close his part in Blade Runner. “All these memories will be lost, like tears in rain.”
After Blade Runner, Hauer had a spate of pictures and diverse rolls in Hollywood. None were particularly successful films, including Sam Peckinpah’s final film, The Osterman Weekend, or fantasy film Ladyhawke. There was also a re-teaming with Paul Verhoeven in the controversial (a Verhoeven byword) Flesh and Blood. Hauer again showing his diversity throughout this period, and particularly in the case of Flesh and Blood, a penchant for darker characters. It was his next film that would become a real cult favourite though, and one in which Hauer adds almost a whole other level to the movie. This was The Hitcher.
As John Ryder, Hauer took the conventional stalking killer and added a mythical quality to him. Little is ever revealed about Ryder but Hauer invites the audience to second guess. The film itself was a low budget horror/thriller, designed with the dawn of the video market in mind perhaps, and in particular the mid 80’s love of the video nasty. This was a schlock piece, but has gained a cult following for several reasons. As Hauer himself describes the film, it’s “a fucked up fairytale.” There’s a ghostly quality to it, something almost metaphysical about Ryder. The movie contains a lot of visual symbolism, such as moments suggesting riding into hell as lead C. Thomas Howell enters not only into fog at night, but a forming of dark clouds in an otherwise hot, dry, blue skied desert. Indeed, the locales themselves suggest purgatory. In part filmmaker intent, and in part film student theorising of course, but it all adds another level to this film none-the-less. Aside it’s beautifully shot by director Robert Harmon and cinematographer John Seale. But of course it’s Hauer’s menace and devil charm that make the film beyond what it really is. C. Thomas Howell (playing Jim Halsey) was actually afraid of Hauer on set. This tall, imposing Dutch guy with the steely glare, armed with a knife for their opening scene, who whilst in the moment decides off the cuff to catch a tear from Howell’s cheek on the blade. Again, as is his way, Hauer kept throwing in little touches to his character that just add more and more dimension to him as the film progresses. No matter how random, like waving a white handkerchief out the window of a pickup truck he’s just hitched a lift on (while Halsey tries to stop the driver exiting to an expected grisly end, as they disappear into a dust cloud for perhaps, or perhaps not, more symbolism), or the somewhat creepy reaction to getting spat in the face by Halsey, Hauers touches make Ryder ever more believable whilst ever more unique a character. The film as a whole feels very unique, and this was only emphasised by a completely derivative and woefully conventional remake recently.
Whilst The Hitcher divided opinion on release, it was a smash on video, and in time has become a cult favourite. Perhaps to the detriment of his career, Hauer wanted to move away from the antagonist roles he was most famous for (and most liked for) in Hollywood. In the late 80’s he had a string of fairly popular (particularly on video) action films, such as Wanted: Dead or Alive, Blind Fury and Salute Of The Jugger.
Moving into the 90’s Hauer found big screen roles beginning to dwindle following mis-fires like Split Second and the first incarnation of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (before the world was given Sarah Michelle Geller). To this point, Hauer hadn’t really been put of a truly successful blockbuster movie. Most of his successes were revisited films, be it Blade Runner’s popularity rising thanks to video, and the 1992 Directors Cut re-release, or the success on video of The Hitcher. But to some extent to sustain a big screen career, you have to have big screen hits. Hauer’s never one to discriminate productions of any size when choosing roles that interest him either. He in fact turned down a bigger film with more money on offer to take on Nighthawks. He enjoys diversity and roles that give him something to play with. Throughout the 90’s he’s donned the cloths to play Priests and monks, and donned fangs to play vampires. He’s seen the past, present, future, from the arctic, to the forests, to the skies, he’s been almost everywhere.
Despite some appalling additions to his CV in the late 90’s, and into the noughties, Hauer was prolific, but always reliable. He’s never one to particularly go through the motions. On occasions his characters may lack the Hauer intensity, when even Hauer can’t inject too much without the character becoming a cartoon. Sometimes for example a small cameo as a General can only offer so much range. In 2002, George Clooney brought Hauer back into the limelight in his directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Clooney in fact, according to his DVD commentary, loved Rutger’s approach to acting. There wasn’t much direction needed, merely taking on board any of Rutgers embellishments, and allowing room to pull together the best bits in the editing room. Hauer’s screen time was short, but he makes the most of his brief scenes and his character really comes to life and stays in the memory. Memorable supporting roles would follow in Batman Begins, under the eye of Christopher Nolan (who went into the film, requesting all involved watched Blade Runner, which would act as the visual basis for his Batman film). He was then cast by Robert Rodriguez in Sin City. Whilst Hauer flits between bigger movies, indie movies, foreign movies and straight to video cheapies, he seems to be relishing the eclectic nature of his CV.
What is to come? Can Hauer find a mainstream role that will land him a top award? He has a Golden Globe to his name already for the TV movie Escabe From Sobibor, but perhaps like Mickey Rourke who came back with a bang in The Wrestler, Hauer just needs someone brave enough to cast him in something that will get the Oscar voters’ attention. Until that time, second guessing the next film in line on Hauer’s plate will always be a challenge, though as a fan, I’m most looking forward to Hobo With A Shotgun (yes really! Hobo With A Shotgun!). Hauer will also line up alongside Anthony Hopkins for The Rite. Above all though, it would be a shame for Hauer not to get the credit he deserves as an actor.