Tom Jolliffe pays tribute to Bill Paxton, who sadly passed away on Sunday…
The weekend in film was notable for two things. One was the Oscars. All the glitz, glamour and gaffes that came with that. A time of celebration for those fortunate enough to have been nominated in whichever category they were up for and utter delight for the winners (La La Land for about 8 seconds). However, alongside the handing out of the famous golden statue, there was another headline that caught the attention of film-goers around the world and that was the very sad and untimely passing of Bill Paxton.
If you’ve seen your share of films, particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, then chances are you’ve seen Bill Paxton. Predominantly a sturdy support player over the years, he proved reliable throughout a prolific career. To some though he was more than just a face you recognise from a film you’ve seen. To me and a lot of film buffs of my generation, he was an actor ingrained into our cinematic upbringing. He was in The Terminator, Aliens, Near Dark, Weird Science, Commando (very briefly), Predator 2, True Lies, Twister, Titanic and more. Rarely has an actor accumulated quite so many credits in cult cinema as Bill Paxton. He might not have scored the lead and the mass appeal of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the vast array of leading men he often played support too, but he was present and correct and often a memorable scene stealer. He was also one of only two (or perhaps the only, depending on your standing regarding the legitimacy of the other contender, Lance Henriksen) people to have been killed by an Alien, Terminator and Predator.
Paxton was a favourite of mine. No he might not have been Corporal Hicks, but he still remains one of the memorable characters in Aliens. When I quote from certain films that Paxton has appeared in, I’m often finding that my first port of call is a quote from Paxton. “Game over man! Game over!” It was a line he apparently improvised in Aliens, and it wasn’t even the only memorable line his character, Hudson, comes out with. He perhaps first came to attention to many as the street punk in The Terminator. It’s that first moment where we see how lethal Ahnuld’s cyborg is as Paxton and his cohorts are dispatched. Indeed, Paxton even has a quotable line in this scene. Several actually. “Nice night for a walk eh?” Here approached by a bollock naked Schwarzenegger, blissfully unaware that he’s about to get annihilated. He finishes with “Fuck you asshole!” A line so quotable in fact that Ahnuld’s cyborg banks it and re-uses the line later.
So memorable as a street punk was Paxton (and indeed Brian Thompson) that a big point of contention in Terminator Genysis, when recreating the scenes from the original 1984 film, the street punks they cast caused a stink among fans of the original for not being right. They were dull. They had no presence. The fact of the matter is they cast glorified extras. It’s a small incidental role known as punk leader. In T-Gen it was some guy with perhaps a passing resemblance to Paxton. But in The Terminator it’s Bill Fucking Paxton. Now maybe James Cameron didn’t expect the guy playing Punk Leader to end up becoming such a respected and prolific character actor, but still, it says it all about Paxton that his small role, that wasn’t even his major breakout, still remains memorable.
He also wrote the rulebook on how to play an asshole older brother in Weird Science. This film belongs to Paxton. He takes the movie and puts it in his pocket. He owns it. I love the film. It’s bonkers and it’s great fun and it’s a fine entry into John Hughes’s canon. Almost every one of Paxton’s lines is brilliant. “You two donkey dicks couldn’t get laid in a morgue!” He mercilessly bullies his younger brother and Paxton delivers every barb with such gleeful aplomb that you can’t help but like this utter cretin of a character. It takes great skill to play horrible characters, but somehow make them likeable. He did it here, not for the first time, nor the last. Another fine example is in the cult classic, Near Dark. The film that Twilight wishes it could be. Kathryn Bigelow’s beautifully shot vampire love story. Lance Henriksen and Paxton take joint honours in walking away with the film. Henriksen with quiet, steely menace, while Paxton gets the showier role with the most comedic lines. “It’s finger lickin good!”
Check Paxton in True Lies. The film stormed the box office upon its release. It re-teamed Arnold Schwarzenegger with James Cameron again. In the last few years it’s become somewhat forgotten sadly, despite the fact it’s pretty brilliant (slightly xenophobic characterisation of the villains aside). Who stole the film? Bill Paxton. His character is equal parts plot device and plot distraction as the film veers into a tangent through the middle third. What stops this tangent from becoming irksome or possibly derailing the film, is that the key instigator of this, a sleazy car salesman is so magnificently played by Paxton. He’s such an awful, slimy and pathetic peace of work, but again, weirdly endearing. “The vet, gets em wet!” He’s probably my favourite Paxton character. He’s just such a brilliant creation and a role that shouldn’t really own such a film, does because the most skilled actor in the production is playing it. Paxton spent the majority of his career slightly below radar and vastly appreciated.
He had films which he lead. Some low rent, but some big productions too. He shared the front line in Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon, and he was in the enjoyable disaster film, Twister. Two of his finest works though remain very much under-appreciated. Firstly, A Simple Plan. Really great film from Sam Raimi. Raimi of course has huge cult appeal from films like Evil Dead (and it’s sequels) as well as his Spider-Man films (the first two) Darkman and Drag Me To Hell. Simple Plan was low key, restrained but nuanced and beautifully woven. A great tale of a simple plan unravelling into chaos. The other was also his directorial debut. The criminally forgotten psychological thriller, Frailty. Paxton also starred in the film opposite Matthew McConaughey. It was well crafted and showed no shortage of directorial skill while Paxton’s own performance was also one of his best. It’s a film well worth hunting out, because whilst it picked up some good word of mouth around the year of release, it has become sadly forgotten over time. It’s a brilliant film though.
I’ve quoted the man countless times. I’ve used memes of his characters on forums. I’ve probably got at least a dozen of his films on my DVD shelf. I’ve watched a lot of his films countless times. To say this is one of those celeb losses that I feel would be an understatement. Every passing year whilst eyeing up those films that interested me, I’d often look at the cast as a guideline to whether or not I’d be snagging a ticket pretty quickly. Recently I recall looking forward to Nightcrawler. It did look great but there are always certain names I see on a cast list, who often appear from maybe third or fourth down, that make me say “that’s good casting. I’m there.” One of those names was always Bill Paxton. “Paxton’s in it. Quality” to paraphrase myself. My brother is the same. Many of my friends would be the same and indeed my colleagues on Flickering Myth. When Bill Paxton’s name appeared on a cast list, or his face popped up unexpectedly in a trailer, it was always a good thing. As it happened of course, Paxton was typically reliable in Nightcrawler.
It’s sad to think that won’t happen again. It’s also sad that in Oscar season, an actor so versatile, so iconic (in his own scene stealing way) and so reliable won’t ever get the Oscar nomination his career deserved. If you see something like A Simple Plan you know he had it in his locker. Billy Bob Thornton gained an Oscar nod for that, but Paxton was just as worthy. My own personal favourites remain his assholes and douchebags. They populate the films I watched growing up and in these it seems he provided his greatest skill. The consensus seems to be that Paxton was one of Hollywood’s nice guys. Humble, easy to work with and respected by his peers, even if the highest end of super stardom alluded him. He seemed to carve out a career as second, or third fiddle, but did so with a level of aplomb and bravura few could match. Rest in peace Bill Paxton and thanks for the memories.