Thursday, March 02, 2017
Bill Paxton was only 61 years old when he passed away this weekend due to complications from surgery. That is not young, per se, but it is nonetheless an age that suggests there is still a little bit of living left to do which suggested that in Paxton’s case there was still a little bit of acting left to do. Alas, after “The Circle” is released in April, he will not grace our silver screens again. It’s a tough one. And yet, to remember what he starred in, and to scroll through his IMDb profile and be reminded of what you might have forgotten he starred in, is to realize just how much he gave to us before he passed.
Paxton, befitting the everymen he often played, was no overnight sensation; he worked at it. He came to L.A. from Texas initially intent to find work on the production side of the industry, only to re-focus on acting, briefly training under the immortal Stella Adler, then finding loads of grunt work before being tasked by James Cameron, with whom Paxton had worked under Roger Corman, for a small role in “The Terminator” (1984) and then the one, that for all the exemplary work he would go on to do, was probably his most indelible to the general populace - Private Hudson in “Aliens” (1986). Paxton got some great lines, sure, but what made them and the part work was how he employed his boisterous personality in such a way that this marine cum crybaby was both hard to like and easy to enjoy.
He was always so easy to enjoy in his movies, whether he was playing a Good Guy, a Bad Guy, or a guy in that slippery area in-between. Indeed, he was perhaps the quintessential You’re Always Happy To See Him actor. You saw it come down on social media time after time on Sunday, some refrain of no movie was worse for Bill Paxton being in it and every movie Bill Paxton was in made it better. Think of something like Kathryn Bigelow’s atmospheric “Near Dark” (1987), maybe my favorite vampire movie, which would have been awesome with or without Paxton but with him got turned up to 11.
Of course, You’re Always Happy To See Him Actors tend to not be leading men, more side players, tasked with adding accents and flourishes in support rather than holding down the fort. If there was a theme to the avalanche of condolences offered in the wake of his death it was his existence as, plainly put, a good guy. You couldn’t find a mean word against him. Still, there is no need to simplify, and if in interviews you could sense his feeling at being generally blessed for what getting to do what he did you could also sometimes sense something like low-key frustration. Noodling around the Internet as I mourned Paxton on Sunday morning I stumbled upon a two paragraph piece from Entertainment Weekly twenty six years ago which ended on Paxton yet again getting a part in support. “Exiled to cultism again,” he said, which is a line you can just hear him wringing laughs and melancholia from in equal measure.
When he did get the leading part in a box behemoth like “Twister” (1996), his tornado chasing Bill Harding still was forced to defer to so much CGI weather, not that Paxton moped. He remained fully engaged with a cheerful kind of bravado that made you believe him as a man who once hurled a bottle of Jack Daniels at a cyclone. In other leading parts, however, he truly got to strut his stuff, like Sam Raimi’s duffel-bag-full-of-cash “A Simple Plan” (1998), a movie where Paxton initially sculpts his small town fellow without a hint of condescension, going about his job at a feed mill in the introductory sequence with an at-peace countenance and comically begging a small family passing by to take him sledding. That last one has always stayed with me, the way it melded his outsized personality with something so earnest. And the way Paxton allowed his character’s earnestness to be compromised upon finding that duffel bag of cash, turning his life topsy turvy, was shattering. What gets you as the movie descends into the darkness is not so much the obligatory twists and ferocious violence as the sadness settling over Paxton’s poor soul as he realizes what he has wrought and that cannot be undone.
His leading man desires all came home in maybe the quintessential Paxton performance as the semi-ironically named Dale “Hurricane” Carter in Carl Franklin’s critically beloved 1992 thriller “One False Move.” A small-town Arkanas sheriff, Dale is forced to ante up when a nasty L.A. crime comes home. His gregariousness masks a sadness for a past that will inevitably come to bear, and his outsized daydreams about becoming a hotshot detective get called on the carpet when a couple real big city detectives turn up. And his final stand emerges not out of misplaced heroism but heroic desperation. What else can he do but do what he does? And in doing it, he makes his mark.