Bill Paxton: An Appreciation

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Bill Paxton’s characters always seemed like they were up to some mischief, or, failing that, up for some. The hint or indicator springs from the face, and his was a deceptively expressive one, with its deep, handsome lines, wide, slightly gap-toothed smile, and flinty grey-blue eyes that fairly danced with life, ill-contented to ever sit idly by while others made their mark or had their fun, desperate to be wherever, and with whomever, the action was. Action became Bill Paxton’s calling card over time, but he brought the same levels of play and professionalism to grade-Z schlock that he did to ponderous prestige pictures, and reliably came out of the transaction as one of the most memorable things on the screen. The kind of resume and cinematic archive he now leaves to the ages couldn’t possibly be the product of luck alone. Though nobody’s idea of a movie star, least of all his own, he built an enviable career as one, out of work effort, easygoing charm, and often barely contained enthusiasm. He played a devout but conflicted Mormon polygamist patriarch, a blood-drunk, gleefully immoral dust bowl vampire, and, in a career than spanned 93 roles over the course of 42 years, at least touched most of the noteworthy ports-of-call in between. Like his great “everyman” character acting forebears Harry Dean Stanton and M. Emmett Walsh, Bill Paxton had a face that, whether relaxed or animated, fairly guaranteed that deviltry was either in the offing or already afoot, so keep your popcorn handy. Moreover, he looked like a guy who had stories to tell beyond counting, and time seems to have borne that sentiment out, however coldly. If the maxim that you’re only as old as you feel has any truth to it, then it makes little sense that, at 61, he died so young, still so apparently, enthusiastically early in the process of his life’s work.

Paxton was a humble, gracious, meat-and-potatoes workhorse, nobody’s idea of a Shakespearian, or even a thespian, least of all his own, who made and ran with some interesting friends early on (particularly one James Cameron), found an interesting niche as an actor, settled into it, and began the process of alternately treating and testing himself with an eye toward ever-expanding horizons. Those efforts wouldn’t cease, or even flag, until his body cruelly, suddenly did this past Sunday as a result of surgical complications. More than once, his craftsman’s ambitions would lead him out of this world. His relaxed but still authoritative speaking voice could often be found sliding into an endearing sort of hybrid drawl, part Texas cowboy, part California surfer. Depending on the needs of the film, he could be a character actor, a bit player, or a leading man, and, indeed, seemed to neither brook preference nor recognize any distinction, treating each role with gravity, equanimity, and shine. The truth is that a reasonably assembled sampling of Paxton’s work is going to end up looking an awful lot like a carefully curated film festival containing, if not always the most acclaimed, some of the most fun and interesting movies of the last thirty years. As with any filmography this thick, the dreck is there to be found if searching remains your aim, though that thinking only goes so far. The internet has made tasty hay over the past week out of the fact that Paxton, along with whole cloth contemporary and occasional co-star Lance Henriksen, is the only man to have been killed on-screen by a Terminator, an Alien, and a Predator. While limited, considering where the ‘90s and and beyond would take him, it is indeed a clever, if disposable, factoid, a great shorthand indicator of the scope of the man’s broader appeal, in spite of the fact that, for Bill Paxton, those kinds of sci-fi trappings always represented the mere tip of the iceberg.*

*Yes, a clumsy, purposely ironic turn-of-phrase to describe a guy whose most memorable of many high profile bit parts was arguably as the oceanographer/jewel hunter/framing device in Cameron’s “Titanic”, who listens like a fidgety but affectionate grandson to Rose’s tales of long-ago love and loss. Give me a break; I’m grieving here.

The rare actor who more often than not appeared conspicuously secure in even the slimiest of second skins, Paxton’s roles appeared to be a natural extension of himself, even in those cases where, as suggested above, they were almost certainly anything but. Though he’d go on to star, and in some cases, anchor, movies that either won Academy Awards (Ron Howard’s stirring Apollo 13) or should have (Sam Raimi’s Gordian knot of a film noir A Simple Plan), his work was dependably above the line even when he wasn’t a featured player (as a snotty, doomed, punk wardrobe consultant in The Terminator; as an entertainingly delusional, self-styled gigolo in True Lies). His unassuming good looks left him somewhat ill-equipped to fully disappear into a role, but like the aforementioned Stanton and Walsh, Paxton wasn’t a chameleon so much as he was a signal fire. The characters always came to him, and though that approach naturally precludes the sort of overstuffed trophy case bestowed on the Streeps or DeNiros of the world, Paxton’s very presence was a reliable sign that something interesting was about to happen. He never stopped working, nor gave any impression he wanted to. I was immediately struck upon a cursory review by just how many intriguing blind spots Paxton’s body of work contains. Alongside the blustery, imminently quotable Private Hudson from Aliens and the wildly obnoxious Chet from Weird Science, the determined storm chaser from Twister, or Frailty’s measured, terrifying Dad Meiks, there is vast acreage containing roles I’d either heard of in passing or not at all. Acting was the coal into Paxton’s furnace, and he struck out in multiple directions in search of arresting terrain, especially in later years when his star was sufficiently burnished that he could parlay whatever clout he’d carried out of his youth to go exploring, often on the small screen.

It’s at roughly this point, soon after the time of his underrated turn on HBO’s dense, addictive, soap-operatic Big Love, that Bill Paxton’s career sped ahead of me and I lost track of him for good. In part because of the capacity of serialized television, especially the “Golden Age” anti-hero era of the early aughts and the streaming explosion that rose in its wake, to devote copious resources to the causes of world building, storytelling, and character cultivation, Bill Hendrickson, Big Love’s dogged, beleaguered fringe Mormon paterfamilias, remains the role I most associate with Paxton. Over the course of six increasingly overheated, momentous, plausibility-straining seasons, Paxton anchored one of TV’s best post-Sopranos ensembles in much the same way an actual polygamist father might his own brood, or how the sun retains unspoken authority over ostensibly more colorful orbiting satellites. So much of Big Love’s intrigue springs naturally from its audacious premise – a religious businessman, his three wives, and attendant children struggle to forge and sustain a normal life beneath the radar – and it was incumbent upon writer and actor alike to hold nothing back. Though hardly a showy part, Paxton has by far the trickiest path to tread, balancing week-to-week dramatics with existential acrobatics, and, in the process, thoroughly humanizing a man who his church (at least outwardly) would consider an outcast, his society a deviant, and the law a criminal, condemnations that come in no small part because he considers himself a prophet. By taking his head of household position as non-negotiable in a way his underlying convictions might not always be, and tapping into the unambiguously devoted family man at Hendrickson’s core – no matter the macho charge he gets out of juggling and romancing three women at once – Paxton succeeds in making Bill, a sunny-faced civic pillar whose innate optimism regularly edges into naivete and courts darkness, both infuriating and uncomfortably relatable.

On Big Love, Bill Hendrickson was the constant that other, more mutable, characters circled like moons and/or buzzards, alternately looking up to or down on. This is a neat inversion of how Paxton began his career, as the conspicuous, unpredictable, grinning pot-stirrer I described before. But even when given minimal time to impress, he always made the most of his spotlight, and sometimes spun depth out of the most unexpected corners. Whenever a beloved filmmaker passes away, the movie nerd contingent among us immediately retreats in search of something choice to pull from the vault and watch in his or her honor. Confronted with an embarrassment of options from which to pick, I gravitated immediately toward Kathryn Bigelow’s smart, scuzzy vampire Western Near Dark, and found myself knocked out all over again by how thoroughly Paxton’s bloodsucking loose cannon Severen dominates the proceedings without overwhelming or cheapening the fascinating revisionist mythology that gives the film its juice. My memorial could just as easily have been the harrowing, disturbingly intimate Frailty, which marked Paxton’s directorial debut, the alternately goofy and pitch black slasher satire Club Dread, anchored by his disarming, free-wheeling turn as a washed-up, self-possessed Jimmy Buffett knock-off, or the two movies that are arguably his best: Cameron’s superb, relentless Aliens, a sci-fi nightmare for which Paxton’s brash, imploding Private Hudson was an unexpected source of pathos and humanity, and the regal but efficient Apollo 13, in which Paxton held his own against the combined star power of Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Ed Harris, plus the inherent baggage of “based on a true story” Best Picture Oscar-bait.

Despite the open-faced, plain-speaking manner he favored in public, there is an innate cockiness at the heart of many of Paxton’s best known roles. It’s the thin connective tissue linking insane serial killer to aloof, exacting astronaut, arrogant Marine to self-loathing hedonist, Bill Hendrickson’s simultaneously unshakeable and untenable self-belief to the otherwise diametrically opposed Severen, fearless, heedless, soulless, and merciless,  famous scourge of redneck bars everywhere. It’s kind of remarkable these roles all issue from the same source, and a tribute to Paxton’s sneaky substantial, ever underrated, talents as an actor. To wit: one of the last completed roles of Paxton’s career, as the streetwise, corrupt police veteran – the part that finally won Denzel Washington a lead acting Oscar – in CBS’ recent television reboot of Training Day, went for me from largely an afterthought to something near appointment viewing in the blink of an eye. Whether or not the show offers anything deeper is a fair question, but Paxton’s presence alone was enough to convince this prospective viewer something interesting was about to happen. Just about everything about Bill Paxton’s storied career in film seemed similarly engineered to surprise, and to surpass expectations. You didn’t notice him beforehand, but he made an impression, and you invariably missed him when he was gone. The coal into Paxton’s furnace slowly and steadily became the films of our lives, which linger, thankfully, with their power to move and hunger to entertain, timeless in the midst of his untimely passing. Neither they nor he stand to be forgotten soon.

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