After his passing on February 25, 2017, it quickly became clear, perhaps a little too late, that Bill Paxton will be talked about about as one of the great human actors. A man filled to the brim with realness, who looked natural in any part and yet never quite looked like a movie star. Instead, Paxton often looked like some dude from down the street having the time of his life, who just happened to be on a movie set while they were shooting. At other times, Paxton infused characters with a level of dignity and humanity they probably didn’t deserve and wouldn’t have received if played by another actor. Many times, the characters he played did reprehensible things, but you followed along to see if perhaps there was a reason for these actions, some deeper turmoil that caused them. You only have to look at the characters he played in Aliens, True Lies, Big Love, Frailty, and A Simple Plan to see how another actor in the role would not have created the same memorable character, nor would another actor have made you have at least some sympathy for the character, often against your better judgment.
A few years ago, I read the book then watched the movie of A Simple Plan. I was struck by how the plot is the same in both the book and film version, and yet the main character is so vastly different. In both, the main character Hank is a married man working in a small town who, along with his slow-witted brother and his brother’s idiot friend, find a million dollars in a crashed plane. The book and movie both rely upon the main character committing murder out of no other motivation than greed, and yet, throughout most of the movie, you want Paxton to get away clean. You want there to be a moment when it’s clear that his actions are justified and when (SPOILER) the money is revealed to be tainted (END SPOILER), there isn’t a sense of “gotcha!” like there is in the book, where you actively want the character’s schemes to come undone. The book gives you that “gotcha!” and more, piling on punishments for the character and his wife: they literally lose all their money (not just the tainted bills), realise they’ll never leave their small town existence, and through Hank’s negligence see their child brain-damaged in a drowning incident. However, in the movie, the punishments for Paxton are simply that he will have to live with what he’s done, and in that final scene as we see him burning the wads of cash it is clear that his actions, which have broken his moral code and showed him the evil he is capable of, have ruined him. Book Hank begins the novel as a man who believes he is meant for better things and sees his machinations bring him low, while the Paxton’s Hank is an all-American guy just trying to do right by his family, someone who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and pays the price with his soul.
Much like John Hurt, another painfully human actor we recently lost, Paxton’s filmography immediately earns him the classification with thenoblestof sci-fi royalty. After all, Paxton is one of only two actors who has been killed by an Alien, a Terminator, and a Predator (the other is Lance Henriksen, and the Predator kill only came in 2004, so Paxton held the category on his own for a while). His spot in the pantheon of great sci-fi characters is cemented with his turn as Private Hudson, a character who has no business being so likeable, but such is the allure of Paxton. Hudson is an asshole from minute one of Aliens and yet by simply acting like a normal person would act once shit hits the fan (i.e. losing his god damn mind), Paxton can’t help but make you sympathise and empathise with the character ,because as much as we would like to fantasize that we’re Ripley, Paxton reminds us that most of us are Hudson. We’re not kicking ass and taking names, we’re in tears ready to crawl under a rock until the bad guys leave us alone. It is a testament to Paxton’s charm that a character who is rude, sexist, uncouth, and shrill is a lot of people’s favourite Aliens character andthe character with whom the actor is most closely and warmly associated.
Other than his movie work, Paxton did some great TV work appearing in Agents of Shield (around the time it started getting good. Coincidence? Never…) and playing the lead in HBO’s Big Love. Big Love is the story of Bill, a man with three wives living in the suburbs. Bill has to hide the fact that his huge family share three homes and one husband/father. Again, Paxton takes a role that is morally shaky and makes the character likeable. His default facial expression throughout the show is utter exhaustion and panic. His business might fail, his father-in-law (one of them anyway) is a nutcase, his parents are crazy, and his wives are three very different women with very different needs. Paxton is surrounded by talent but leads the show as the patriarch of a very unconventional family. Paxton’s high-pitched angry voice is a mainstay of the show, which sees an endless string of scenes in which,t just as he gets everything under control, something else happens. He was like one of those cartoons were a ship springs a leak so the sailor plugs it with his finger only to have another hole to appear. And then another and another.
Off the top of my head I can’t think of another actor who did what Bill Paxton did so well. He was a daring actor who loved movies and movie-making. After his passing, I spent some time watching and reading interviews with him. He rarely spoke of anything else as much or as passionately as he spoke about that love. Paxton was always up for taking risks and, if the role called for it, being unglamorous for the sake of playing the sleaze or the villain. In the wake of his death, tributes poured out of Hollywood. It’s telling that a lot of the tributes came from not just people who had worked with, but people who had interviewed him, worked for him, or just met him once or twice. All of them talk about a man who loved his work, loved his family, and always had time to be nice to his fans and to the people writing about him. Maybe the humanness of his characters wasn’t entirely an act.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures