© F/M Entertainment / DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group
Despite my best efforts, this blog in the last couple of years has tended to resemble a series of obituaries. I’m afraid this tendency must continue today as I’ve just heard the news that the American actor Bill Paxton has died at the age of 61 from complications following surgery.
In American movies of the 1980s and 1990s Paxton seemed ubiquitous. He turned up in the populist likes of Stripes (1981), Weird Science (1985), Commando (1985), Navy Seals (1990), Predator 2 (1990), Tombstone (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), Twister (1996) and Mighty Joe Young (1998). Though not all his films could be described as ‘populist’. I suspect I’m the only person in the world who remembers he was in Jennifer Lynch’s arthouse misfire Boxing Helena (1993) with Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands.
From all accounts an affable and good-humoured Texan, he probably had the right temperament to get on with certain directors who had the reputation of being hard-asses. He worked with Walter Hill in Streets of Fire (1984) and Trespass (1992) – the latter movie I like to think of as ‘the Bills versus the Ices’, since it’s about a pair of treasure-hunting firemen played by Paxton and Bill Sadler falling foul of a pair of gangsters played by Ice Cube and Ice T. He worked too with the no-nonsense Katherine Bigelow in the haunting horror-western Near Dark (1987), playing one of a band of vampires who roam the dusty prairies and prey on unsuspecting cowboys.
© Universal Pictures
But it was with Bigelow’s former beau, the single-minded James Cameron, that Paxton got some of his most famous roles: as a punk clobbered by a naked and just-arrived-from-the future Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) (“I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”), the alternatively bragging and blubbering man-child Private Hudson in Aliens (1986) and the sleazeball car salesman Simon who pretends to be a secret agent in order to get into Jamie Lee Curtis’s pants in True Lies (1994). He was also in one other movie Cameron made in the late 1990s – I can’t remember its name but Leonardo DiCaprio was in it. Whatever happened to him?
The great thing about Paxton was that though he frequently performed in a supporting role, he was often the most memorable thing in the movie. His characters were commonly loud and obnoxious and had an inflated sense of their abilities, but they were very funny as a result. This was never more so than with the motor-mouthed Private Hudson in Aliens, who despite everything else that’s going on in that movie manages, just about, to steal the show. Before the aliens show up, he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry. Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you… We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!” And after they show up, he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked!” Inevitably, many of the people paying homage to Paxton on Twitter last night were tweeting another of his Aliens quotes, the brief but legendary “Game over!”
© I.R.S. Releasing
Occasionally, he got a chance to step forward into the shoes of leading man and the results were excellent. He was tremendous in Carl Franklin’s One False Move as Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon, the good-natured but naïve hick sheriff who’s doesn’t seem to know what’s coming when a trio of murderous psychos (including one played by the movie’s co-writer, Billy Bob Thornton) flee the law in Los Angeles and head for his town. You find yourself seriously fearing for him as the movie nears its end. He also impressed in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) about three people in a wintry mid-western town – Paxton’s blue-collar plodder, his wife (Bridget Fonda) and his slow-witted brother (Billy Bob Thornton again) – whose lives are drastically changed, seemingly for the better but in reality much for the worse, when a mysterious crashed plane sets a huge cache of money in their laps. Also worth checking out is the horror film Frailty (2001), which Paxton directed as well as starred in, alongside Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe.
Six years ago, I unexpectedly found myself present at the making of history – and I unexpectedly found myself thinking of Bill Paxton too. I was living in Tunis at the time and one January morning I wandered down to the centre of the Tunisian capital to find out why a huge crowd of protestors had gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior building. This would have been unthinkable just 24 hours earlier – Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s security goons would have dragged any protestors away, thrown them into a cell and beaten the shit out of them. This mass protest, it transpired, was the tipping point of the Arab Spring. Ben Ali fled the country that same day and other Arab dictators started toppling like dominoes soon after. Anyway, I noticed how some protestors were holding signs towards the ministry building that bore the message GAME OVER! – Private Hudson’s famous line from Aliens.
I know it’s improbable, but I’d like to think this showed that even the murky and complicated world of North African Arab politics had been affected by the acting talent and sheer entertainment value of the great, but now unfortunately late, Bill Paxton.
© Times of Malta
© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox