Praising the providence of Bill Paxton’s seemingly random dartboard filmography of oddball characters.
Born and raised in Fort Worth, Bill Paxton in childhood was forever tied to the iconography of the great state of Texas when a photographer snapped a pic of him in a crowd ready to witness John F. Kennedy on his final day on Earth. While most of us probably associate him as the essential frenetic ingredient to the obvious James Cameron classics, Paxton always brought a taste of his homestead to the scripts he chiseled his mark into. Not your typical cowboy, Paxton rarely had the opportunity to ride in the saddle, but it was always a delight when he did. Mutton-chopped and six-shooter strapped characters like Morgan Earp or Randall McCoy had an authenticity even when the plots around them appeared one hundred percent Hollywood.
Attempting to select anyone’s five best performances, let alone such an eclectic Texan like Bill Paxton is a task pre-ordained to fail. To cover my bases I’ll just yank the word “best” out, and replace it with “favorite.” As much as I wanted to cram Frailty and Trespass into this fistful, or take another opportunity to praise the cowardice personified in Aliens, the five flicks listed below were chosen to celebrate the odd blend of Paxton’s enchantingly random filmography.
After the semi-baffling success of Twister (in a post-Jurassic Park world, slap Michael Crichton’s name on anything and you’ll have yourself a decent return on your investment, or until Dustin Hoffman snoozed his way through Sphere), Paxton made his play for glorious leading man status in this Disney remake of King Kong’s spiritual baby brother, Mighty Joe Young. There’s not much to praise about this floundered opportunity for gorilla mayhem outside of Rick Baker’s impressively practical 15 foot tall Joe, but it does give you a glimpse into a fringe universe where Bill Paxton was gifted a career of square-jawed heroism. While he probably could never have toppled the leading man status of a 90s era Tom Cruise, he could have operated in the realm of a Brendan Fraser. But why would we want to curse him to a Fauxlivia career when there are so many creepy, weirdo roles to already celebrate in his filmography.
In A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi reaches for the dullard noir of the Coen Brothers by transplanting the metaphorical hell of Blood Simple’s Texas to the snowy wasteland of rural Minnesota. Just your average flyover citizens looking to make ends meet by supplementing their income with stolen drug money. Nothing could possibly go wrong. As the desperate breadwinner of the family, Paxton has to navigate the demands of Bridgette Fonda’s ball and chain while honoring the sibling pressure of Billy Bob Thornton’s simpleton. What is the appeal of witnessing the hopeless flail against their foolish pursuits? It must be some form of schadenfreude glee reserved for the most perverted of cinematic masochists. But that manic “Game Over” terror that Paxton preened so expertly in Aliens serves him well as the doomed Hank Mitchell. Although, at least Hudson saw it coming.
As the mayor of Pinacoladaberg, the wannabe Jimmy Buffett known as Coconut Pete in the Broken Lizard flick Club Dread might be the apex (or is it the nadir?) of Paxton’s long list of losers. The yellow streaked Simon from True Lies could give him a run for his money, but the rum soaked host at the center of this slasher sendup sacrifices his dignity and his short hairs for a few more seconds engulfed in the purple haze while his resort guests fall under the machete of a masked maniac. An oblivious buffoon, Paxton throws all his energy into a role destined to find minimal appreciation in our circles. You got to give props to the man as he aggressively croons the foulest and corniest of Coconut Pete lyrics, “But the ladies are flocking/That means it’s time to start cockin’/That brain-freeze nectar…that fills my fun gun!” That is Paxton in full commitment mode to a character escaped from an extended sketch comedy show.
When an artist or actor passes away it’s often easy to predict what image of theirs will spring first into you mind. When we lost Carrie Fisher, the Princess was the character that first came gushing from our hearts. A few days later, when her mother followed, Singing In The Rain burst forth. I would have assumed that Hudson was the fiend at the forefront of my heart where Bill Paxton was concerned. However, the man who first came crashing out of my memory was the full-blown, finger licking nightmare known as the vampire Severen, from Katherine Bigalow’s hallucinogenic Near Dark. A battle royale for the spotlight, Paxton and Lance Henriksen take turns nicking the show from supposed hero Adrian Pasdar, and ultimately succeed in crafting two of the most memorable bloodsuckers since Dracula. Paxton’s undeniable Texas roots ooze from his spurs as Severen, and the audience, falls under his revolting charm.
Originally fated for a direct-to-video release, Carl Franklin’s One False Move achieved minor cult status during the indie boom of the 1990s thanks to Billy Bob Thornton’s irresistible hillbilly villainy, and a nihilistic black heart worthy of Sam Spade. But where Pasdar fell victim to second string scene stealers in Near Dark, Bill Paxton’s Dale “Hurricane” Dixon gave as good as he got. A talkative blowhard, Dixon could have easily garnered our disgust, but this is the type of jackass role that Paxton dominated over the course of his career. His Star City police chief ekes out some intelligence when the plot starts to box him in, and you foolishly start to root for him even when your confidence in his outcome shrinks.
Bill Paxton never achieved that celebrity status where he could carve a clear career path for himself. He had to mostly settle for tight, memorable moments in someone else’s limelight. He was an education on screen; to observe him take the reigns in Haywire, Nightcrawler, or The Edge of Tomorrow was to experience the living embodiment of the golden age adage of “No small parts, only small actors.”