An appreciation of the under-appreciated actor on his birthday.
The Canadian actor Hart Bochner is 60 years old today. Steadily employed since the late 70s in both film and TV, Bochner also directed 90s cable staple PCU, in addition to appearing in everything from Breaking Away and Bulworth to the indispensable Scandal. As is so often the case with a long career in which one heroic deed towers over the rest, casting it in permanent shadow, so it is with Bochner’s 1988 work in Die Hard, as the doomed trader Harry Ellis, a role that defined not only the era in which the movie was made, but the years since.
Ellis – one often forgets he has a first name – is introduced as a potential romantic rival to hero John McClane, although in short order it’s made clear that any such worries are groundless. Ellis is the embodiment of 80s yuppie perfidy, from the casual contempt radiating from his loose physicality to the carelessness with which he does rails off his colleague’s desks. The only thing fictional about Ellis is the way in which he meets his end: his absolute assurance in his own invincibility leads him to talk his way into Hans Gruber’s inner sanctum, and ultimately to his death by gunshot. Real yuppies don’t die, they multiply.
Bochner, like many of the players in Die Hard’s vast ensemble, appears to have free reign to create as robust and scenery-chewing a characterization as possible in his finite amount of screen time. The results are eerily perfect, with Ellis serving as both symbol for an unchecked symptom of a malignancy within American capitalism and distressingly realistic rendering of an entitled 80s urban white-collar asshole. Particularly, the Los Angeles version, overcompensating in the phony-tough-guy department to compete with his counterparts in the financial industry in New York, and even more in the trappings-of-glamour department to compete with the movie stars that were his competition for the best tables at Spago. It’s an appalling kind of human being, but to Bochner’s credit it’s not only Ellis’ awfulness that pops, but his charisma. When he sneers “I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast” it’s clear that not only is this true, he’s the one who fucks the other guy over.
The problem, of course, is that valuing winning above all else, carried too far leads to regarding all negotiations as zero-sum metaphorical wars in which the only way to achieve victory is to nuke the other guy to glass and make chattel of the survivors. The failure to realize that the yuppies were the bad guys in the 80s, despite Ellis having the same haircut and tailoring as Hans, despite the fact that Holly wouldn’t fuck him with yours no matter how many Rolexes he plied her with, despite his getting shot in the face because his skills were useless in any real sense, led to a continued delusional valuation of wealth as a self-justifying abstraction with no connection to anything of real importance. And that has led, in October 2016, to the possible end of the American experiment, as a considerably less charming and interesting version of Ellis, stripped of all pretense, is far too close to seizing power and driving the entire American experiment off the cliff into the void. To nod to Outlaw Vern’s magnificent slogan “Don’t Be Ellis,” Don’t Vote Ellis.
None of that has anything to do with Hart Bochner, though, and because I’d far prefer to end on a high note I’ll get back to the subject at hand. It cannot be emphasized enough that his work in Die Hard is of the highest order, as to not only define one’s own era but the next several after it is the kind of achievement few artists, if any, can ever claim. Standing out in an ensemble like Die Hard’s is another major coup, populated as it is with so many memorable turns. But he’s goddamn mesmerizing in that movie. His drawled delivery of overly-labored witticisms, apparent belief that he’s three times his own size (and let’s not even start on how big he thinks his dick is), and disregard of any world beyond his own desires add up to a magnificent bit of screen acting, in service of rendering an utterly despicable man in three full dimensions, as he truly is. For this, Hart Bochner, may your name ever ring out beside Ellis’.