Wednesday, March 1, 2017

This one really hurts

Not quite lost among the Oscars hubbub this past weekend was the death of someone who was never nominated, and who passed too close to the air date to even make the In Memoriam section. (Though did, fortunately, get Jennifer Aniston choked up when she called his name separately).

That man was Bill Paxton, beloved actor from my youth, who was still really just a youth himself at 61.

In the string of prominent celebrity deaths that have hit us in the past year, this is one of the toughest for me to take, because Bill Paxton was the one I kind of felt like I knew.

The everyman quality he gave off was just one of the reasons why. Another was that I saw him in person, and boy was he the epitome of the charming, gracious, enthusiastic guy who is just happy to be there.

The occasion was Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival (commonly known as Ebertfest) in 2001. I was passing through Springfield, IL on my drive across country to start living in Los Angeles. Which is presumably where Paxton had just come from. I had thought he was there supporting Frailty, one of two feature films he directed, but that movie wasn't even released until the following year. I think he talked about it, but we obviously didn't see it. In consulting a friend I realized that Ebert had chosen one of Paxton's best, A Simple Plan, for that year's slate of overlooked films.

The impression he made on me was considerable. Here is a man who was successful by any measure, appearing in some of the biggest box office hits of all time (Titanic was only four years in his rearview mirror), who was genuinely tickled -- "chuffed," the Australians would say -- to be interviewed by Ebert and appreciated by an adoring crowd. He was ebullient and generous, producing some of the classic lines he's known for ("Game over, man!") without a hint of annoyance at being asked -- probably because he wasn't annoyed. He loved that people recognized him as a quotable part of their personal history. He did a quote from his Weird Science character, Chet -- I'm sure it wasn't this, but I like to remember it as "You're stewed, buttwad!"

And I remember what he said about his own talent, or lack thereof. He was extremely humble about his modest means. He has never been blessed with a natural surplus of talent, as it seems clear he's always done the most with what he had. There were Bill Paxton performances where he struggled with the material, and his range was not that of a thespian. But man did he work hard, putting in the time, putting in the effort, and clearly ingratiating himself to those around him. If people cast Bill Paxton, it wasn't necessarily because he was the best man for the job -- though sometimes he was. It was probably because they just liked the guy so damn much.

Weird Science was one of the movies I grew up with, a favorite especially in my teen years, so he will always be Chet to me, first and foremost. But let's just look at some of the other ways Paxton found his way into truly memorable films, in truly memorable roles, over the years:

The Terminator (1984) - I include this not because I really remember him so much from this (I've only seen the movie one time all the way through), but because I feel like a list like this would be incomplete without it.

Aliens (1986) - This is where he said his most famous line: "Game over, man!" But I love most his reaction to Bishop using his hand as the "target" for that light-speed version of that game where you poke the knife blade into the gap left between fingers.

One False Move (1992) - The movie that introduced us to screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton was something I only saw once, years ago, but I still rank it among the top quarter of movies I've seen and I long for a second viewing. Paxton starred.

Apollo 13 (1995) - A film I love and own, though I don't fully remember Paxton's contributions -- he just happily blended into the ensemble. Something Paxton was always happy to do. He was a supporting player frequently thrust into leading roles, but he was always most comfortable supporting, I think.

Titanic (1997) - Paxton's the star of the modern-day story that bookends the romance between Jack and Rose. This marked a shift for Paxton toward more paternalistic roles. He's remarkably calm and assured in a performance that really does support the narrative that most people went to that movie to see.

A Simple Plan (1998) - Probably my favorite lead performance by Paxton, paired again (this time in front of the camera) with Thornton. Sam Raimi gave us perhaps his most straightforward movie ever (this and For Love of the Game) and Paxton was there to make sure it all went down just fine. And it went down better than fine -- this was my #3 movie of that year.

Frailty (2001) - I'm not going to say Paxton's directorial debut was perfect, but boy did it show potential -- so much potential, in fact, that I was surprised to learn that he directed only one more feature, 2005's The Greatest Game Ever Played, which I did not see.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) - Paxton's talent for comedy was put to good use when he played the sergeant who keeps running Tom Cruise through the same day, unbeknownst to him.

Part of that 13-year gap in the above list of notable film performances was spent on Big Love, a show I only watched for a season or less. But one of the reasons I enjoyed it to the extent I did enjoy it was Bill Paxton. (And though his career was not replete with awards nominations, he did receive a couple Golden Globe nominations for his work on this show.)

Bill Paxton was a working guy who forged an unlikely career on a limited skill set. But he was always improving that skill set and the results showed. And his enthusiasm and love for what he did was never in question.

He may never have been nominated for an Oscar, and maybe the only way he'd ever get on the Oscars would be in next year's In Memoriam segment. But if they gave Oscar nominations for heart, Paxton would be rivaling Meryl Streep.

So perhaps it's no surprise that Paxton died of complications from heart surgery. When his heart gave out, so did the rest of him.

I'll miss him, and I will soon watch some of his movies to celebrate him.

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