Originally I started this list not as a list at all, but rather as a quick review of Sam Raimi’s underrated neo-noir A Simple Plan, which released 21 years ago today on the 11th September 1998. But the more I wrote, the more I kept getting back to one point in particular; Bill Paxton was a fantastic actor. Not a particularly hot take, I know, but since his devastating death in 2017 it seems as if no one has really embraced the fact that outside of this cult appeal, Paxton was one of his generations finest and most versatile actors.
Jan de Bont’s 1996 epic disaster flick has been unfairly maligned over the years (even with it being the 2nd highest-grossing film of 1996) and is often thought of as the director’s disappointing sophomore effort after 1994’s much superior Speed. But get past the slightly wonky script and over the top, earnest performances and you have a fantastic thrill ride that still holds up today. And chiefly responsible for this is Bill Paxton as the ridiculously named Bill “The Extreme” Harding. His all-American appeal has rarely been put to better use and his natural everyman charm is firing on 100%, despite the fact that he chases tornadoes for a living and has the middle name ‘The Extreme’. It’s a dumb film, the sort of movie a 90’s Stallone or Willis may have starred in. Or maybe even with an indie star at the helm, like Keanu Reeves in De Bont’s previous film Speed. But it’s Bill Paxton that makes it work because Bill Paxton is entirely unique. A character actor through and through he holds the film together even when it’s at its silliest.
4. True Lies
James Cameron’s True Lies shows us another side of Paxton’s acting ability, one we rarely saw again. He plays Simon, a slimy used-car salesman trying to charm Jaime Lee Curtis’ fed up housewife Helen, who just so happens to be married to secret agent Harry Trasker, played wonderfully by Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his best roles. Paxton is only in the movie briefly but his gross character gets all the best lines and stays in the memory long after Arnold has scared him off. It’s a different role to Paxton’s usual but is a perfect example of the type of versatility that he could bring to his performances. His earlier characters in James Cameron’s previous films The Terminator and Aliens (and later The Titantic) were also small but again, extremely memorable. After Paxton’s passing, Cameron shared this about his longtime close friend:
I’ve been reeling from this for the past half hour, trying to wrap my mind and heart around it. Bill leaves such a void. He and I were close friends for 36 years, since we met on the set of a Roger Corman ultra-low budget movie. He came in to work on set, and I slapped a paint brush in his hand and pointed to a wall, saying “Paint that!” We quickly recognized the creative spark in each other and became fast friends. What followed was 36 years of making films together, helping develop each others projects, going on scuba diving trips together, watching each others kids growing up, even diving the Titanic wreck together in Russian subs. It was a friendship of laughter, adventure, love of cinema, and mutual respect. Bill wrote beautiful heartfelt and thoughtful letters, an anachronism in this age of digital shorthand. He took good care of his relationships with people, always caring and present for others. He was a good man, a great actor, and a creative dynamo. I hope that amid the gaudy din of Oscar night, people will take a moment to remember this wonderful man, not just for all the hours of joy he brought to us with his vivid screen presence, but for the great human that he was.
The world is a lesser place for his passing, and I will profoundly miss him.
3. Near Dark
Kathryn Bigelow’s wild and wacky 1987 vampire western Near Dark can be remembered for a lot of things. It could be the fact that it was her debut feature film (and what a career starter it was) or could be because of the fantastic performances from a cast including Lance Henrikson as Jesse Hooker, a charismatic Civil War veteran and vampire, leader to a group of roaming vampires. The gorgeous cinematography and Tangerine Dream soundtrack are also worth mentioning but, once again it’s Paxton who steals the show. He plays vampire Severen, the most psychotic of the group. It’s not the sort of all-American, everyman performance Paxton would later become known for but is still the best part of an already great movie. The best scene in the movie sees Severen antagonising a bar full of rednecks (whilst teaching Adrian Pasdar’s newbie vampire to hunt) and then killing them all without remorse. One beautifully brutal kill sees Paxton’s character slit a man’s throat with the spurs on his cowboy boots. Both funny and scary in equal measure, this is a Paxton performance more people need to see.
Frailty is different from the other entries in this list, not because of the Bill Paxton performance it contains (which is reliably brilliant) but because it was Paxton’s directorial debut. Staring Paxton, Matthew McConaughey and the late, great Powers Boothe, the film follows McConaughey’s character in the modern-day talking to a cop played by Boothe. We flashback to the 70s where we see McConaughey’s character as a kid, with his dad played by Paxton. His dad tells him he has been visited by an angel and tasked with doing God’s will; destroying demons that look like people. It’s a dark, dark film with great performances all around. Paxton uses the everyman appeal that audiences know him for and flips it on its head. The audience buys into the father’s fanatical beliefs because, well, it’s Bill Paxton – he’s a trustworthy sorta guy. It’s a masterful performance and a great directorial debut. Paxton directed only once more (2005’s decently reviewed golf drama; The Greatest Game Ever Played) but the talent was definitely there. We can only imagine what else we may have seen from him behind the camera.
1. A Simple Plan
The absolute, hands-down greatest Bill Paxton performance comes from a film barely anyone seems to have seen. Directed by horror maestro Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan is a tense little thriller similar to the Coen Brother’s Fargo or Paxton’s own Frailty. Paxton is average joe Hank who, along with his brother (Billy Bob Thornton) and a friend, come across millions of dollars in a crashed plane. The film follows the three as they slowly unravel and try to keep the money from coming between them and their lives. Soon though there are murders and double-crossings (and Bridget Fonda in full Lady Macbeth mode) and good-guy Hank is pushed to the very edge. The leas (Paxton and Thornton) as great as the opposing brother who despite their differences, both have a lot of love for each other. Paxton’s subtle and quiet performance is Oscar-worthy and a lot of his anguish and pain plays out solely through his actions and expressions. It’s not at crazy as some of the other’s listed here, but it’s my favourite performance of his. And with it being the film’s 21st anniversary, do yourself a favour and give it a watch and remember how great an actor Bill Paxton was.