This is long overdue by now, but the recent and unexpected passing of Bill Paxton has found me reflecting on the on-screen legacy he left behind. The film industry as a whole certainly benefited greatly from his continued presence over the years, and his loss was felt immediately.
What strikes me about Paxton is that, even with such a long list of films and small screen projects attached to his name, he was an actor that seemed to still be finding his voice. In all respects, it felt like he was just getting started, with a long career still in front of him, and this was remains a testament to his commitment to giving everything he had to his art. His performances were incredibly diverse, ranging from the humorous to the dark, from the loveable to the jerk, and he often seemed to thrive in the position of supporting (or complementary) role, even shunning the spotlight for an opportunity to hone his skill for the benefit of the larger cast and vision.
Perhaps most fitting though, is the joy that he seemed to carry into each of his roles. It didn’t matter what it was or how significant the role was, he always seemed to be having a blast with making the most of his opportunity, and it really felt like he took nothing for granted. This is true for some of his most significant turns on the big screen (Apollo 13), but maybe even more so when it came to his small screen. Nowhere does his sheer joy for character acting jump off the screen than it did as agent John Garrett in Agents of Shield, and we were just beginning to get a taste for his take on the compelling Training Day premise.
Now, I will admit that this proved to be quite the task, but after much consideration, I managed to narrow this down to my top 5 favorite Bill Paxton performances, each a testament to an actor taken from us far too soon:
Nothing quite captures Paxton’s diversity or character as an actor as his role in what I consider to be the best film in this franchise. It helped to define what he was able to bring to the supporting role, and he makes the most of every moment on-screen by moving from quirky to comedic to serious, from over the top bad-ass to humility. The fact that he is able to fuse this into the picture of a selfless hero, in the end, is a testament to his skill, his attention to character and his ability to compliment a film’s larger vision. He never steals the show, but I also can’t get enough of him.
- Edge of Tomorrow
This might actually be my favorite of Paxton’s films. Word on the street has it that this role was apparently written with Paxton in mind. Good thing he said yes to it because it captures all of his best points. Interestingly, the film taps into his penchant for characters a bit more rough around the edges that emerge in the years to follow, but more importantly, Paxton (once again) manages to measure up against Cruise without demanding the spotlight.
If Edge of Tomorrow was my favorite film of Paxton’s, this one might be one of his most admirable. It’s a decidedly dark film (and a very good dark film) that tackles some rather cynical and timely themes. But while Nightcrawler just might be the performance of Gyllenhaal’s career, what helps make him who he is in the film certainly has much to do with Paxton’s presence and chemistry as both his friend and foe. It might seem simply a supporting performance on paper, but Paxton’s ability to embody this complex relationship remains largely understated as the presence which helps to frame the questions that plague Gyllenhaal’s own social commentary.
- Mean Dreams
As one of his final films, this also might be Paxton’s most powerfully rendered performance. In Mean Dreams, he exudes passion, and in the leading role, he uses this passion for bringing life to a man harboring an incredible amount of hostility. He almost makes you forget how likable he actually is as an actor.
I know, it was really tough not to put the iconic Apollo 13 in this number one spot. But I just could not avoid Twister no matter how hard I tried. I can still remember the thrill of seeing it on the big screen. And sure, in looking back on it today, it might seem like just your everyday, average summer blockbuster, but for me, when I think of Paxton I think of the guy who helped bring the profession of storm chasing to the world. It is no secret that he inspired a tribute from those whom he actually helped inspire to enter this profession (and hobby) in real life. And I think this is a testament to just how relatable and accessible Paxton was, no matter what kind of character he happened to be playing.
Even in a big-budget blockbuster, I got the sense that Paxton refused to see anything as a dialed in or throw away performance. He was simply out there doing what he loved to do, and getting great joy from doing so. And for that he remains an inspiration, even in his passing.