Posted by Susan Doll on January 30, 2017
I remember the first time I recognized Bill Paxton in a film. In Near Dark (1987) Paxton played Severin, a member of a roving band of vampires in love with the night, the nomadic lifestyle and the violence of their existence. “Turned” into a vampire decades earlier, Paxton’s character seemed a remnant of the Wild West crossed with a biker—the ultimate bad boy. Using his Texas drawl to great effect, Paxton portrayed the character as simultaneously cool, frightening and funny. I had seen Paxton in Streets of Fire (1984) as Clyde the Bartender and in Aliens (1986) as one of the gung-ho marines, but Near Dark made me a diehard fan.
I was inspired to check out Paxton’s life and career after re-viewing One False Move(1992). What I discovered was a hard-working character actor and an interesting person who counts director Hal Ashby as an inspiration and who, as a child, was in the crowd the day JFK was assassinated. Paxton left his hometown of Fort Worth at age 18, moving west to make a name for himself as a director. Eventually he landed a job as a set dresser on Roger Corman’s Big Bad Mama (1975). While he did shoot a few shorts, he dropped the idea of directing and moved east to study acting at NYU with Stella Adler. Returning to Hollywood, he became a recognizable bit player and character actor in major movies of the 1980s, including those of James Cameron (The Terminator  and Aliens , later Titanic ) and Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark). A leading role in Carl Franklin’s One False Move in 1992 elevated his profile in Hollywood. Paxton fulfilled his dreams of directing in 2001 with Frailty, a well-received indie that showcased Matthew McConaughey in an early role.
Paxton has turned to television in recent years, because, as he noted in a 2009 interview, he has not seen as many film scripts that interested or excited him: “The stuff they want to make, teen comedies, teen horror films … When I was growing up, on Friday nights, we saw men in movies. We saw adult stories.” Television proved to be lucky for Paxton. As Bill Henrickson, a Mormon with three wives, in the HBO series Big Love (2006-2011), Paxton earned three Emmy nominations. In Hatfields & McCoys (2012), he starred as the patriarch of the McCoy clan, which earned him another nomination. He is currently shooting Training Day, a television series loosely based on the Antoine Fuqua film. I am excited for the series because, reportedly, some episodes reference classic movies.
Whether in a bit part, character role or the rare lead, Bill Paxton has appeared in some of Hollywood’s most recognized or beloved contemporary films. Here are my favorites in no particular order. Feel free to leave a comment listing your favorites.
1. One False Move. Billy Bob Thornton’s screenplays are among the most accurate portrayals of the modern South on the big screen. He is rivaled only by writer-director Jeff Nichols. This insightful police procedural is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of its Neo-Noir theme. Paxton costars as Police Chief Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, whose job in tiny Star City, Arkansas consists mostly of settling domestic disputes. When the FBI alert Dixon that a trio of violent drug dealers are on their way to his town, he is excited to assist in real police work. Directed by the criminally underrated Carl Franklin, One False Move is a film about race and class in the contemporary South that is uncannily relevant in 2017. Each character thwarts the common archetypes or stereotypes associated with the South. For example, the two FBI agents can’t see beyond Dale’s accent and lack of sophistication, underestimating him and penning him as a local yokel. The scene in which he overhears the pair making fun of him makes the viewer sympathize with Dixon, making us aware of our own stereotyped preconceptions of him.
2. Near Dark. Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire flick follows a young man who takes up with a merry band of bloodsuckers after he is bitten by one of them. Each of the vampires represents a character archetype that signifies an outlaw, misfit, or maverick: Paxton’s Severin is akin to a Wild West gunfighter; Lance Henriksen plays an ex-Confederate soldier; Jenette Goldstein is dressed like a biker chick; Joshua Miller is a juvenile delinquent; and Jenny Wright is like a flower child with fangs. Like the protagonist, we are tempted by the lure of the outlaw lifestyle through the charisma of the vampires.
3. Frailty (2001). Paxton directed and costarred in this story of two young brothers whose fanatical father murders under the guise of fighting demons. The story is told from the perspective of the children, one who believes his father and one who doesn’t. Paxton plays the rare villain here, a crazed religious zealot who forces his children to help him in his cause. Set in rural Texas, the film stars a cast of Southern-born actors, including fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe.
4. Nightcrawler (2014). Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a strange young man who becomes a nightcrawler, slang for the free-lance journalists who arrive first at a scene of violence, shoot video until the authorities arrive, then sell it to the television stations. Paxton costars as a veteran nightcrawler who has become hardened and cynical because of his chosen occupation, but his character pales in comparison to Gyllenhaal.
5. A Simple Plan (1998). Sam Raimi proved he could direct outside the horror genre with this indie drama that re-teamed Paxton with Billy Bob Thornton. Three working-class friends stumble across millions of dollars in lost cash. They decide to keep it from the authorities (the “simple plan” of the title), but as time passes, their trust in each other and the plan falters. This bitter, dark story unfolds in a small town during the dead of winter—a kind of “Midwest noir.” Hey, I think I just coined a subgenre!
6. Tombstone (1993). Though the story bursts at the seams with too many minor characters, and the film suffers from some miscasting, Tombstone is on my list of favorite films because of Val Kilmer in the role of Doc Holliday. Kilmer gave the best performance of 1993, no contest. But, Paxton steals a few scenes as Morgan Earp, the least cynical and hardened of the Earp clan. Early on, he earnestly speculates on the existence of heaven with hope and wonder. But, when he lay dying of a mortal gunshot wound, he realizes that death is not hopeful, but brutal. Paxton plays it sincerely, making Morgan’s death all the more tragic.
7. Trespass (1992). This is a down-and-dirty genre piece about two Arkansas firemen, Vince and Don, who find a cache of stolen gold in an abandoned factory in the ghetto of East St. Louis. They don’t realize that the factory is in the turf of a local gang, who have come by to execute an enemy just as Vince and Don are ready to take off with their loot. Paxton costars as Vince to William Sadler’s Don. I included this film because it was directed by Walter Hill, my favorite 1980s director. Also, my former film studies instructor, Stuart Kaminsky, contributed to the screenplay (uncredited).
8. Edge of Tomorrow (2014). This sci-fi adventure directed by Doug Limon served as a star vehicle for Tom Cruise. Set in the not-too-distant future, the film features a Groundhog Day-like story in which Cruise, a military man hoping to avoid active duty, relives the same time frame over and over. The film is an excellent example of the ability of a talented character actor to enhance a scene. As Master Sergeant Farrel, Paxton gets to lay out the law to Cruise, which he does with great authority in their first scene together. As this event is repeated on subsequent days, and Cruise can predict Sergeant Farrel’s actions, Paxton’s expressions and reactions are priceless.
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