This week on the Substandard (subscribe! Leave a review!), JVL, Vic, and I spent a lot of time talking about gambling and gambling movies; if you listen, you'll discover just how big a degen online poker junkie I was in my college days (spoiler: not a very big one). But we also talked a bit about Bill Paxton, the widely beloved actor who suddenly died last weekend. A few thoughts on his best performances below.
I often remember Bill Paxton as a leading man since he spent five seasons on Big Love, HBO's show about a Mormon bigamist struggling to fit in with the rest of the world. But he wasn't, not really; he was a high-caliber supporting man, the sort of guy who makes every movie he's in just a little bit better.
In this, the age of the gif, Paxton's crowning achievement might well be his turn in Aliens, in which he utters one of the film's two* most memorable lines:
Paxton brought that sort of manic, high-pitched, almost yokel-y energy to a lot of his early roles. Chet, from Weird Science, is like a hillbilly nightmare from high school brought to life. But it's the bar scene from Near Dark where Paxton's ability to channel his craziness really shines through:
I don't think Near Dark is particularly good—it has achieved this reputation for being something of a great vampire movie, a reputation that, in part, feels like little more than a reaction to the sparkly vampires of Twilight and the romantic bloodsuckers from True Blood—but this scene is truly great, and it really only works because Paxton is so delightfully demented. His vicious joy is something to behold.
His darkly comic turns were generally his best, as in Edge of Tomorrow when he explained that film's theme: the fiery crucible of combat shaping mush into men.
For some reason, though, my favorite moment in that film has always been Paxton's reaction shot to watching Cruise's character die in what seems to be a completely meaningless way:
Frailty was probably his best piece of acting, and if you haven't seen it you should. But his most memorable role might well be one of his briefest, the creepy used car salesman from True Lies who is trying to seduce Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife:
Paxton's smarm is the perfect contrast to Schwarzenegger's uptight shtick—especially since we've already seen Arnie be a charmer earlier in the flick. And when Paxton's scumbag gets his comeuppance at the end of the first act, well, there are few more satisfying moments in recent film history.
*The other, of course, is "nuke it from orbit."