Friday, March 31, 2017

TONS O' PAXTON: A DETOUR INTO THE LATE ACTOR'S LESSER-KNOWN FILMS


Bill Paxton's passing on February 25, 2017 came as a sudden, devastating blow to all who knew him, loved him and worked with him in real life. To those who knew him only through the veil of the silver screen, it was also something of a gut punch. A reliable fixture in film and TV throughout the '80s, '90s and well into the 2000s, the Fort Worth, Texas born Paxton excelled as a character actor early on, stealing scenes from tamer leads with his rambunctious energy. He specialized in bullies, sleazebags, gun nuts, psychotics and military types quickly outed as yellow-bellies on the inside. Chet from Weird Science. Private Hudson from Aliens. Simon in True Lies. We loved to watch them gloat, then crumble into man-tears at the first sign of real danger. Even his briefest performances were mini-studies in failed masculinity. Between these early memorable supporting roles and a lifetime "in" with director James Cameron, he could've hung up his supporting spurs and called it a good run.

But then, in the early-mid-90s, Paxton managed to make that oh-so-impossible leap for many actors by parlaying his razzle-dazzle side character work into a  healthy career as a quieter leading man. One False Move. Traveller. A Simple Plan. All were well-done indie crime films with Paxton at the center. They paved the way for larger leading roles in summer blockbusters (Twister, Mighty Joe Young), multiplex fare which finally gave him enough industry juice to do what he'd always wanted to do--direct himself in 2001's Frailty, perhaps his best work before and behind the camera.

After a successful five-season leading stint on HBO's Big Love in the mid-2000s, it was mostly back to memorable side character work for Paxton (Nightcrawler, Haywire, Edge of Tomorrow). Before landing the starring role in CBS's Training Day TV remake in 2016, it appeared as if his career had come full circle. Sadly, his second Second Act was cut short by a stroke during heart surgery just after completing the show's first season. But, judging by the work he left behind, he probably had a lot of interesting surprises still in store for us. Imagine how interesting a Paxton-directed version of Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms could've been?

I grew up on Bill Paxton movies. He always felt like that wild second cousin blown in from out of town to regale you with lurid tales of his wayward travels. In a way, Chet and Private Hudson were my anti-mentors, examples of how NOT to be a man. I loved them despite their flaws and because of them. I had no idea who Sam Peckinpah was growing up in the '80s, but I now feel with deep certainty that if Paxton were born 20 years earlier he would've been among Bloody Sam's stock company alongside Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, Dub Taylor, and Ben Johnson. He was just one of those type of guys, a "good ol' boy," someone who always made you smile when they sauntered into frame. I've seen most of the essential Paxton performances, but there are a ton of curiosities and lesser-knowns on his resume that I missed. This extended blog post is about correcting that heinous oversight. As Chet might say: "How about a nice, greasy Paxton sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?"


CRAZY MAMA (1975) - Jonathan Demme

Blink for a second during Jonathan Demme's Roger Corman-produced sequel to Big Bad Mama, and you may miss Bill Paxton's first credited onscreen role. As a Southern deputy in pursuit of Cloris Leachman and her band of larcenous miscreants, he has but two lines, the more memorable of them referring to the gang's nubile, not-a-hostage: "She don't look kidnapped to me." It isn't much, but it's a start, one that didn't even earn Paxton his SAG card. Nevertheless, it got him out of the props department and in front of the camera. As for Demme, he films Crazy Mama with a boisterous energy. It may not his best work, not even his best Corman work (Caged Heat the year before was juicier). But, for '70s junk food cinema and an early Paxton sighting, it hits the spot.


NIGHT WARNING (1982) - William Asher

A few years later (after a brief onscreen blip in Stripes), Paxton reappears as a school bully in this possessive mother horror shocker starring the wonderfully unhinged Susan Tyrrell (of Fat City fame). Paxton's m.o. is basic High School '80s Douchebag: torment her son on and off the basketball court and cast aspersions on his sexual preferences. He doesn't have a heck of a lot to do, apart from getting milk dumped on his head when he takes the terrorizing too far. It's a shame he doesn't have any scenes with mother Tyrrell (in full Kathy Bates Misery mode here). It would've been great to see the two of them go head-to-head, even better if he'd been cast as the son (the lead is a bit of a blank slate). Still, Night Warning (aka Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker) served him well as fertile training ground for later, greater bullying douchebags. Most notably, Weird Science's Chet.


TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN (1983) - 
Tom Huckabee & Kent Smith

This hard-to-find and at times hard-to-watch early "experimental" film starring a 19-year-old Paxton is buried black-and-white treasure for Bill P. fans. Filmed with his buddies Kent Smith and Tom Hucakbee in the mid-70s, though not released until the mid-80s, it tells the very loose story of a male research subject (Paxton) brainwashed and gender-manipulated by a group of militant feminists into enacting a covert assassination attempt on the Welsh Minister of Prostitution. The resulting film is an assemblage of disparate parts, mostly MOS footage of Paxton traipsing around Wales with ruminations from William S. Burrough's dystopian The Blade Runner novella laid in on the soundtrack years after the fact. Part art film, part exploitation venture, part stag loop (yes, there is a scene of young Paxton receiving on-camera oral pleasures), Taking Tiger Mountain is a curious beast and early proof that Paxton could be a quiet, compelling presence even with his trademark colorful dialogue stripped away. Many actors would go to great lengths to see that an early resume film like this was buried for good. But judging from this interview and comments he'd made elsewhere, Paxton seemed more amused by its existence than anything else. Just listen to the opening 30 seconds of voiceover from the film. How could you not be amused?


MORTUARY (1983) - Howard Avedis

Early experimental films aside, Paxton's first meaty role with a healthy dose of screen time was in this mostly forgettable horror quickie. In Mortuary, he gets to play an eccentric nerd rather than the token bully as Paul, the son of a mortician (Christopher George). Paul has a Mozart obsession and a mad crush on his already-spoken-for redhead classmate, Christie. As you might guess, both of Paul's obsessions take a nasty turn toward the psychotic as the movie progresses. It isn't long before the embalming cocktails come out and corpse orchestras are conducted. It's fun to see Paxton snag the early opportunity to "go weird," a vein he'd tap later and to greater degree with small, juicy roles in oddball indies like The Dark Backward and Boxing Helena. There's one particularly great scene of Paxton skipping merrily through a graveyard, flower bouquet in hand, after a resoundingly unsuccessful courtship attempt.


THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE (1983) - Franc Roddam

That same year, Paxton appeared in another small supporting role you could also file under "Chet Prep." He plays one of The Ten, a not-so-secret sect of pro-hazing cadets at a Deep South military academy committed to honor, tradition, and general racial intolerance. Credited here as "Wild Bill" Paxton, his Gilbreath is a deeply repugnant military bully, a young R. Lee Ermey in training. He leaves no insult unturned but reserves his worst taunts for the academy's new black cadet. It's a thankless role, but Paxton keeps it believable, channeling the type of bigoted d-bags people of every color have to sidestep every day. The movie (based on a Pat Conroy novel) may have its heart in the right place message-wise, but its execution is EXTREMELY DATED. The story is told through a white cadet's eyes (David Keith), and the black cadet (Mark Breland) who endures the bulk of the hazing/suffering is mostly given the short shrift. But Lords at least gave Paxton the chance to work with some fine fellow thesps, including Keith, Robert Prosky, G.D. Spradlin, a young Judge Reinhold and his soon-to-be-Aliens co-star, Michael Biehn.



PASS THE AMMO (1988) - David Beaird

Sadly, this spry Southern-fried crime comedy from the late-80s is the closest Paxton ever came to working with the Coen Brothers. His frequently broad Texas characterizations seemed tailor-made for their brand of filmmaking, and it's easy to imagine a theoretical Paxton cameo in Blood Simple, O'Brother, Where Art Thou? or No Country for Old Men. A direct collaboration regretfully never came to pass, but the pleasantly watchable Pass the Ammo serves as a window into what might've been. The setup is decidedly Raising Arizona-lite; a group of bumbling criminals headed by Paxton and girlfriend Linda Kozlowski scheme to rob a televangelist and his wife (a very game Tim Curry & Annie Potts). Instead, they end up party to an on-air hostage/kidnapping situation. The music is by frequent Coen composer Carter Burwell, and one of the credited screenwriters is Joel Cohen (the OTHER Joel...with an "H"). Arguably, Paxton came closer to Joel & Ethan territory ten years later in Coen cohort Sam Raimi's very Coenesque (and very good) A Simple Plan. But Pass the Ammo was an early indicator he could hold his own as a crime/noir lead.


BACK TO BACK (1989) - John Kincade

Unless you're an avowed Apollonia Kotero fan (or balls-deep in a Bill Paxton marathon binge), there's probably not much reason to take the 1989 straight-to-VHS Back to Back for a test drive. Paxton plays a hotshot L.A. lawyer who reluctantly returns to his hick hometown to help his younger brother (Todd Field) clear his recently deceased father's name of an armored car robbery years before. They go on a spin through the desert to locate the missing loot and pick up foxy hitchhiker Jesse (Apollonia) along the way. Light intrigue and forced romantic banter ensues. For this viewer, the primary highlights of Back to Back were getting the chance to see Paxton briefly mix it up with old western stalwarts Ben Johnson and Luke Askew.


BRAIN DEAD (1990) - Adam Simon

There are people in this world who somehow still confuse Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman based on, I can only presume, the shared syllable count of their names and nothing else. The two men's acting styles and personas couldn't be more diverse. I hereby submit Brain Dead as the antidote to that particular Pullman-Paxton disease, a film in which they appear side by side, often in the same scene. Pullman plays a brilliant and principled neurosurgeon. Paxton plays a scheming businessman and friend from Pullman's past. He's hired by a shady corporation to convince Pullman to slice into a paranoid mathematician Bud Cort's brain in order to unlock corporate assets they're afraid might vanish in the fog of delusion. It's a fun setup, and both Paxton-Pullman do their best to enliven their broad strokes psycho-thriller roles. But the script (an old Corman property leftover from the '60s) overstays its welcome even at a brisk 85 minutes. It could've been a very solid 22-minute Twilight Zone episode.


THE DARK BACKWARD (1991) - Adam Rifkin

Of all the lesser-known curiosities on Bill Paxton's resume, perhaps the movie that best employed his particular set of skills and took them to their broadly comedic zenith was this oddball, three-armed comedian picture starring Judd Nelson, James Caan and, yep, Wayne Newton. As the accordion-toting bestie of struggling stand-up Marty Malt (Nelson), Paxton may technically be playing second fiddle, but he absolutely steals every scene he's in. His "Gus" is a gleefully repugnant opportunist with very little talent and super-sized stardom dreams. He's not beyond licking the areolas of a female corpse he discovers on his trash-collecting route or eating green sludge marinated chicken he finds expired in Marty's fridge. He's not above accosting local talent agent Jackie Chrome (Newton) to land a gig or exploiting Marty's newfound tridexterity when he grows a third arm from his vertebrae. He's not averse to being the drunken man-meat in a four-way circus sideshow sex sandwich or stealing Marty's chance at the spotlight when toothy Hollywood agent Dirk Delta (Rob Lowe in heavy dental prostheses) offers him a solo L.A. accordion show. 

As Gus, Paxton takes craven behavior and manic mugging to a sublimely exaggerated level, working the same kind of voodoo magic as Nic Cage in his best "uncaged" Nouveau Shamanic performances. He doubles down on his poor-excuse-for-a-big-brother performance in Weird Science and kicks it up a notch as "world's worst best friend." I'd seen this movie once before on VHS when it first came out and always remembered Paxton as the highlight. After learning of Bill's affinity for Buster Keaton on the Marc Maron podcast a few weeks before his death, I was compelled to revisit it. I think The Dark Backward might be the closest Paxton came to celebrating the silent film comedian's physical comedy genius while realizing his own. In the DVD commentary for the film, Paxton mentions how Janet Maslin of The New York Times claimed "the sky's the limit" when it came to his "obnoxious overacting" as Gus. Paxton laughs humbly and admits: "I took that as the highest compliment."



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