Someone unkind once said that the Beatles were dying in the wrong order. I’m not sure there is ever a “right” order, but there’s a dark humour to it.
It seems that fate has doing something similarly over 2016 and 2017. We seem to be losing the ones that we would really rather keep for a bit longer, while we have to watch things like this:
2017 has just given us the latest kick in the tenders. Bill Paxton has died.
“Bill who?” you might say.
Movie buffs might know that Bill was one of only two actors (so far) to be killed on screen by an Alien, a Terminator and a Predator – the other being Lance Henriksen. And let’s gloss over the fact that Bill’s character probably wasn’t killed by Arnie’s Terminator. He was mostly thrown to the floor with attitude. I think that counts for something.
But Bill was more than just a statistic. He was also the movie world’s equivalent of Dr Watson. He showed the audience what to think.
Picture the scene. A stark naked Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also happens to be a killer robot with a convenient Austrian accent, is walking along a city street late at night.
Of course, it looks weird. We can see that for ourselves. But the Director ramps up the tension by showing Bill Paxton’s character reacting to the vaguely terrifying sight of a nude Arnie. “I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six pack.”
Fast forward to Aliens and Bill’s career highlight. He plays a tough space marine who falls apart when the titular extra-terrestrials win the first round of the humans vs xenomorphs contest:
That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the @*&^ are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?
That speech is there for a reason. The director is telling us that we should be scared at this point in the movie. If a tough space marine hombre is panicking, then we know the situation is dire. It also shows us how calm and courageous the other characters are.
It’s the equivalent of the screaming woman or the white-suited scientist who says something cheesy like: “this could be the end of civilization as we know it.” They are there to tell us to be scared.
Bill made a career out of these supporting roles. In True Lies, he was the cowardly and creepy foil to Arnie’s heroic and wholesome superhero. He told us that Jamie Lee Curtis was hot and that Arnie was scary – even though we could see both for ourselves.
In the live action version of Thunderbirds, Bill got to play the leading man. Well, sort of. His character was Jeff Tracey, the head of the family. But the plot quickly shunted him off to the side-lines so that the kids could save the day. That meant that Bill’s role – again – was to show us what to think.
He started the movie by being tough and fatherly protective, to remind us how dangerous it all was. At the end of the movie, he told us how brave and resourceful the kids had been. He wasn’t the lead – he was there to reflect glory onto the lead actors.
Bill Paxton’s job was to be our representative in the movies. Of course, we’d all like to be the hero and do deeds of derring-do, whatever that means. But deep down we know that we’re more likely to be the slightly whiney space marine who asks what we’re gonna do next.
It was the same job that Dr Watson played in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was there to represent the reader by asking the questions that we were thinking but were too ashamed to ask: “By Jove, Holmes, how did you work out that the killer was Professor Plum, in the Drawing Room, with the lead pipe?”
I’ve started comparing writing with photography, so I feel the time is right for a tenuous link. Photography also shows us what to think when we look at a photo. Take this classic image by Henri Cartier-Bresson:
Our eyes are drawn by the curves of the staircase to curl around to the left and then to notice the figure of the man on the bicycle, framed by the curve of the road. On its own, the staircase is not very important. It’s a bit-part actor in a movie. But when it becomes part of a wider pattern, we are drawn in by the leading lines.
Bill Paxton did the same job. He was the equivalent of photography’s “leading lines” to make the Aliens and Terminators more terrifying and the Ripley’s and Sarah Connor’s more courageous.
And maybe that little bit of immortality means that isn’t game over for Bill, just yet.