Happy Together: Bill Paxton Was Always James Cameron’s Best, Imperfect On-Screen Avatar

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Happy Together: Bill Paxton Was Always James Cameron’s Best, Imperfect On-Screen Avatar

With Happy Together, Jesse Hassenger examines collaborations between actors and directors that have lasted for three or more non-sequel films.

When James Cameron won the Academy Award for Best Director back in 1998, he clutched his award in his hand and declared, “I’m the king of the world!” The moment was subsequently derided as cringeworthy hubris—as Cameron meeting the moment of his Titanic triumph with the same unchecked ego that he’d become known for as the director of the most expensive movie ever made (multiple times) and the most successful movie ever made (then just once, though he’d go on to do it again). It seemed, frankly, kind of unfair: Cameron wrote and directed an epochal worldwide megahit, which then won a record number of Oscars. Who else had any business quoting his own “king of the world” line—a line meant to express momentary elation, not literal world-conquering—back at us, the people who supposedly loved his work?

In retrospect, here’s why I think that moment rubbed so many people the wrong way: In Titanic, that line is crowed by Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he stands on the bow of a majestic ocean liner, rushing toward what he imagines, in his youthful bravado, to be some glorious, unknown destiny. But despite Jack being cocksure, energetic and partial to strong women, he is not James Cameron. So Cameron quoting his own line from Jack didn’t quite scan, even though it makes all the sense in the world on paper. A young DiCaprio is not Cameron; neither is Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, nor Sigourney Weaver in hers, nor any CG representations of Sam Worthington. No, our on-screen James Cameron is Bill Paxton.

Not literally, of course, and maybe not even with the symbolic clarity of certain directors using certain actors as their obvious proxy. I don’t think Cameron actively thinks of himself as the punk who gets killed by the T-800 early in The Terminator or as Hudson, the Marine who can’t stop yammering in jest and/or fear in Aliens, or, especially, as Simon, the used car salesman pretending to be a spy in True Lies. In these roles—the majority of his work for Cameron—Paxton ranges from major doofus to mild buffoon, and Cameron doesn’t seem like he’d place himself on that spectrum. In that sense, his can-do spirit probably does inform DiCaprio’s Jack.

In Titanic, however, there’s a better match at the edges of the movie. In his least buffoonish Cameron role, Paxton plays Brock Lovett: Mr. Framing Device, the treasure hunter who explores the Titanic wreckage in search of a diamond necklace, attracting the attention of the century-old Rose (Gloria Stuart), who then proceeds to tell the epic tale of romance and disaster that would win a barrel of Oscars. Lovett’s role is to feel appropriately awed by this firsthand account, gaining newfound appreciation for Rose’s experience, rather than the fortune and glory to be gained by recovering a valuable necklace. This makes him something of an audience surrogate: A guy who knows the story of Titanic, but gets a refresher on its human component.

Yet it’s easy to see Paxton’s character as a Cameron stand-in, too: He’s literally a man with a movie camera, as well as the master of expensive submersible equipment with a vaguely working-class veneer. At the outset, Lovett doesn’t have Cameron’s natural sincerity; he rattles off some hushed narration as he films the wreckage of the ship, only to self-mockingly switch it off, having satisfied his professional obligations for expressing awe. Beyond his lust for treasure, he’s also too immersed in his technical knowledge of the ship’s sinking to find a more human perspective on its tragedy. (“I never got it,” he admits after hearing Rose’s story. “I never let it in.”) In other words, he needs to rebalance his sense of spectacle, riches and genuine emotion—something Cameron quite self-consciously does with Titanic—far more successfully than he did on his previous film, True Lies, the closest he’s come to making a big, expensive Nothing Blockbuster.

Paxton’s part in True Lies is crucial to both what sets the movie apart, and what makes it such a sour experience. If Lovett is a guy who initially bullshits his way through the requisite awe only to rediscover genuinely respectful wonder by the end of the story, Paxton’s Simon is a man who delights in bullshitting, and becomes utterly terrified when faced with the prospect of his lies coming true. He’s a used-car salesman who ostentatiously and clumsily lies to women about being a spy in order to entice them into bed, who accidentally targets Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis), the frustrated wife of actual spy Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Simon would count as a secondary villain of True Lies, if not for two factors. First, Cameron takes care to write Simon as pathetic, a bottom-feeder who grovels and literally wets himself at the first sign of danger. Second and more importantly, Paxton plays Simon’s sleaze with such antic gusto that it’s hard not to kind of like him, or at least look forward to his appearances, as he does a hilariously unconvincing imitation of field work opposite a desperately credulous Curtis. That Paxton makes these scenes watchable, nevermind enjoyable, is no small feat: He’s only around for the most tedious and ill-advised section of True Lies, where a then-thrice-divorced Cameron dives headfirst into what he imagines to be 1990s gender politics. Simon’s clownish nature makes him a broad, easy target for the movie’s sometimes-bullying sense of humor (it even nonsensically curtain-calls him for another round of pants-wetting in its finale), yet there is something that feels fully imagined (perhaps self-lacerating?) about Cameron’s portrait of a shameless pretender.

The Bill Paxton of 1994 didn’t need to wet his pants and twitch his mustache for our amusement. He was about to star in Apollo 13, Twister and A Simple Plan, and it doesn’t seem like his work as Simon would have been instrumental in getting him any of those parts. Put together, his roles in the back half of the ‘90s make a compelling case for him as the kind of actor who could have made it in older Hollywood melodramas or noirs, a step up from his supporting turns in Cameron’s movies (or the roles that blatantly imitate them, like his part in Predator 2). So it feels especially self-effacing when Paxton continues to play guys who can’t keep it together (or, in some cases, stay alive) for the entirety of a Cameron spectacular. Though Simon doesn’t die in True Lies, it also feels like the apex of Paxton playing a guy faking his way through the extraordinary—echoed, in a more subdued way, in Titanic.

That’s also what he’s doing in Aliens. Hudson is the only Cameron character who really became a signature role for Paxton, and it’s easy to see why this archetype supporting part made such an impression. Paxton and Cameron roll two related types—the cocksure wisecracker and the blubbering coward—into one character, and we see how Hudson’s irreverent yakking becomes a more explicitly nervous habit in the face of the otherworldly terror and chaos he faces. It’s even more clear in the extended Special Edition of Aliens (Cameron’s preferred cut), which includes a scene of Hudson boasting about how “badass” he and the other Marines are, with the swagger of a prideful 10-year-old. When he becomes despondent about the remaining soldiers’ chances against an army of marauding xenomorphs, the line that became his de facto catchphrase also echoes a kid at play:

“Game over, man, game over!”

Again, not how you’d picture Cameron in that situation. In Aliens, True Lies and even his brief scene in Terminator, Paxton is an observer in over his head; all of these characters are men who initially puff up at the thought of conflict, and are thrown into a panic when they realize just how ill-matched they are by the situation at hand. To some extent, that’s Brock Lovett in Titanic, too, albeit a gentler version: A treasure-seeker humbled and chastened by finally seeing beyond his computer simulations. None of this sounds much like Cameron’s reputation on-set as a confrontational professional who can, per so many interviews, do almost every job as well as anyone else—except, as a recent Ringer oral history notes via Avatar performer Stephen Lang, acting. Acting closes the deal on the elaborate fakeness of the movies, and while Paxton’s characters may not always share Cameron’s stubborn, sometimes hotheaded determination, they do betray the kinds of anxieties often stirring beneath a steely service.

That’s ultimately what feels like the connective tissue between Paxton’s characters and Cameron: Expressing the nagging doubt over whether an elaborate dog-and-pony show will be enough to convince a potentially skeptical audience. That informs Paxton’s presence in the duo’s final film together. Titanic was their last fiction collaboration, but they reunited for Ghosts of the Abyss, a one-hour documentary where Cameron takes another deep dive into the ship’s wreckage, this time with his man Paxton in tow. Even playing themselves on an underwater expedition, Paxton and Cameron don’t actually share much screen time; they’re sequestered in separate submersibles, and while Cameron does turn up on camera, his presence is relatively modest. It seems clear that he’s brought in Paxton to serve as sort of a figurehead for the project, depending again on his mixture of movie-star charisma and regular-guy appeal. Cameron can spearhead underwater missions, create new worlds out of nothing, repeatedly make the biggest movie ever—but he doesn’t trust himself to hold the screen. He knows Paxton can handle it, even or especially if he lets the seams show.

Or, rather, he could handle it. Bill Paxton died in 2017. At the time, he hadn’t missed out on a plethora of Cameron projects; Avatar was the only fiction film Cameron made in the 20 years between Titanic and Paxton’s passing. But given how Sigourney Weaver and Kate Winslet have been welcomed into the Avatar fray, and the sheer number of sequels Cameron has planned, it seems likely that there would have been a role for Paxton on Pandora at some point. Whether casting him as another military grunt, a motion-captured Na’vi, or in some other part, seeing Paxton in that world would have been a kick—though not, strictly speaking, necessary. In his sneaky, goofy way, he was already Cameron’s best, imperfect on-screen avatar.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.

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