Ian Holm has passed on at the grand old age of 88, and so it is a day slightly sadder than most, which is maybe harder to recognize currently, when every day seems sadder than days used to seem, but is certainly the case.
As much as I can love someone I’ve never so much as met, I loved Ian Holm. He made a big impression on me in my youthful days of moviegoing. I must have first noticed him in ’81 when, as the title of this post claims, he made history as the greatest Napoleon in the annals of filmdom, if not the real world itself (because could the actual Napoleon have been any more plausible as himself? Unlikely. And certainly no funnier). His Napoleon isn’t onscreen for long in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (’81), but his steely demeanor and grim obsession with height steals the movie. “Little things hitting each other! That’s what I like!”
Or maybe I first noticed him in Alien (’79). I couldn’t have seen Alien during its initial run, but somehow or other I saw it soon thereafter, either at a rep theater or on videotape. He is, to say the least, memorable as Ash, the science officer with a less than ideal opinion of the value of human life. I still remember the shock of his death scene, of being inexplicably creeped out and confused by that weird milky white blood running down his face.
Also in ’81 Holm appeared in Chariots of Fire, and was nominated for an Oscar. His Napoleon should have won him an Oscar, but Academy voters had as little collective sense in those days as they do today. I didn’t see Chariots of Fire at the time because it had a lot of nerve winning an Oscar for Best Picture over Raiders of the Lost Ark, a slight my ten-year-old self was unwilling to forgive. (In fact I still haven’t forgiven Chariots of Fire; I’ve seen it since, and found it, save for Holm, wanting.)
Surely I noticed him in ’84 in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, where he was reunited with the Supreme Being, Ralph Richardson, from Time Bandits. But as the movie is exactly as bloated and pretentious as its name, it didn’t take.
His next big moment for me came in ’85 with Brazil, a movie I’ve written about previously around here as permanently rewiring my brain. Holm plays Sam’s ineffectual boss, Mr. Kurtzmann, with exactly the right amount of pathetic uselessness, i.e. a lot. He’s sad and funny and though terrible, in his way, to Sam, he’s just as oppressed, and for that to be pitied.
After that, any appearance by Holm in any movie whatsoever excited me. He was one of those actors, who all seem to be British, come to think of it, who is incapable of turning in a bad performance. No matter the quality of the picture, Holm nails it, every time.
He worked with another favorite director, David Cronenberg, twice during the ’90s, in Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, during which decade he got Shakespearean with Mel Gibson in Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh in Henry V, worked for Soderberg on his weird second film, Kafka, got back into science fiction with The Fifth Element, and had a rare starring role, in The Sweet Hereafter, a movie I recall liking a lot at the time. Maybe that’s the one I’ll rewatch next. Something uplifting to cheer me in these sad times.
In the aughts, in case there was anyone on Earth who didn’t already know and love Holm, he played Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, owing to which, he’s said, he received endless fan letters addressed not to him but to Bilbo. Which is strange, since all the fan letters I sent to him I addressed to Napoleon and mailed to France.
He appeared in a boatload of other movies, prior to which film career he was primarily a stage actor. His theatrical endeavors came to an end in ’76 due to what all of his on-line bios tell me was a “severe” and “debilitating” episode of stage fright. Sounds unpleasant. On the plus side, it led to Ash and all the rest.
Long live Ian Holm!