Long before Ian Holm first registered to me on film as the malevolent android, Ash, in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, Alien, he was a star on stage in his native England as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. For his work in theater, Holm won the coveted Evening Standard Best Actor Award for Playing Henry V in 1965. He also earned many a plaudit for his performances in Harold Pinter plays, culminating with winning the Tony for best actor in a featured role as Lenny in Pinter’s The Homecoming in 1967. Nine years later, while playing Hickey in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Holm was afflicted with a notorious bout of stage-fright. He addressed the audience with apologies and walked off stage. He would not return to live performance for fifteen years.
Holm already possessed a number of significant credits on film and television at the time of his departure from the theater, and for the next decade and a half he would pour all his energies as an actor into those two mediums.
Which brings us to Ash and Alien. Most (including me) would consider the xenamorph/John Hurt chest-bursting scene to be the most shocking in the film, but the reveal of Ash as an android programmed to bring home the alien no matter the consequences (which include Sigourney Weaver’s neck) has to rate a close second. Holm’s work in Alien is a primer in how to do the most by doing very little. We think Ash is merely an analytical stoic, and that belief carries us right up until the moment he attempts to wring Ripley’s neck and his own head is removed from his body as a milky substance pours out of his body. It’s a great shock that is built on the foundation Holm has created throughout the film. His behavior is synthetic, so when we learn he is an android, not only is it frightening, it also makes sense. It’s an extraordinary performance–a master class in minimalism.
Two years later, Holm would earn his first and only Oscar nomination as Sam Mussabini, the athletic trainer of Ben Cross’s Harold Abrahams in the Academy Award winner for best film, Chariots of Fire. To most, Hugh Hudson’s Brit-focused depiction of the 1924 Olympics hasn’t aged particularly well beyond the iconic score by Vangelis. But there is no way not to take delight in Holm joyfully punching a hole in his straw hat the moment he learns Abrahams has won the gold medal in the 100 meters from his stark, lonely hotel room where he takes up residence because he can’t bear to watch the race in person.
Holm continued on as an in-demand character actor for the next sixteen years, adding class to such notable productions as Time Bandits, Brazil, Dance With a Stranger, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, and Big Night, among many others. It wasn’t until 1997 with Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter that Holm would get the opportunity to establish himself as a lead, and my, did he not miss the chance.
In The Sweet Hereafter, Holm plays Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer who comes to a small Canadian town with the intention of convincing a group of bereaved parents to file a class action suit against the town and the bus company for negligence in a terrible accident where a school bus slides off an icy road and into a body of water–resulting in the deaths of several children. As riveting and agonizing as that premise is, it’s Stephens’ motivation for pushing the families to litigate that is the most wrenching. As a man haunted by the his inability to help his drug-addicted daughter, Stephens is attempting to find purpose, to give his life meaning through the suffering of others. If he can just right this wrong, maybe it can make up for his failings with his own child. His relentless push only adds anguish to himself and the people he is attempting to represent. He just can’t accept that there are accidents in life and that all the good intentions in the world do not account for the devil known as bad luck. He is simply devastating in the film.
Holm never got another role quite as large and juicy as Mitchell Stephens again (although Joe Gould’s Secret comes close). However, he did continue to do what he always did for the final seventeen years of his career–make everything he appeared in better. He is probably best known for his role as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films–and he’s quite wonderful in all of them.
But to me, he is the man who betrayed humanity in Alien, the coach who could not contain his joy in Chariots of Fire, and the sad lawyer whose search for redemption goes unfulfilled. All of those characters are distinct, bold, and mesmerizing.
As was Ian Holm.
Ian Holm died today, he was 88 years old.