erik lundegaard

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Billy Bob and Them

The movies of Billy Bob Thornton

If “Sling Blade” had been released when Billy Bob Thornton was well-known he would’ve won the Academy Award for best actor. Since the film merely made him well-known he merely won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Not nearly as distinguished. Writers only write but actors are stars.

He would’ve won best actor not only because he plays someone mentally handicapped — a sure in with the Academy — but because, without the benefit of much make-up, he’s virtually unrecognizable in looks, manner and voice. Forget Nicole Kidman’s putty nose, this is transformation. When I saw Oliver Stone’s “U Turn” in 1997, friends had to tell me who was playing Darrell, the mechanic from hell. “That’s Sling Blade?” I said incredulously. When the thin, goateed Thornton began showing up on red carpets in the late ’90s, friends had to tell me who he was. “That’s Sling Blade?” I said incredulously. These same friends had to tell me that Thornton had been knocking around Hollywood for years.

“He was the guy in ‘One False Move’,” they said.

“Which guy?” I asked.

“The main bad guy.”

I didn’t remember. I remembered the cold-blooded, bespectacled black killer, and the hot black chick, but the other guy? It was only upon seeing the movie again, years later, that it finally clicked. In “One False Move,” Thornton plays Ray Malcolm, a stupid, white trash killer with a bad pony-tail. He’s also boyfriend to Cynda Williams’ drugged-out, heavy-lidded Fantasia. Back in a movie theater in 1992 this was my first thought about Billy Bob Thornton: “You’re kidding. He’s with her?” In some ways I haven’t gotten past that thought.

Calming effect

“Sling Blade” quickly became a kind of joke — “French fried pertaters, mm-hmm” — which is a shame because it’s a damn good movie. The characters say Karl has a calming effect on them, but the movie, with its long, still camera shots and minimalist soundtrack, has a calming effect as well. It’s a sweet film with great supporting performances, and the camaraderie between Karl and Frank Wheatley feels real, maybe because the camaraderie between Thornton and young actor Lucas Black was real. The two have made two more movies together (“All the Pretty Horses” and “Friday Night Lights”).

For all the chaos of his life off-screen — the fear of komodo dragons and antique furniture; the vials of blood he and Angelina wore around their necks — Thornton, on-screen, has a calming effect as well. There’s a stillness to his acting, and an honesty. It’s why he was perfect to play a NASA administrator in the awful “Armageddon” — those guys are supposed to be calm in voice and manner — and it’s why he was perfect to play an air traffic controller in the truly awful “Pushing Tin” — he needed to be the calm alpha male to John Cusack’s frenetic alpha male — and it’s why he was perfect to play the barber in the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Ed Crane is a man disconnected from life, emotionally and otherwise, and he needs that stillness. Billy Bob brought it.

Even Thornton’s over-the-top characters are still. Willie in “Bad Santa” may cuss a blue streak better than any character in movie history but he hardly moves. Put it this way: No one holds a drink at a bar and stares off into a dead-end future better than Billy Bob.

His characters almost always intrigue — even in bad movies — because we’re always wondering about them; we don’t immediately know what to think. They reveal just a little and a little and a little — and then they do something that reveals everything. Willie just seems the biggest asshole in the world until he tries to kill himself. Is Davy Crockett in “The Alamo” a man who enjoys the myth his life has become? Someone who only knows how to kill bears? Thornton plays him as the calm diplomat, amused by it all, until the battle begins. I still don’t know what to make of Coach Gary Gaines in the excellent “Friday Night Lights” — a performance Thornton based upon his father, a coach, about whom he has mixed feelings. Those mixed feelings translate. Gaines is probably the most ordinary big-game coach in movie history.

Then there’s Jacob Mitchell, the simple brother from “A Simple Plan,” a performance which garnered Thornton a supporting actor nomination. Jacob is a man who doesn’t want much out of life and doesn’t get it. He’s never even kissed a girl, and holds no animosity toward the girl who dated him for a month on a dare; both revelations are heartbreaking in their own way. He reveals most about himself when he’s supposedly revealing or saying something else. It’s when he and his brother, Hank (Bill Paxton), are setting up Lou Chambers, and Jacob is pretending to mock Hank, that we get a flash of Jacob’s real hatred for his brother. It’s when Jacob confesses how evil he feels that we realize he isn’t — and, conversely, why Hank and Hank’s wife are. Right before they find the snow-covered plane that ruins their lives, when they’re just three guys drinking beers in the woods, Jacob does a slight chicken-flap and says, with an idiot’s smile, “Wah, dit-dit. Like that guy? Remember?” It feels impromptu, and real, and his life. Wah, dit-dit. The vaguely remembered catch-phrase of an acquaintance or a TV character. He’s never kissed a girl but he’s got that. Wah, dit-dit.

In this way Billy Bob’s characters feel open-ended. They suggest a life beyond the life we see for 120 minutes.

‘I believe one feller comes from Arkansas’

Billy Bob co-wrote “One False Move,” which, at heart, is a clash of two cultures: Los Angeles, where Billy Bob lives, and Arkansas, where Billy Bob’s from. The Arkansas cop wants approval from the L.A. cops but he’s a joke to them. One wonders how much Billy Bob related. The deep south had been a kind of joke to Hollywood for decades, and like most things Hollywood touches, simplified in the storytelling. That’s the first thing you noticed about “Sling Blade.” The accents felt true. The language felt true. There’s more of the same in Thornton’s little-seen, disappointing follow-up, “Daddy and Them.” It’s a character study of a southern family but the story doesn’t go anywhere. But it is the south from someone who knows the south.

Since “Sling Blade” Billy Bob has been Hollywood’s go-to guy whenever they need a southerner. Who can we get to play a James Carville-like character in “Primary Colors”? To play a southern prison guard in “Monster’s Ball”? To play a combo of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in “Love Actually”? To play Davy Crockett?

Hollywood is like the whole “melting pot” myth. You go there to forget where you came from; you go there to lose yourself. That’s the whole point of acting, isn’t it? To lose yourself? Hollywood ups the ante. Change your name, fix your teeth, lose the accent, grow some tits. Then maybe we’ll talk about you “losing yourself.” Billy Bob somehow crossed the border intact. Hell, he kept the name Billy Bob, didn’t he? That’s like a Jewish movie star keeping the name Shlomo.

Until recently none of his movies made any money. Sure, “Armageddon” pulled in a mint ($201 million) but it’s hardly his movie. “Sling Blade” made $24 million, “A Simple Plan” $16 million, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” $7 million, “Monster’s Ball” $31 million. A movie starring Billy Bob Thornton didn’t crack the $50 million barrier until “Bad Santa” made $60 million in 2003, mostly on word-of-mouth that it was one of the funniest movies in years, and it was. Now Hollywood has him figured out. Get him drunk and swearing and put him next to kids. Hence the remake of “The Bad News Bears.” The bad news: It’s PG-13. The good news: I’m sure we’ll still see an honest performance.

—Erik Lundegaard’s favorite movie of the nineties is “The Insider.” This piece was originally published 8/1/05 on MSNBC.com.