LOS ANGELES Bill Paxton has an Oscar contender and a giant gorilla movie coming out within a couple of weeks of each other, and that's the story of his career. He makes little movies ("One False Move," "Traveller," "Trespass") and big ones ("True Lies," "Apollo 13," "Twister"). In the big ones, he is a stalwart leading man - like his hero, the fellow Texan Ben Johnson, whose every word sounded like the simple truth. In the little ones, Paxton plays regular guys who get twisted into strange traps of crime and guilt.
Paxton has received the reviews of his career for "A Simple Plan," which opened Friday. He stars with Billy Bob Thornton in the story of three Minnesota hunters who discover $4 million in a crashed airplane and think they can get away with keeping it. Both Paxton and Thornton are likely Oscar nominees, and the picture is as good as any this year.
On Christmas Day, another Paxton movie opens: "Mighty Joe Young," a remake of the 1949 classic about a giant gorilla that is taken from its African home and soon terrifies Hollywood. In this one, Paxton falls in love with Charlize Theron, who has known Mighty Joe since their childhood together.
"Mighty Joe Young" has spectacular special effects: The gorilla scales the facade of Mann's Chinese Theater and later rescues an imperiled child from atop a Ferris wheel. "A Simple Plan" is direct, unadorned drama, as the unlikely conspirators (also including Brent Briscoe as the third hunter, and Bridget Fonda as Paxton's wife) find their lives destroyed by greed and paranoia.
Paxton's acting approach is similar in both pictures, if you make allowances for the different tones. He plays scenes straight, and - reasonably, I guess you could say. No reaching for effects. In that he resembles his hero Ben Johnson (1919-1996), who starred in the original "Mighty Joe Young" and a lot of Westerns, and won an Academy Award for "The Last Picture Show" in 1971.
"Growing up in Texas and Oklahoma, Ben Johnson was more famous than John Wayne to some of us," Paxton said. "I knew him. I worked with him on a low budget film years ago, and we'd sit around at night while waiting for a shot. We'd chew cloves and he'd tell me all these great stories about the films he'd worked on, including `Mighty Joe Young' - which really put him on the map, a little like me and `Twister.' They didn't need to get Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall for the picture because they were going to sell it on the effects, but it got him on the board and he ended up getting to do movies like `The Last Picture Show.' " It was so bizarre to be asked to play the Ben Johnson role in `Mighty Joe Young.' "
When Mighty Joe climbs the Chinese theater, the poster out front is for another Ben Johnson classic, "Wagonmaster." "I told Ron Underwood, the director, there had to be a Ben Johnson tribute in there somewhere," Paxton said.
The story behind "A Simple Plan" is a longer one. "My father sent me the book when it was in hardback. He said, `You'll love it. It's got a lot of hair on it. You were born to play this part.' " I said, `Dad, I'll never get to do this.' And for five years, there was a whole list of actors and directors who kind of marched through it. Billy Bob and I were set to do these roles in 1997, and then it fell apart. That was the cruelest twist for an actor, to get a part you dreamed you'd get and then they decide to scrap the whole thing."
John Boorman ("Deliverance" and the upcoming "The General") was originally set to direct, but wasn't available when the pieces fell into place. The final choice seemed an unlikely one: Sam Raimi, known for his horror work including the "Evil Dead" films. But Raimi's direction on the film shows flawless control of mood and tone, as the characters work themselves into a tragic hole.
For Paxton, "A Simple Plan" was an intensely personal movie: "Every day you're taking a final exam as an actor. You had to be so naked in this role. But I had a good relationship with Billy Bob from `One False Move,' where we worked together. And the relationship that we were able to put into this movie is so personal to both of us. I have an older brother Bob, who's not unlike Billy's character. We were always really close. I've had a life where things have worked out for me beyond my wildest dreams, and my brother's had just the opposite.
"Billy Bob's a very impromptu actor. He'll kind of look at a scene, and then he'll put it in his own words. There's a scene where I'm just tryin' to kinda calm him down, and he says, `Do you feel evil? I do. I feel evil.' And I start massaging his shoulders. I remembered that when my dad would put us to sleep at night, he'd say, `Everything relaxes. . . . Your head relaxes. . . . Your neck relaxes.' That's where we got that."
The two movies are opening so close together because "Mighty Joe Young" was moved back from its original summer release date.
"They still had a lot of special effects work to do," he said. "Same story as `Titanic.' But this is more of a Christmas picture, anyway, because it has a lot of charity and a lot of heart to it. And I think they were a little worried about getting backed up against `Godzilla.'
"This is a different kind of gorilla. Joe is a noble beast; he's kind of our ancestor. He comes into the world like an innocent; he's brought here and exploited, and finally he's fighting for his life. And as for the effects: In some of the other creature features, you'll see the legs moving or you'll see a head turn, but in our movie, you see a fully articulated animal, from head to toe, running across open fields and such."
It's true. The camera is free to circle Joe even while he's moving; the gorilla isn't locked into an area of the screen as in many special effects. Then again, in "A Simple Plan," there aren't any special effects. Paxton seems at home both ways. He may not have to wait as long as Ben Johnson for his Oscar.