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Big and Small: Ian Holm, 1931-2020

Ian Holm and Tony Shalhoub in "Big Night" (1996, The Samuel Goldwyn Company)

It is staggering to think about the breadth of roles Ian Holm played, and how perfect he was in most of them. 

Holm, who died last week in London at 88 of causes related to Parkinson’s disease, was one of the greatest actors of stage or screen, and all the more impressive for how unfussy he was. His career is a study in humility and smallness. Even when he played big, the bigness was human-scaled. He never seemed to be looking for ways to escape being tainted by the worst things his characters did. Nor did he seem to bask in the reflected majesty of his heroic or just plain decent characters.

No doubt Holm was proud of his skills and accomplishments. How could you not be, if, like Holm, you’d been a star in the Royal Shakespeare Company for years before making your first TV appearance (as Richard III in the 1965 BBC series “Wars of the Roses”), then became a go-to character actor in splashy historical epics (such as 1977’s "Jesus of Nazareth"), and then, at 48, joined the upper ranks of superstar character actors in Hollywood movies, thanks to a chilling turn as the android science officer Ash in the original Alien? Nevertheless, when you think of Holm, you picture him dwarfed by the enormity of his context in the story, whether he’s playing a Hobbit entrusted with an all-powerful ring in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations; a petty dystopian bureaucrat embroiled in a cover-up in “Brazil”; a nerdy science officer feeding his crew a line of b.s. in order to facilitate a great evil in “Alien”; a compromised cop in “Night Falls on Manhattan”; or a homeless genius in “Joe Gould’s Secret,” working on a history of humankind that, for once, focuses not on royals, generals, and industrialists, but ordinary folks scraping by.

Holm often shined in parts that showcased the shabbiest tendencies in humanity (or in human-seeming creatures). Think of Ash, the misanthropic science officer of the Nostromo, gaslighting and belittling the heroine, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, often seeming as uncomfortable in his own skin as a flesh-and-blood person that knows he’s not cool or attractive or even especially good with people. That squirmy insecurity registers even more strongly in “Brazil,” where Holm plays a devastating caricature of a mid-level office manager, the kind of guy who doesn’t actually know how to do anything, seeks help from the competent people whose lives he holds in his hands, and rewards them not by making their lives better, but by not making them worse. 

When I think of Holm, I squirm a little bit, because he was so good at, and so brave in, the sorts of roles that make audiences flinch when they see that actor later on the street. The flinch isn't coming from the actor or the character, but from a recognition that the role touched a nervous, squirmy place inside you. I think of Holm's veteran patrolman character in the cop corruption drama “Night Falls on Manhattan,” explaining his district attorney son exactly how he did illegal and unethical things, failing to convince even himself that he cut corners for the greater good. I think of Ash toddling about the Nostromo, so maladjusted and lonely on top of being sinister and cold. I think of his savant character in “Joe Gould’s Secret”—adapted from New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s same-titled article—always managing to vandalize or destroy any good thing that another character tries to do for him, as if enacting some kind of Failure Insurance Policy. I think of his “Brazil” character, Mr. Kurtzman, imploding with insecurity even as he’s bossing around the hero—only pretending to understand things while they’re explained in language simple enough for a child to understand, periodically reminding himself to act miffed at the implication that he didn’t already know everything ("Yes, yes"), even as his face registers the bone-deep fright of a man who knows he's too dim to grasp even the dummy-proof version.

The stenches of failure and compromise were pheremones attracting Holm to a script. He had that great character actor’s instinct for finding, shaping, and nailing roles that were likely to worm their way into viewer’s minds and stay there, precisely because they shined a light on aspects of ourselves that we’d rather not think about because they’re so incredibly mortifying. 

Holm brought the same level of concentration and empathy to likable men, notably in two trilogies and six Tolkien adaptations directed by Peter Jackson: “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” Literally as well as figuratively playing the Little Guy you were supposed to root for, Holm also made Bilbo an avatar for our own difficulty resisting temptation and the lure of evil. When Bilbo gives into the dark energy of the ring, Holm’s face contorts in to an ecstatic-pathetic knot of pure yearning—the egoless self-abasement of the junkie, or the religious fanatic. Holm's "ring trances" are as scary as any of the beasts in Jackson's series. And more disturbing, perhaps, because they point toward something rotten inside all of us—a lust for power that could easily be exploited by the right monster with the right piece of jewelry.

Holm tackled the big roles, too, particularly in theater, where he was known as a Shakepearean actor who could handle any part, regardless of temperament or tone, sympathetic or unsumpathetic qualities. In 1993, after staying off the stage due to an onset of what he called “stage fright,” he returned to star in Harold Pinter’s “Moonlight,” then played King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company and was rarely far from the floorboards after that. Fellow Shakespeare legend Kenneth Branagh, said that acting opposite Holm in Branagh’s 1989 screen version of “Henry V” was like playing racquetball with somebody so skilled that one could never be sure “how the ball would come back.” 

One always got the sense that Holm played the person that other characters saw, not whatever fantasy that his own character might have about himself. On those rare occasions when Holm’s characters exuded confidence—as in his delectable turn as the Italian-American restaurant owner in “Big Night,” who makes great money selling Italian stereotypes to WASPs—it was only because they knew themselves inside and out, warts and all. Holm was a portrait artist, taking time to study the character’s posture and face and how the light fell on his clothes before putting brush to canvas. Every stroke was just right.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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