Ian Holm: “He Seemed to Tower Under You”

On Film / The Daily — Jun 22, 2020
Ian Holm in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)

With his indelible interpretations of characters created by Shakespeare and Harold Pinter, Ian Holm, who passed away last Friday at the age of eighty-eight, was already a five-foot-five giant of the stage before he took on his first film role. Two of those roles served as booster rockets to international stardom: Ash, the science officer (and sleeper agent) on the spaceship Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), and Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (2001–2003) and The Hobbit (2012–2014). “In a way,” writes Tim Robey in his tribute to Holm for the Telegraph, “he seemed to tower under you.”

With Ash, Holm “created an android with hang-ups,” writes Robey, “a kind of guarded robot eunuch . . . Until the reveal, he scans as a petty and impatient beta male, with a touch of small man syndrome. But once you’ve realized he wants the alien loose, you can rewind and watch his close-ups, and pick up on all these tiny, chilling details, like the way he glances at John Hurt forensically over the mess table before anything’s even happened. It’s a triumph of secretive, wait-till-you-see-what-I’m-doing acting.”

Having studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Holm launched his theatrical career in 1954 as a spear-carrier in a production of Othello in Stratford-upon-Avon. By 1964, Peter Hall, the director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was putting him front and center in a cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays. “In the course of a single week, it was possible to see Holm growing from a beady, watchful Prince Hal to a working-warrior Henry V,” writes Guardian theater critic Michael Billington. “Holm’s full versatility revealed itself when in 1965 he played Lenny in the premiere production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming at the Aldwych: what Holm gave us, unforgettably, was a savage peacock in Pinter’s glittering north London human zoo.”

Lenny is one of three sons of Max, a retired butcher, and when Holm played Max in 2001, the New York TimesBen Brantley found that he had “ripened gloriously into the roles rottenness.” Brantley noted that Pinter had once said of “his long association with Mr. Holm, ‘He puts on my shoe and it fits!’ Certainly, its tough to think of another actor who gives such natural life to the classic Pinter paradoxes: the sense of strength in decay (and decay in strength) and the tongue that usually speaks the opposite of what it means.”

Holm appeared in more than ninety films, and Michael Brooke has written up a pretty thorough rundown for Sight & Sound. “On screen,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, Holm “was never exactly a heart-on-sleeve performer; he did not need or even appear to want the audience’s sympathies. Holm could be a mandarin and almost priestly presence, but always with a pressure cooker of emotion inside. He brought a commanding strength and a stillness to his work, a less-is-more economy that gave him what few theatrical knights have had since Olivier: equal success on stage and screen. He was a character actor with star quality.”

For his performance in Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981) as Sam Mussabini, who trains a British runner for the Paris Olympics of 1924, Holm scored his first and only Oscar nomination. That same year, he appeared as Napoleon—a role he’d played once before in Derek Bennett’s Eleonore (1974) and would play once again in Alan Taylor’s The Emperor’s New Clothes (2004)—in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. In Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), he was Mr. Kurtzmann, “a devastating caricature of a mid-level office manager,” as Matt Zoller Seitz puts it at RogerEbert.com. “The stenches of failure and compromise were pheromones attracting Holm to a script,” adds Seitz. “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.”

In 1989, Kenneth Branagh cast Holm as Fluellen, the Welsh captain who offers a bit of comic relief in Henry V. A year later, as Mel Gussow notes in the New York Times, Branagh, who played the king, of course, wrote in his memoir, Beginning: “Acting with [Holm] was like playing a racket game with someone very much more skilled. One was never sure how the ball would come back, but it would always be exciting and unexpected. He is a master of film technique. I’d heard the Ian Holm School of Acting described as follows: ‘Anything you can do, I can do less of.’” In 1994, Branagh cast him again—as the father to his own Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Ryan Gilbey, writing for the Guardian, notes that Atom Egoyan was surprised to find that he was the first director to give Holm a leading role “because, he said, ‘he is often the most memorable thing about the movies he’s been in.’” In The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Holm plays a lawyer who arrives in a small, traumatized town after a school bus accident has led to the death or serious injury of several children. “Is he honestly sympathetic, we ask,” writes the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, “or might he be milking the calamity—for money, for professional satisfaction, or as a means of fighting off griefs of his own? If those questions remain unanswered, it’s because Holm doesn’t milk the setup. I can think of some stars whose careers, in this regard, grow into one-man dairy industries, but never do we sense that Holm is taking advantage of a part to show us what he can do.”

On Saturday, Peter Jackson posted a tribute in which he recalled that, before shooting his first scenes with Holm, he was “nervous about working with such an esteemed actor, but he immediately put me at ease. Standing in Bag End on the first day, before cameras started rolling, he took me to one side and said that he would be trying different things in every take, but I shouldn’t be alarmed. If, after five or six takes, he hadn’t given me what I needed, then by all means I should give him specific direction . . . Farewell, dear Bilbo. Safe travels, darling Ian.”

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