Remembering the actor who brought a weird energy & dignity to even the most B-grade films.
Rutger Hauer is dead, and with that we’ve lost one of our greatest, most distinctive character actors of the past forty years. Making his American debut in 1981’s Nighthawks, he seemed to be such an intrinsic part of modern film that it didn’t seem possible that he could die. Even when his angelic good looks grew weathered, there was a sense of the immortal about him. Anne Rice’s inspiration when she created Lestat de Lioncourt, it seemed all too appropriate for him to have played a vampire several times.
Like his younger counterpart Eric Roberts, Hauer had a remarkably prolific filmography, appearing in as many as seven movies a year well into the 2000s. Also like Roberts, Hauer just seemed to enjoy working, and was often the best part of a lot of not very good films (if you’re wondering if they ever appeared in anything together, they did, the 1993 TV movie Voyage). Often playing villains, he rarely ever had to raise his voice to be intimidating. Hauer was 6’1”, fairly average for an actor, but he just seemed taller, and more physically imposing than he actually was.
Though every film writer will likely weigh in on it by the end of the week, it would be disingenuous not to start with Hauer’s performance as Roy Batty in Blade Runner. It’s important because it’s, without a bit of hyperbole, one of the greatest science fiction movie performances of all time. So sleek and beautiful that if it turned out he really was an android in real life it wouldn’t have been surprising, Hauer is the surprising heart and soul of the plot, despite ostensibly being the villain.
There’s a look of broken-hearted betrayal in his eyes, the kind of betrayal that only happens in parent-child relationships, when the person who made you so profoundly lets you down. He could have played the role as an emotionless automaton, but replicants, after all, are “more human than human,” and aware of their mortality in a way that actual humans can’t comprehend. The cold intelligence with which Batty greets everything around him masks the sorrow that it’ll all be gone for him soon.
Before he settled into a long and fruitful career of largely supporting roles, the mid-80s was peak Hauer era. In a rare turn as a romantic hero three years after Blade Runner, he played Navarre, separated from his true love by a cruel curse in Ladyhawke. If you can make it past the modern (well, for 1985) synth-rock score, you’ll be rewarded with a beautifully low-key fantasy adventure in which Hauer plays the brooding leading man to perfection.
The sword fight Navarre gets into with his nemesis near the end won’t win any points for finesse, but it’s powered with helpless rage and love for the woman he fears is lost to him forever. His look of disbelief when he learns that that isn’t the case is but another remarkable moment in which everything Hauer’s character is feeling reflects in his lively, expressive eyes.
On the flip side, in the same year as Ladyhawke Hauer also appeared in another medieval period piece, Paul Verhoeven’s entertainingly sleazy Flesh and Blood, a film that dared to ask “what if we made every single character, even the heroine, the worst person imaginable?” Hauer, hoping to play another romantic hero, was disappointed with the direction Verhoeven, his longtime friend and collaborator, wanted to take the movie, and the two never worked together again.
His look of disbelief when he learns that that isn’t the case is but another remarkable moment in which everything Hauer’s character is feeling reflects in his lively, expressive eyes.
One wonders what would have happened if Hauer and Verhoeven had been able to work out their differences — perhaps Hauer would have been cast as Clarence Boddicker in Robocop, or Cohaagen in Total Recall. On the other hand, he might have ended up cast in Showgirls, so maybe all things considered it was for the best.
In 1986, Hauer played the weirdly seductive serial killer John Ryder in The Hitcher, his first time doing horror. Though the film had its detractors (Roger Ebert famously described it as “diseased and corrupt”), and Hauer was far from the first choice to play Ryder, the film became a cult classic, largely because of his performance. While many actors approach playing horror movie villains with a certain level of hamminess, as if they’re playing the Big Bad Wolf, there are long stretches when Hauer says nothing at all. Again, everything is in his eyes, as he regards with bemusement, and even sympathy, the young man who had the extraordinary bad luck to pick him up from the side of the road.
Hauer’s favorite of his own performances would come two years later, in the Italian drama The Legend of the Holy Drinker. Though it was critically acclaimed, and won top prize at the Venice Film Festival, it found no traction in the U.S., and didn’t lead to the more serious roles Hauer had hoped to do. The 90s saw Hauer balancing B-grade, mostly straight to video action movies with quirky arthouse fare like The Beans of Egypt, Maine.
His most successful movie this period was, of all things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which he played main villain Lothos with his usual dedication, though he was ultimately overshadowed by his hammier co-star Paul Reubens. Hauer claimed in interviews that he turned down most roles that were offered to him, but the second half of the decade, during which he appeared in films with titles like Omega Doom and Tactical Assault, didn’t seem to reflect that.
The 2000s were starting to look even worse, as illustrated when Hauer got tenth billing in the opening credits of Turbulence 3: Heavy Metal, a movie about a Satanic cult that hijacks a plane. Things turned around in 2005, however, when he was cast in small but pivotal roles in both Sin City and Batman Begins. It’s worth noting that their directors, Robert Rodriguez (born in 1968) and Christopher Nolan (born in 1970), are part of the generation who came of age when Hauer was at his peak, and fully appreciative of the weird energy he could bring to a film, as opposed to his granite-faced 80s counterparts Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.
Alas, they would remain the two biggest films of his later career, and Hauer soon returned to SyFy Channel-level fare. His most memorable role this decade was the titular Hobo With a Shotgun, the rare film in which the plot is right there in the title. With a name like that, it couldn’t possibly be anything but entertaining, and it is, while also being incredibly disgusting. Hauer gives 110% in his role as a vigilante homeless person, mowing down pimps, drug dealers, and a child molester dressed like Santa Claus.
Because that’s what he did, he always treated every role he took, even in stuff like The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power, with professionalism and dedication. Compare that to, say, Bruce Willis, who hasn’t given his acting roles the energy required to buy a pack of cigarettes at 7-11 in at least a decade.
Despite his playing largely menacing (if not outright evil) characters, Rutger Hauer was a dedicated environmentalist, an AIDS activist, and devoted to his wife, with whom he had been together for more than fifty years. Though the “tears in rain” speech from Blade Runner was probably quoted at him on an almost daily basis, by all accounts he was never anything less than gracious about it. Hauer was well aware that Roy Batty was, and would remain for the rest of his career, his most iconic role, naming his memoirs for it and discussing his experience making the film at length. It’s all too appropriate that he will be remembered forever for a monologue about how life is ephemeral.