The Unnervingly Beautiful and Versatile Rutger Hauer

On Film / The Daily — Jul 29, 2019
Rutger Hauer in Floris, a 1969 television series directed by Paul Verhoeven

As news spread last week of the death of Rutger Hauer at the age of seventy-five, social media was flooded with images, clips, animated GIFs, and quotes, nearly all of them gleaned from the Dutch actor’s final moments in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). As Roy Batty, a renegade replicant who has spent his short life raging against mortality, Hauer delivers a soliloquy that, in just under a minute, conveys both a grudging acceptance of the inevitable and a deep sense of mourning for all that he’s taking with him into the void: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

The monologue has its own Wikipedia page where we can read early drafts by Blade Runner screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples and Hauer’s own account of putting “a knife in it” on the night before the scene was shot. He honed out the wordiness and added a touch of his own—“tears in rain.” Writing in the New York Times, Bilge Ebiri argues that the poignancy of Roy Batty’s last words, spoken to Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, the cop sent to kill him, is rooted in the complexity of Hauer’s characterization. “Hauer brought to this particular killer robot a mixture of physical menace, regal charm, and psychic anguish,” he writes. Hauer’s “delivery of Batty’s dreamily immortal final lines is certainly perfect,” adds Ebiri, “but what’s even more heartbreaking is what he says right before, as he saves the seemingly defeated Deckard from plunging to his death: ‘Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.’ Scott shoots Hauer in extreme close-up, and captures in the actor’s eyes an instant of almost explosive awareness. It’s the kind of moment that still catches a viewer off-guard, many decades later.”

Hauer was a fairly accomplished stage actor when his on-screen debut as a Robin Hood-like knight in the Dutch television series Floris made him a star in the Netherlands in 1969. For all his future success in the movies, Hauer returned to television work throughout his career, playing, for example, a tribal king in the vampire fantasy True Blood (2013–2014) or cutting loose as an unruly ruler in the medieval musical comedy Galavant (2015). In a series of ads for Guinness, Hauer gleefully toyed with his image as a man so unnervingly beautiful he may not be truly human. The campaign ran for seven years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as Ryan Gilbey points out in the Guardian, it “made him a multimillionaire.”

Floris was the first collaboration between Hauer and Paul Verhoeven, and the first feature they worked on together, Turkish Delight (1973), was an international breakthrough for what programmer and critic Adam Cook calls “one of the most underrated actor-director combos ever.” Like his costar Monique van de Ven, Hauer spends much of Turkish Delight, the story of a volatile marriage, unclothed. “Less of an arthouse sex movie in the tradition of Last Tango in Paris or The Mother and the Whore and more like Love Story’s filthy doppelgänger,” writes Jaime N. Christley for Slant, “Turkish Delight, in the manner which would become Verhoeven’s trademark, can only feel all of the feelings, all of the time, at max volume.” Hauer and Van de Ven were paired again in Katie Tippel (1975), the story of an eighteenth-century woman’s rise from anonymous poverty to great wealth and status. Soldier of Orange (1977), in which a group of wealthy college students join the resistance against the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, was followed by the controversial motorcycle racing drama Spetters (1980). Hauer and Verhoeven fell out during the difficult production of Flesh and Blood (1985), the director’s first film in English and his first for a Hollywood studio. Years later, Hauer told Sam Adams at the A.V. Club that time had healed the wound and that he and Verhoeven occasionally talked about working together again.

Hauer had made it to Hollywood before Verhoeven, playing a vicious terrorist opposite Sylvester Stallone in Nighthawks (1981). Here, “it was his foreignness,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “his Europeanness, which was brought into play as the symbol of something sinister and cynical—and Hauer brought to this, as so many other roles, a theatrical touch of self-aware drollery.” In The Hitcher (1986), he played, as Ryan Gilbey puts it, “a psychopath who hides a victim’s severed fingers in a portion of French fries and tears a woman in half by tying her to two trucks. ‘I think in my darker characters I go a little further than most American actors,’ he said. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m not afraid of that side of myself.’”

But Hauer’s career was all over the map. He could pine brokenheartedly for Michelle Pfeiffer in the medieval romantic fantasy Ladyhawke (1985) or struggle for redemption as a homeless alcoholic in Ermanno Olmi’s The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), winner of the Golden Lion in Venice. He worked with directors as varied as Sam Peckinpah (The Osterman Weekend, 1983) and Nicolas Roeg (Eureka, 1984), and as Steven Gaydos writes for Variety, he could “swing from outlandish sexual abandon to mournful, elegiac wistfulness; from dare-you-to-blink violent forcefulness to the wistful, forlorn toll of a life of regrets.” At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Hauer “was an example of a specific and rare type of screen actor, one with leading-man looks and charisma but a grindhouse or B-movie star’s fascination with violence and sleaze, instability and mystery, and the dexterity and versatility of a skilled character actor (though his magnificent face, like a Roman bust of a revered general or philosopher, was so striking that you could never really disguise it—not that most directors would’ve wanted to).”

As an example of Hauer’s range, the occasion for Sam Adams’s interview in 2011 was the near-simultaneous release of Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, in which Hauer played Dutch artist Peter Bruegel the Elder, and Jason Eisener’s looney Hobo with a Shotgun, a feature based on a faux trailer for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. “One third of my movies are probably turkeys, and they pay for the experiments of the other third, in a way, and then the middle part pays for the rent,” Hauer told Adams. “In The Mill and the Cross, we had five days of shooting to create a character that would hold and have some sort of shape in front of a green screen, or a blue screen, so that’s a sport. In [Robert Rodriguez’s] Sin City [2005], that was two days of shooting, and the same sport: ‘Can you do something in the two minutes of screen time that will hold the audience enough?’ That’s the whole game, and I love it.”

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