In a perfect world, the versatile and hard-working (172 acting credits on IMDb!) Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, who has died in the Netherlands from cancer, would have had a film or even a franchise that capitalized on his range and the blonde good looks of his early years. After early stardom in his home country, he ventured into Hollywood and international films, delivering outstanding, timeless work. Yet his charisma, depth, and daring never translated into a career as a major European leading man in the same way as earlier Euro icons like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and Marcello Mastroianni.
By the time Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” (2005) came along, the vibrant warrior prince of the 1980s had become a sturdy character player in his sixties.
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But although younger film buffs may know him better for the outre genre fare of his later years with titles like “Hobo With Shotgun” and “Scorpion King 4,” in his heyday, Hauer worked with some of international cinema’s finest directors and delivered performances that were simply astounding in their sensitivity and delicacy. He possessed a range for the ages: 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.
Here are five of his outstanding performances:
“Legend of the Holy Drinker” (1988)
By the late ‘80s, when this Ermanno Olmi masterpiece won the much-deserved Golden Lion Award for best film in Venice, the American arthouse cinema world had receded so far into the past that this much-heralded but virtually unseen gem never even received a theatrical release in the U.S. Check out Rotten Tomatoes: There are no reviews for Olmi’s film and no assessments of Hauer’s incredible titular performance as Andreas, a “clochard” (homeless drunk) living rough on the streets of Paris.
When a surprise benefactor gifts him with enough money to wash up, shave, have a meal and begin to engage in a life of hope, Hauer’s rise and fall is a masterclass in great acting. In the hands of naturalistic maestro Olmi, that means decidedly lower-case “a” acting — as subtle and restrained as it gets. But there’s another dimension that lifts “Holy Drinker” into the class of the greatest films ever made on the subject of spirituality: Hauer plays a man infused with faith and goodness, a lost soul touched by the hand of God. Lesser known than the canon of Robert Bresson’s religious texts like “Mouchette” and “Diary of a Country Priest,” “Holy Drinker” is simply a film miracle driven by Hauer’s remarkable performance.
“Soldier of Orange” (1977)
Not as well known as Paul Verhoeven’s edgy, raucous breakout hit “Turkish Delight,” in many ways “Orange” is the film that really announced Verhoeven as a consummate film craftsman and an international cinema force to be reckoned with. Built much like a 1940s Hollywood big screen adventure that would have starred Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks, “Orange” boasts two bigger-than-life performances from Hauer and fellow top-tier Dutch thesp Jeroen Krabbe. On the surface, “Orange” is a classic WWII actioner celebrating the plucky best of the Netherlands youth fighting against the evil Nazi empire. But the real object of Verhoeven’s attention is the elan vital of the aristocrat Erik (Hauer) and his friendship with Guus (Krabbe) as they thread the needle of social entanglements, betrayals and very lethal fascists on their doorstep.
“Blade Runner” (1982)
Famously despised by its studio, dismissed by critics and ignored by “Star Wars”-besotted sci-fi fans when it was released, “Blade Runner” today stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the sci-fi film genre. Its stature is immeasurably aided by Hauer’s staggering performance as the renegade replicant Roy Batty, a humanoid ingeniously crafted by the Tyrell Corporation, but possessing something resembling a soul, the origin of which remains the central mystery of the film. One of the most powerful critics of the time, Pauline Kael, dismissed Ridley Scott’s masterpiece completely and called Hauer’s work a “gaga performance is an unconscious burlesque.” Nearly 40 years later, the film and the performance both stand as towering achievements and Kael’s dismissal as astonishingly boneheaded.
Central to the murder mystery in Brit auteur Nicolas Roeg’s film is the role of Claude, played by a cagey, wary and furtive Hauer. Top Brit critic Mark Cousins, a lonely voice in support of this almost completely lost ’80s drama, sees Hauer’s performance as so central to the success of the film that he used the character in an open letter to Roeg as a key to the director’s creative intentions: “What do you think when you, the great artificer, see yourself?” asked Cousins. “Do you think of Rutger Hauer’s Claude Maillot Van Horn character in your film Eureka, who, when he sees himself in the mirror, says to his reflection ‘I thought it might be you’? He’s disappointed, isn’t he? He just can’t escape himself, he longs for the rapture of self-loss.” Again, Hauer provides his character with layers and depths that make for a performance that lingers in the memory long after the film has played.
“Turkish Delight” (1973)
Ah, youth. The wild, untamed vision of Verhoeven certainly would find a tough time getting financed and accepted by audiences today. Very much part of the hippie counter-culture, free love and “let’s burn down the world while we’re at it” ethos of the ’60s and early ’70s, Hauer’s rude and rowdy adventurer is a Wilhelm Reich treatise in tight jeans and blousy shirts. Still shocking today for its casual sadism sandwiched in between dollops of sexual abandon, Hauer’s Eric is matched at every turn by Monique van de Ven’s primal mate Olga. That their frazzled, tortuous journey together achieves pathos and tenderness in the final frames is completely due to the fearlessness of Hauer and his equally dazzling co-star.