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RIP Rutger Hauer: the man who played one of the most complex villains in cinema history

A giant of modern cinema

  • Harrison Williams
  • 24 July 2019

I was 13 years old when my father brought out the film Blade Runner on a rainy afternoon in the middle of summer. It was the Director’s Cut in a tattered VHS jacket and I was immediately enamoured by the imagery on the front cover. Being named Harrison, I was obviously a massive fan of Harrison Ford, having seen the Star Wars movies before I even watched Sesame Street. Now I was seeing my hero with laser focus in his eyes, a seductive Sean Young smoking a cigarette beside him and the dark world of 2019 Los Angeles below.

Little did I know that Blade Runner was going to take me on an existential journey that would make it the most important film in my life. However, I couldn’t have expected that my love for the film wouldn’t be due to the protagonist, my hero. Instead it was because of Roy Batty, the villain played by the legendary actor Rutger Hauer, who would change my perspective on what it means to be human.

Rutger Hauer was born Rutger Oelsen Hauer on January 23, 1944 in Breukelen, Netherlands. Acting was in his blood, with his parents immersed in the drama industry. Yet after launching his acting career with roles in Dutch films, it took him decades to make an impression in Hollywood.

It was through the roles of villains that got Hauer noticed and he would go on to change the public’s perception of what a dark and twisted character could be within film.

Through his role as the replicant Roy Batty, in the initially unsuccessful film Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, Rutger Hauer made a huge impact by bringing a relatable motivation to his brutal character.

Roy Batty tortured his prey to get information. He exposed a replicant eye designer, Hannibal Chew, to freezing cold temperatures and later takes out the head of Tyrell Corporation, his maker. What drove this character to such madness? It was the intrinsic human instinct to survive.

To showcase this drive behind the character, Hauer’s performance made viewers root for Batty in ways not thought possible before. The audience found themselves siding with a seemingly lifeless and evil android. You liked the bad guy and arguably, he was one of the first villains who could be considered an anti-hero.

Of course for much of the movie Batty charges around on a rampage in order to sustain his life, once this quest is revealed to be futile, his moment of stark realization is one of the most brilliant displays of humanity in film history.

The legendary speech at the end of the film, which was famously altered by Hauer, is a hugely emotive and thought-provoking monologue that never ceases to enthrall and amaze.

Without Hauer’s changes to the script, this iconic moment “would have been lost in time, like tears in rain,” as he famously states at the tail end of his speech. Hauer’s drive to take it upon himself to change this part of the film in order to make it more impactful was a brave and commendable move, one that shows his dedication to his artform.

A moment such as this might not have gone down as one of the most dramatic and emotional moments in cinematic history without Hauer, a moment that revolutionized how we viewed the role of Hollywood villains.

For me, watching such a powerful display of emotion at the tender age of thirteen, be delivered by a character not considered to be human, I was struck with many questions about purpose. These questions ultimately came about because of such a powerful, career-defining performance from Hauer.

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be alive? What is our purpose on this earth? In that moment, when Roy Batty takes his final breath and the white dove flies into the sky, I was given a glimpse of these answers. Yet like for Roy Batty, these questions are likely never truly answered and life is a continuous quest to discover meaning. While of course an actor follows a script, I can honestly say that had Batty been played by anyone else than Hauer, it would not have had such a profound impact on my life and consequent thinking.

Throughout the rest of his life Hauer would play a variety of roles from heroes to vampires, and would always make a lasting impression as a villainous figure, including as a murderous hitchhiker in ‘The Hitcher’ or the venomous cardinal in ‘Sin City’.

He arguably created a blueprint for villains going forward, one that some of the best actors in modern cinema would apply to their craft. The robotic intensity of Schwarzengger in The Terminator, the profound, often whimsical revelations spoken by Gary OIdman in Leon and even the sheer heartlessness and inhumanity displayed by Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, all have hints and flickers of the way Rutger played Batty. It could be argued that there’s been a bit of Hauer in every baddie, ever since.

For his contribution to film he was given the Dutch "Best Actor of the Century Rembrandt Award" in 1999 and was made a knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 2013. He remained a major supporter of the environmental organization Greenpeace until the end and his Rutger Hauer Starfish Association fought and will continue to fight the AIDS disease as one of the actor’s last wishes.

His passing on July 19 has prompted fans of both his and the movie’s to look back at the legacy he left with his role in Blade Runner. His brooding intensity as an actor cannot be understated and his on-screen presence, especially in this piece of cinema history, will live on forever.

“The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.”

RIP Rutger Hauer.

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