It’s about as essential to one’s understanding of American cinema as the alphabet is to grade school; James Cameron’s epic-among-epics, Titanic, was the highest grossing film in the history of cinema for a solid twelve years (supplanted only by Cameron’s hugely belated follow-up, Avatar). You’d be hard pressed to find a moviegoer alive unfamiliar with the fatally doomed romance between Rose and Jack. Gargantuan icebergs aside, there’d have been little conflict in the film for audiences to thrill at were it not for Caledon “Cal” Hockley, Rose’s fantastically moneyed and sadistic fiancé. It was under-recognized actor Billy Zane who breathed smug, volatile life into Cal, and today, February 2 4th, 2014, is his 48th birthday. It’s in Billy’s honor that we take this capsule review of his ample body of work. Sort of.
To be frank: his résumé is by no means impressive. IMDb.com credits him with a whopping 125 film and television roles; while a more-than-ancillary part in Titanic would be quite the feather in any actor’s cap, Billy Zane’s other roles include films with such uninspiring titles as Leprechaun’s Revenge, Boop, and the direct-to-VHS Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World. Shrug. He’s also apparently turned up in Zoolander and an episode of Robot Chicken, two works this particular writer has at least seen listed in his program guide, but probably very wisely passed on.
So what is one to make of Billy’s filmography minus Titanic? Well, do the names “3-D,” “Skinhead,” and “Match” mean anything to you? Before you shake your head in the negative, recall Robert Zemeckis’ first two Back to the Future films, which every sighted person on the planet must surely have seen at this point. The nefarious Biff Tannen, you’ll remember, often had his threesome of thugs in tow. 3-D wore the goofy red and blue glasses, and Skinhead was shorn clean. As per the fellow compulsively chewing on matches? That brilliantly inconspicuous performance was turned in by none other than our man Billy. So while the intelligentsia may thumb their noses at Mr. Zane’s prolific but largely unremarkable career, bear in mind that it was Match who, in a dystopian 1985 where Biff ruled all of Hill Valley, memorably clocked Marty McFly on the back of the head, whacking the hapless time traveler out cold.
To our gentle readers: the next time you find yourself about to scrap drunkenly at a bar or keg party, you might be inclined to parrot Match’s infamous “We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” just before knocking some poor schlep senseless. Let us never forget that is was Billy Zane who gave that line his all. Happiest of birthdays, Mr. Zane. Here’s to another great 48 years–and presumably, another three classics and 122 more stinkers.