The career of Sir Ian Holm comprises countless performances, and every single one of them is worthy of praise. Though he played a relatively small role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (and went on to reprise the role as "Old Bilbo" in The Hobbit), it was pivotal. Holm, who recently passed at the age of 88, gave a new life to Bilbo Baggins, revealing truths about the famous character that we’d never considered before.
Holm’s methods were unorthodox. His approach is documented in a lot of behind-the-scenes material, and also recently brought up again by Rings director Peter Jackson in a Facebook post about the late actor. Holm gave Jackson very different choices with every take, ensuring that Jackson and the editors would have a vast array of material to choose from when piecing the story together.
He was very much aware that no matter what an actor does onset, the performance can be wholly remade in the editing room. He embraced this instead of flinching from it. What kind of Bilbo Baggins did we end up seeing in the finished film, then?
We saw a Bilbo that we’d never really considered before. Holm gives us the hapless-turned-heroic protagonist of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, portraying him in The Fellowship of the Ring as always a little eccentric and still quite mischievous. What he unexpectedly adds is a layer of tragedy. Bilbo is still thought of as odd, he’s still very good friends with Gandalf, and he was still incredibly kind to his orphan relative and adopted heir, Frodo.
He was also an addict. He was helplessly addicted forevermore to the One Ring, the precious treasure that he'd found (or "won" depending on how he tells the tale) in his previous adventure. This aspect of Holm's portrayal was naturally in the script and intended by the filmmakers, but it took a gifted actor to truly sell that a character is hopelessly tied forever to an evil piece of jewelry. Holm makes it horrifyingly real.
It’s hard to watch at times, because we love Bilbo Baggins. Many of us identify very strongly with him, and we don’t want to see him go through this struggle. It makes perfect sense, though — it immediately proves just how strong the lure of the One Ring is — if it can affect the pure Bilbo Baggins in this way, then what hope does anyone else have?
Holm goes from smiling, happy Hobbit to sneering dependent at the drop of a wizard hat in his scenes. He evokes the necessary twinkle in his eye when “Mad Baggins” plays his little trick at his own party (his final line of “goodbye," directed right to Frodo, is remarkable), and we’re laughing along with him even as he flicks the One Ring back into his own pocket.
He’s delightful and joyous to watch for the entirety of the party scene and its aftermath. It’s only when starting to argue with Gandalf — when he starts to call the ring his "precious” — that we start to feel the fun wearing off. It’s not the line itself (though it helps), it’s the way that Holm says it, and the looks he gives off. At this point, Holm’s Bilbo would sacrifice his armchair, his books, his garden, and everything else he loves just to keep his fix going.
Bilbo ends up screaming at Gandalf, and we know what happens next. Do not take Gandalf for a conjurer of cheap tricks. In an instant, the real Bilbo is back and close to crying. He still has the ring in his pocket, though. Bilbo’s parting with the ring is different from how Tolkien wrote it, but cinematically, it is perfect, especially because this is the only time any character willingly lets it go.
Watch it again, put it on right now. Witness the look on Holm’s face as Bilbo slowly turns his hand over, dropping the ring to the floor. His look contains the depth of a gaunt alcoholic pouring the last of their vodka down the drain. It is painful, it is real, and this is the way a fantasy film is beginning. The pain that Holm exudes is no fantasy.
Bilbo may have dropped the ring, but he’s never free of it. Some wounds never fully heal, and the slightest glimpse of the ring later on in the film brings his addiction back to the fore. Holm plays many notes in the scene, but chief among them is that he thought he was past this. He never will be, and now he realizes it. All he can do is cry, and apologize that Frodo now has to deal with it too.
Holm’s gestures and mannerisms were so distinct and perfect that Martin Freeman was able to use many of them in the playing of Young Bilbo in The Hobbit films. Holm himself appears in the bookends of that trilogy, and it would end up being his final performance. His final words spoken in cinema are: "Welcome, welcome."
Bilbo has the special distinction of being one of the only non-elves permitted to depart Middle-earth from the Grey Havens. It is a location in fantasy and obviously not real, but if it was? Sir Ian Holm would earn passage for his remarkable performance as Bilbo Baggins alone. When put alongside the legion of his other brilliant performances, well, come aboard, sir, please. Welcome, welcome... you’ve more than earned it.
Rest in peace, Sir Ian Holm. Goodbye, dear Bilbo.
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