Ian Holm did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Ash in Alien.
Alien is a masterful horror film about a crew of spaceship who answer a distress call that leads to contact with a deadly life form.
One of the great elements of Alien is found in its ensemble. Although I have focused on Holm for the review everyone is worthy of mention. The crew of the spaceship called the Nostromo are not just dead meat, despite their high mortality rate, nor are they the standard character usually found in Science fiction. This reflected in almost everyone's performance who play their parts in a particularly down to earth fashion, as they reflect the fact that this crew is not a group of space adventurers rather they are simply a group of people doing a routine job for money. Along with that there is considerable amount of camaraderie the actors create with each other suggesting that the group have been working together for awhile. Their performances just intertwine incredibly well, and it only ever feels like a genuine group of people you meet not just some standard sci-fi or horror archetypes as they easily could have been.
John Hurt, who actually was nominated for a Bafta, gives a very strong performance as one of Kane a crew member who is particularly tired, and finds everything is just rather routine. He very nicely though shows the right excitement in Kane when searching through the odd ship they discover from the distress call. Hurt deserves particular praise for the film's most famous scene of the chestburster. The scene may not have been as effective if it were not for Hurt's portrayal who gives one of the most searing portrayals of pain on screen, and makes you believe that this horrible thing is happening to Kane. Tom Skerritt is also quite good in portraying the ship captain's Dallas. Skerritt brings the right likability and relaxed quality to be the captain of such a ship, but he also brings the right sort of command to the part. He is a comforting factor in the film, seeming perhaps the hero, making all the more effective with his early departure.
Harry Dean Stanton is a particularly interesting choice to be in a sci-fi film, and he offers some nice comic relief early on. He's quite enjoyable in being just about a janitor for the ship. Stanton brings a different kind of exasperation one where he seems to genuinely not care about anything other than the fact that he's getting less money than the rest of the crew. Along with Stanton on the janitorial crew is Yaphet Kotto as Parker who also is upset about the lack of money, although Kotto makes it in a somewhat more amiable half joking sorta fashion. He and Stanton are great together and I love the way the two have kinda a connection between each other but a certain distance throughout the rest due to their more "lowly" jobs on the ship. Kotto gets to do a little more than Stanton, since he lasts longer, and very effectively and believably shifts Parker into passionate man who wants to stop the monster and save the crew.
The ladies are no slouches either. Sirgourney Weaver is exceptional from the beginning as Ripley, although she would later achieve even higher heights with the character in the two sequels to this film, this is still a very assured performance that leads the later of the half incredibly well. Weaver might not give the best performance in this film, as is the case in Aliens and Alien 3, but her strong screen presence adds so much to the film. Veronica Cartwright has what could have been a technically thankless role as the weakest member of the crew Lambert. Cartwright is amazing in the role though because she creates such a real and intense fear. Cartwright does not show that Lambert is just afraid, no she makes Lambert someone almost petrified by her situation. Cartwright makes her absolutely gripped with fear, and it has to be said that Veronica Cartwright is perhaps the greatest cinematic screamer of all time.
What about old Ian Holm though, the man this review is technically all about? Holm is kinda the odd man out, and this is a great ensemble in the best sense since all the other performances amplify Holm's. As I said before you really believe the crew as they all have the right relaxed quality toward one another, well everyone except Holm. Holm has a certain cold streak to his performance, and never seems to share any real connection with other crew members. The crew also all are rather tired of their jobs again this makes Holm stand out. Holm has Ash always very up to task never giving the sense that the character is tired in the least. Holm portrays Ash with constant engagement rather different from the general half-hearted attitude given by the other crew members towards their tasks. Holm and the rest of the cast together create the perfect dynamic by showing that Ash is definitely not like the rest.
Holm is very interesting in the early scene of the film as there is an oddness he brings to his performance, that is all the more pronounced when compared to the particularly naturalistic performances given by the rest of the cast. Holm's performance is particularly astute as he throws in some strange mannerisms that Ash has some of the time. The mannerisms are not strange in the usual way, and Holm is brilliant in his odd choices here. Holm adds in some overly human things to do like for example when he blows out his breath when he is suppose to be bored. It is technically something a human does, but the way Holm does it seems like it is a man acting as you know a proper human should act. You can kinda see the performance, not Holm's, but Ash's. Holm never goes too far with this to give away the game completely, but he alludes to the fact that there is something not quite right about Ash in such a clever subtle fashion.
The deal with Ash is kept a secret by the film and Holm when Kane finds himself incapacitated with an Alien facehugger. On one hand Holm portrays Ash very passionate about letting Kane back on the ship for treatment, and even fervently performs Ash's argument with Ripley since he overrode quarantine protocols which claims was for the sake of Ash. Holm carefully conflicts these claims with his portrayal of Ash's attitude toward Kane while the creature does whatever it is doing to him. Holm plays it rather interestingly as he shows Ash to be very intrigued, and quite gentle in these scenes. The thing Holm never portrays this as Ash having sympathy toward Kane, but rather his tender movements seem toward the creature. Holm again is excellent because he plays his hand in just the right fashion to not give away the truth about Ash, but still completely setting up the intent of the character.
One of my favorite scenes for Holm is the dinner after Kane has seemingly recovered. Again everyone else amplifies Holm's work as they are all just talking casually seeming ready to enjoy Earth again soon enough and happy to see their friend healthy again. Holm though is brilliant as he shows that Ash is absolutely knows something is going to happen, and happen very soon. Holm makes Ash completely knowing as he simply just watches Kane the entire time with a bit of reserved excitement ready to see what is going to happen next. When the alien does rear its ugly head its not fear or disgust that Holm expresses like the rest of the crew, but instead he shows a cruel fascination at the turn of events. Holm is so good though because again he still does not quite seem to give up the game, and it is believable that the others would take so long to suspect him because Holm does keep Ash's oddities so subtle.
Eventually Ash is caught by Ripley mainly because he seems to be bleeding but the problem is his blood is white not red. Holm is amazing though as he instantly switches to becoming incredibly imposing in an instant as Ash decides that Ripley knows to much. Despite Holm's stature, he still brings a strong menace as there is just such a sudden fierce determination to bring death that Holm portrays in Ash, while Ash seems to have far more strength than a normal human being. Well that's because Ash is in fact an android which becomes even more apparent as he is attacked by the other remaining crew members and begins to malfunction. This could lead to some rather bad overacting, but Holm actually completely sells the scene as Ash begins to convulse wildly before his head is knocked off. Holm honestly comes across as machine losing its proper functionality and its just a wonderfully acted scene by Holm.
Holm, despite only being a head, actually gets one more scene as the crew revives him temporarily to find out what he knows about the Xenomorph. Holm, again only acting with his head, is marvelous in the scene. Holm, while still being the android by showing the malfunctions, delivers Ash's final speech perfectly. He brings such dread to Ash's message while making it more fiendish by showing that Ash is so satisfied that they will soon die. Holm is absolutely bone chilling with his final smile he gives after he tells the crew that even though they are doomed they do have his sympathy. This is a fantastic performance by Ian Holm because he never gives away the secret of his performance, but when it is revealed it makes absolute sense due to the hints from his performance. A lesser actor may have given up the game instantly, or just made it a cheap twist, but Holm executes the character of Ash so perfectly creating a truly memorable villain that works so wonderfully with the rest of the cast.