James Woods works. A lot. In the 40 plus years he’s been acting, he’s delivered more than 60 roles in feature films, many to notable critical acclaim. He’s also a staple on television, lending his talent to numerous made-for-TV movies, which are, again, often met with significant adoration. Thankfully, in real life, Woods is nothing like the elitist, antagonistic, assholish characters he plays so perfectly. By all accounts, he’s a genuinely good guy who doesn’t let age or type casting get in the way of his craft.
Five Essential Roles
As a ratings-hungry TV exec willing to put anything on air to attract viewers, Woods fits impeccably into the warped world of David Cronenberg. With his young, bug-eyed stare, Woods knows just how much denial to flex; he knows when to be cautious, and when to fully give in. This is evident during the film’s many infamously grotesque sequences, including when Max Renn seems to be getting off by literally entering his head into a television.
Does it make actual sense? Nah. But that’s hardly the issue. Dedication and conviction, that’s what matters. Woods has both, and then some.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Sergio Leone’s epic masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America, is a film about many things conveyed through many themes. Though, at the heart of its story is a simple tale of fractured friendship. Two friends, Woods’ Max and Robert De Niro’s Noodles, come up together in lower Manhattan – they rob, they cheat, and, most importantly, they compliment each other. Their conflicting opinions on work, women, and money complement their friendship and the effectiveness of their gang. Until, of course, their differences get the better of them.
It’s hard for me to choose which aspect of Woods’ work I value more in this film: the combative paranoia of Max’s youth, or the melancholic understanding of his later years. I suppose picking one is fruitless, as they are, rather amazingly, played by the same unique man.
There’s a distinct manic desperation to Woods’ work in Oliver Stone’s Salvador. As a boozing, drugging, unemployable photojournalist, Richard Boyle heads to El Salvador in search of a story. The country is in the middle of a raging civil war, and Boyle thinks the mayhem will make for great scenery. But shortly into his visit, Boyle’s blasé attitude is flipped irrevocably, and he soon gets far more story than he had bargained for. One of the final scenes of this film, in which Boyle comes very close to meeting his fate, only to later spin it into a humorous situation, may be the single best acted sequence of Woods’ career.
Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)
Byron De La Beckwith
The haunting brilliance of Woods’ work in Ghosts of Mississippi can be exemplified during a brief sequence in a courthouse bathroom. Late in the film, long after the audience knows for certain that Byron De La Beckwith is guilty of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Beckwith surprises the man prosecuting him (played by Alec Baldwin) in the courthouse pisser. In two short minutes, Beckwith solidifies his status as a hardened monster and wild racist. Caked in convincing age-old makeup, this scene proves Woods’ true talent. As he leaves the bathroom, Beckwith playfully mocks Martin Luther King, Jr. while lighting a giant cigar, gleeful about his prejudice. That, my friends, is how you get nominated for an Academy Award.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
There’s something about Woods’ restrained work in The Virgin Suicides that I’ve always been taken with. In his brief time on screen, Woods manages to tell us everything about Ronald Lisbon that we need to know. As he joyfully describes his model airplanes to a few uninterested young boys from the neighborhood, it’s so amusingly clear that Ronald wishes there was another man in his house. Or how about when he wakes from a nap to say goodbye to his daughter’s date, unable to remember the lad’s name as he shakes his hand? And then, of course, there’s Ronald’s pain. His ignored and detrimental pain. Woods’ work in this movie just feels so real.
The Best of the Best
So far, I’ve discussed Woods’ knack for nailing paranoia, his believability at anger, compassion, and earnestness. But I haven’t really mentioned how damn funny he can be. And although his work in Martin Scorsese’s masterful Casino is brief (Woods filmed his role in just two days), his lasting impact is simply priceless.
The motivation behind everything Lester Diamond does is to perpetuate his ridiculous lifestyle. He’s a moocher, a card cheat, a country club golf hustler, a scumbag who talks the talk and walks the walk. Just watch the way he manipulates Sharon Stone’s Ginger over the phone. Telling her how much he loves her, while he cuts a line of blow for one of his other “ladies.” Or the way he always argues with Ginger’s daughter. I mean really, what the hell is this guy hoping to gain by arguing with a 10 year old? It’s absurd, and hilarious.
Famously, after Woods heard about Casino, he sent Scorsese a note that said, “Any part, any time, any where, any price.” Well played, Mr. Woods. Well played indeed.
Other Notable Roles
|In Any Given Sunday|
I’ve never added a justification under this tab, but James Woods deserves a little more ink. In all honesty, Woods’ amazing work in television movies could merit their own In Character post. His work in TV movies/miniseries such as Holocaust (1978), Promise (1986), My Name is Bill W. (1989), Citizen Cohn (1992), Dirty Pictures (2000), Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story (2003), and Too Big to Fail (2011) are as good as anything he’s ever done. I highly recommend all of them. Here are a few more:
The Way We Were (1973)
Night Moves (1975)
The Onion Field (1979)
Best Seller (1987)
True Believer (1989)
Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995)
Another Day in Paradise (1998)
True Crime (1999)
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Scary Movie 2 (2001)
Riding in Cars with Boys (2001)
John Q (2002)
Family Guy (2005-2012)
Family Guy (2005-2012)
Straw Dogs (2011)