Sunday, October 14, 2012

In Character: Woody Harrelson

I should open by relenting that I don’t necessarily consider Woody Harrelson a character actor, per se. But no matter, in looking over his entire body of work, I was rather surprised to see how much of it is laced with utter perfection. He’s delivered countless exceptional performances, yet I rarely call him one of my favorite actors. Maybe that’ll now change.

Five Essential Roles
White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Billy Hoyle
There are a handful Harrelson performances that could, perhaps, epitomize Harrelson’s range as an actor better than his work in White Men Can’t Jump, but I simply can’t turn my back on Billy Ho.

A white dude trying to make good on a hustle by conning (mostly) black men in pick-up games of basketball, Billy Hoyle represents what is, by far, my favorite Harrelson performance. Harrelson delivers it all here: whether he’s verbally going round for round with other players, or dishing out the genuine dramatics that often accompany a very serious gambling addict, or, most notably, making it clear that he is a rather talented ball player, Harrelson’s work in this film is what makes the picture so endlessly entertaining. I never grow tired of it.

Indecent Proposal (1993)
David Murphy
David and Diane (Demi Moore) are two high school sweethearts deep in the throes of love but financially broke. Soon, they are approached by billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) who proposes that if he can spend one night with Diane, he will pay the happily married couple one million dollars. No strings attached.

Simple concept for a movie, and, with the help of the three mentioned actors, and Adrian Lyne’s sincere direction, it is executed mesmerizingly.

And while the set up is fun, it is after the night in question that Harrelson (and Moore, for that matter) is really given his moment to shine. His David is man so marred with desperation and insecurity, that it becomes physical uncomfortable to watch his downfall. With this performance, Harrelson introduced himself as a serious player. He stepped away from the playfulness of Cheers and White Men Can’t Jump and asserted himself as a dramatic powerhouse.

Natural Born Killers (1994)
Mickey Knox
Using the skill that was asserted with Indecent Proposal, Harrelson completely capitalized on his newfound respect by going all in – playing as crazed and fucked up a movie character as modern cinema can recall.

Mickey Knox is a man lost. He kills, rapes, steals – anything to… what? Keep from being bored? Fight the system? Who the hell knows, but damn if Mickey and his equally depraved wife, Mallory, don’t have a blast doing it.

Like all of Oliver Stone’s best films, Natural Born Killers is inarguably polarizing. You love it or hate it. But if you’re willing to roll with the film (as I am), then it is impossible to not appreciate Harrelson’s work here with the upmost regard. He pushes Mickey beyond hyperbole, yet somehow it works perfectly in the world that Stone creates. A flawlessly manic achievement in screen acting.

The Messenger (2009)
Captain Tony Stone
When I initially reviewed Oren Moverman’s poignant indie film, The Messenger, I said that lead actor Ben Foster’s performance was a quiet storm of emotion. And, to further the analogy, if Foster’s work as a troubled Iraq War hero is a storm, then Harrelson’s work as Foster’s commanding officer is a hurricane.

Stone has the task of telling people that their loved ones have died in duty. A tough gig, one that Stone represses with fleeting notions of sobriety and acceptance. Captain Stone is a man equipped with remarkable compassion turned volcanic rage. Also in my review, I stated, “Capitan Stone is a man so far removed from his inner turmoil, that it’s actually uncomfortable to watch at times.”

Seems as though Harrelson has a knack for making us squirm.

Rampart (2011)
Officer Dave Brown
Reteaming with Moverman for this crooked cop romp, I should start by saying that Rampart is not a good film. At least in my mind. It is bogged down with excessive, pointless plot details, and tiny character quirks that result in nothing but annoyance. Had the film been one-tenth as accomplished as Harrelson’s performance, then the actor would’ve been a serious contender for the Best Actor Oscar. But, alas, Harrelson’s work suffered, which is a goddamn shame.

So, in pushing the negativity toward the film aside, there actually is a thrilling, and haunting, performance begging to be given acclaim. Watching Dave Brown spin wildly out of control is one of the finest feats Harrelson has ever delivered. The film is worthy for him alone, which is honestly saying quite a lot.

The Best of the Best
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Larry Flynt
Larry Flynt was (and, well, still is) a complicated dude. Instead of describing him here, and sharing my personal opinions about him (which would be positive), I’ll simply say that it is impossible to deny the impact he had over first amendment rights in America. Sure, he went about it a tad crudely, but he mixed things up when no one else would. The man’s impact remains ever evolving, period.

Now, to portray such a flamboyant radical, there’s really only one option for success: do so wholeheartedly, without looking back. And that is precisely what Harrelson does here. He conveys the real life evolution of Larry Flynt with complete honesty and conviction (the film’s director, Miloš Forman, is to thank for this as well). We almost shouldn’t believe in his work here (it’s that over the top) but somehow, Harrelson pulls it off.

To put it another way: I was privy to a screening of this film last November, which was immediately accompanied by a Q&A with Flynt himself. When the moderator asked Flynt what he thought of Harrelson’s performance, Flynt responded by saying: “Woody played me better than I played myself.”

Yep, that’s goddamn right.

Other Notable Roles
In A Scanner Darkly
Cheers (1985-1993)
The Cowboy Way (1994)
Kingpin (1996)
Wag the Dog (1997)
Palmetto (1998)
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Edtv (1999)
Play it to the Bone (1999)
She Hate Me (2004)
North Country (2005)
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Walker (2007)
Transsiberian (2008)
Zombieland (2009)
Friends with Benefits (2011)


  1. I have a soft spot for his work on Cheers, though his work in The People vs. Larry Flynt is his best work to date. (I honestly wonder why he didn't win that Oscar.)

    1. 1996 was an excellent year for the Best Actor category. It really could've gone to any five of them, and honestly, I bet Harrelson came in at fifth place in terms of votes. Crazy, but either way, his work in Larry Flynt is so so perfect.

  2. I do love Woody Harrelson. The dude is an amazing actor. I just watched Seven Psychopaths (review coming later tonight) and he just knocks it out of the park.

    One of my favorite performances of his is in The Cowboy Way. He's so hilarious in that film. My favorite dramatic performance from his is The Messenger. Dude can do it all. Not bad for a guy who played an idiot in Cheers.

    1. I'm seeing Seven Psychopaths tonight, can't wait!

      He's definitely good in The Cowboy Way. Man, that's one I haven't seen in years. And you're right, not bad at all for the moron from Cheers.

  3. I really need to see The People vs. Larry Flynt. Right now, I'd say his best performance is in Rampart, followed by The Messenger and Natural Born Killers. He really is underrated though.

    1. If you like Woody, you will really dig Larry Flynt. He is remarkable in it. Love his work in those other films, too. NBK is just batshit nuts. I nearly called his work in that his best. Tough call.

  4. The Messenger. Dude owns it. Did not like Rampart but he was great in it too.
    Have not seen The People Vs. Larry Flynt. I need to change that.

    1. Definitely see Larry Flynt! Man, wasn't Rampart just complete shit? I mean... what the hell was that?

      It says a lot about Woody though, that he made that movie worth it.

  5. Kingpin needs more love in general.

    1. Also, remember when we literally ran into Woody at the E Street movie theater? That was so cool.

    2. Neither of us immediately realized it either. Shame.

    3. That's because he was so... short. Like, wow.

  6. I feel proud to say that I met him when I was 5 and my parents say he was stoned as hell. Don't know what that has to do with the list but I'm pretty glad the guy is still knockin' it out of the park nowadays. Great list buddy.

    1. Haha dude that is AWESOME! I bumped into him at a movie theater a few years ago (he was there promoting The Messenger). Cool stuff.

      I'm glad he's killin' it nowadays too!

  7. It took me a long time to really take Woody Harrelson seriously as an actor -- I'm not sure why. The Larry Flynt movie was terrific. My feelings about Flynt -- based on what little I know -- are not altogether positive, but the movie did a great job of capturing his complexity as a human being. And watching him take on the establishment, to put it bluntly, I admired his balls. :-)

    I agree that Larry Flynt was his best role, from what I've seen, but I have a soft spot for Tallahassee in Zombieland. My teens and I never get tired of that goofy movie. :-)

    1. I think that's perfectly fair that it took you a while to take him seriously. In a way, he's always had Cheers and his other knucklehead roles working against him, but I love that he takes such serious roles, and nails them.

      Glad you dig The People vs. Larry Flynt, and oh yeah, Zombieland is awesome. He's so funny in that.

  8. I agree Larry Flynt is his best role. Even though I've heard nothing but good things about The Messenger, for whatever reason I never have seen it.

    I definitely would have had Zombieland on my Top 5. I also have a liking for A Prairie Home Companion. I really liked the interplay between him and John C. Reilly.

    1. Nice. Yeah man, cannot recommend The Messenger highly enough. Dude kills it there. Love his work in Zombieland and PHC.

  9. I'm so happy you featured Woody! He is so awesome, always insanely memorable in his performances. I'd chose Larry Flynt as his best too, it's been ages since I saw it and I really need to rewatch it soon, such a great movie. I agree about Rampart - the film was bad, but Harrelson was amazing in it. Loved his work in Zombieland too - he can be both intense and funny and that's a rare skill.

    1. Glad you like it! I hadn't seen Larry Flynt in a damn long time too, so it was cool to watch it last year with an audience and see the real man speak after. Learned a lot more about the flick that way.

      Rampart is such a damn shame. That one could've been so much more.

  10. Great choice, Alex. I'm a big fan of Harrelson, and he has really been on a roll lately. Another underrated performance of his: Battle in Seattle.

    1. You know, I completely forgot about Battle in Seattle. I really wanted to see it, but then it kind of fell into direct-to-DVD obscurity. Glad to hear it's good. Also glad that you're a Harrelson fan!

  11. Out of the Furnace! He is my favorite part of the film.

    1. He's such a creep in that film. Really like him in that.

  12. My father always mention that he LOVES Woody Harrelson. And that is something that I agree a lot with. I don't necessary love everything with him, but he can give from solid to great performances. I don't remember White Men Can’t Jump nor Indecent Proposal very well, but I do love him in Natural Born Killers. Such a mad mad performance. I still need to watch the Oren Moverman films and People vs. Larry Flynt. He (and that cameo) was the highlight of the very mediocre Zombieland. He had such a blast in Now You See Me. Holy shit, I still have to see True Detective (now that I think about it both him and Matthew McConaughey played U.S. City Characters before staring in True Detective).

    1. Love Woody, and the performances you have yet to see are all great. I also had the pleasure of meeting him once - hell of a nice guy. We talked for a few minutes at a movie theater, just a really chill, normal dude.