Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Character: James Woods

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. 

Interesting fact: In August 2001, Woods reported to the FBI that he had witnessed four men act suspiciously on a recent domestic flight. The feds didn’t listen. Months later, Woods identified two of those men as 9/11 hijackers. So, if his great acting doesn’t speak for itself, James Woods is an attempted would-be hero to boot. Sure enough.

Five Essential Roles
Videodrome (1983)
Max Renn
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)
Max Bercovicz
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.

Salvador (1986)
Richard Boyle

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)
Ronald Lisbon

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
Casino (1995)
Lester Diamond
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)
Chaplin (1992)
Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995)
Nixon (1995)
Contact (1997)
Another Day in Paradise (1998)
Vampires (1998)
True Crime (1999)
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Scary Movie 2 (2001)
Riding in Cars with Boys (2001)
John Q (2002)
Northfolk (2003)
Family Guy (2005-2012)
Shark (2006-2008)
Entourage (2006)
Straw Dogs (2011)


  1. This is so badass, I freaking love James Woods. So glad to see an In Character on him! I agree that his work is too numerous to really fit into five main roles and then a highlight but I certainly have enjoyed all of the ones you've listed here (though I have yet to actually watch all of The Virgin Suicides). When I first saw this article up the role I thought you would put up was his Haldeman in Nixon and was surprised to not see that in here (but not disappointed). Though, frankly, like most people my age, I'm sure it's no surprise to say that I first found out about this great man's work through his appearances in Family Guy lol.

    1. Nice! So happy to hear you're a Woods fan. His Haldeman was very close to making the cut (it was between that and Any Given Sunday). I love that performance - he really did solid work for Stone.

      I've actually never gotten into Family Guy, but the fact that he plays himself... man, I gotta check those episodes out.

    2. Yeah, I haven't been much into Family Guy recently much, but the episodes he has been in, I think, were among the best of their given season(s). It makes me think back to his hilarious role as Hades in Hercules (which I'll admit I haven't watched in at least a decade) but I think it shows just how great an actor he really is when his voice can be so expressive and stick with you and become so closely associated with that character long even years after seeing the film.
      Also, what did you think of Another Day in Paradise? I've read some stuff saying he's really good in it, but I'm not a huge Larry Clark fan, is it worth catching?

    3. He is really good in Another Day in Paradise, but I think the movie is just okay. If you're not a Clark fan, I really don't think you'd like it.

    4. You would probably enjoy his work in Family Guy. He basically plays the version of himself everybody expects him to be based on his movie roles and it's hilarious.

    5. I love when Woods plays versions of himself. He was priceless on Entourage. I'm definitely checking out his Family Guy episodes.

  2. James Woods is an actor that I put in a very rare list. A guy who basically can't suck. Anything he's in, he's fucking good. My favorite role of his is in Salvador while I would also put his role in The Virgin Suicides a close second. I want to give a honorable mention in Vampires. He fucking owned that film and he was just hilarious and being the badass. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel liked his performance so much that they hoped he would get an Oscar nod for that.

    And he's still the best thing in Scary Movie 2.

    1. Love this. So fucking good, every time. Dude, I really wanted to include Vampires here, because you're right, here's perfect in that movie.

      Hilarious in Scary Movie 2. Definitely the best part of that flick.

  3. Lester Diamond is a perfect choice for his best performance. Still need to see Ghosts of Mississippi and Videodrome, but I dig the other picks. Also, I'd throw out an honorable mention for his performance as Hades in Hercules.

    1. Man, I completely forgot he voiced a part in Hercules. I'm not really into animated films, heh. Still though, Lester Diamond reigns!

  4. Haven't seen him in much, but he was really good in The Virgin Suicides. Actually, though his character is not my favorite, I'd say his performance was the best in the film.

    1. I completely agree - he's not my favorite character in the film, but he acted the best in the film. Definitely. He's so damn subtle.

  5. One of the (many, many) moments from Virgin Suicides that stays with me is James Wood watching the baseball game, just completely detached from any resembling reality, when the priest pays a visit. But you're right about Lester Diamond, that seedy comedic thing is a Woods specialty. No one really does it like him.

    1. I really wanted to include that moment in my post, because you're right, it's so telling. The way he says "Father... Father," as Scott Glenn is walking away. Ah, devastating. Love that scene.

  6. I think his perfomance in Casinò was great, but he's simply astonishing in Once Upon A Time in America and Salvador

    1. Truth. Damn hard to pick a best Woods performance. He's also so good.

  7. He was perfect in Vampires too.

    Anyway great Blog, I love it!
    What are the movies you're waiting for this year? I just can't wait for McQueen's 12 years a slawe and Scorsese's Wolf Of Wall Street

    1. I just rewatched Vampires on Sunday... love that flick!

      Thanks so much for the kind words. You know, this year has been really solid so far, and I think we have a lot ahead. Definitely most pumped about Twelve Years a Slave. Wolf on Wall Street as well. Some others I'm excited for: Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Sin City 2 (fun!), Gravity, Oldboy, The Counselor, American Hustle, The Monuments Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska... lot of good stuff!

  8. Absolutely lot of great movies, I'm waiting also for "her" with that always-astonishing Joaquin Phoenix.
    And probably I will hate Oldboy, the south-korean movie is a masterpiece and i'm sure a remake only 8 years later will ruin everything, and I would have prefered a Tarantino or a Scorsese to direct it, but I'm sure that Tarantino, that loved as hell that movie, would have rater killed himself than direct it.

    This will be a great year, I hope

    1. I'm really curious for Lee's interpretation of Oldboy. But I do think it'll either be great or shit. Pumped for Her as well. Love Spike Jonze.

  9. He's a terrible Trump loving racist IRL but a great actor

    1. It's such a shame what he's done to his legacy. I wouldn't even consider writing this article today based on his real-life antics. But, yeah, great actor back in the day.

  10. he gets crazier and more racist every year and his beating in Casino gets more satisfying by the year