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Beyond the Videodrome: A Celebration of James Woods’ Work

If I say I’m the best actor for the part, I mean it and I’m not kidding.

James Woods

Love him or hate him, there’s no way to ignore actor James Woods. Famously a republican (although he has stressed that he’s not a hard core conservative although check out his Twitter account and be your own judge), Woods caused some upset last year on Twitter when discussing the age difference between Armie Hammer’s character and Timothee Chalamet in Call me by Your Name.

James Woods

However despite the controversy that seems to follow Woods’ around like a black cloud, there’s no point denying that he has delivered some great performances from Once Upon a Time in America, to Salvador. He may have quit Hollywood (or it quit him), but we can still admire his performances and do our best to separate the art from the artist. And even if you’re not a fan of his politics (he infamously tweeted this “Scratch a liberal, find a fascist every time,” which caused some major upset, and rightly so!), I still would like you to take the time to seek these films out so you can admire them for what they are, and enjoy his performances.

Perhaps one of my favourite performances of Woods is his roles as sleaze ball (he’s really good at playing sleaze balls by the way) Lester Diamond in Scorsese’s Casino. Lester  is the pimp of Robert De Niro’s girlfriend/wife Ginger (Sharon Stone). Although only a smallish role, with only 15 or so minutes of screen time, Woods really hams it up (in a good way). Lester seems comical at first, but quickly turns into a bully and thug, however he knows not to mess with Ace and after a brief confrontation he gets up and leaves the diner, but still walks with that swagger, trying to emit confidence but it’s too late, he’s revealed that he’s nothing but a lowlife coward.

Woods is perfect for the role, with his smirk and swagger. He presents us with a man-child, who argues with an actual child and has no grasp of the situation when Ace calls him up asking if Ginger is at his house after they run off together. It could have easily been a forgettable role, but somehow in Woods capable hands it becomes memorable.

Another great performance by Woods his portrayal of Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone’s Salvador. Boyle is a foreign correspondent who has hit bottom. He’s drinking, drugging and unemployed, living off past glories, and Woods really captures this broken man. When all hell breaks loose in Central America, he figures it’s a good story since he still has some contacts down there.

Woods is in his element here, playing Boyle as a jittery, paranoid individual suspicious of everyone and everything, chain-smoking and drinking hard liquor as if it’s his only way out of the situation. Looking back on it now, it seems somewhat ironic in a way that Boyle’s character is described as a liberal, when considering Woods’ political beliefs, but of course it’s important to leave all that behind and enjoy his performance for what it is, a bloody good depiction of a man out of his depth.

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Woods seemed born to play a narcissistic junkie yuppie, and in 1988 he got his chance to do so in Harold Becker’s The Boost. The film follows Lenny Brown (Woods), a dodgy white-collar yuppie whose tax shelter investment scheme collapses, leading him and his wife Linda (Sean Young) into a downward spiral of debt, cocaine abuse and domestic violence. Woods delivers an explosive performance here, lashing out with an uncontrollable rage, but somehow the viewer sympathises with him in a way because he just seems like such a loser.

However just like Woods, the character of Lenny  doesn’t care if you like him or not, just so long as you see that he has a big house, an expensive car and an attractive wife. As Lenny’s and Linda’s addiction grows out of control, and Lenny becomes even more monstrous, disoriented, and paranoid. And yet still he clings to the delusion that he’ll be back on top someday, that drugs are somehow the answer. The film has some uncomfortable moments like the scene where Lenny ruins a deal, and with Woods’ scene chewing performance you’re first response is to laugh, but you’re laughing out of anxiety and nervousness, that’s how powerful his performance is.

Of course, how could I talk about James Woods and not mention his extraordinary performance in Videodrome (1983)? As Max Renn, Woods successfully transforms from a quick-witted, smooth talking, low rent media executive into a brainwashed, part man-part machine who goes on a killing spree. Max is such a sleaze, but he’s oddly charming and hypnotic, and with Woods’ energy he keeps us entertained and hooked. The character of Max rapidly becomes obsessed with an unusual television signal, which in turn begins to warp his perceptions of reality, and Woods’ paranoid performance is just mesmerizing to watch as his character begins to lose his grip on reality.

Max starts off cool and collective, but as the mystery deepens and he becomes sucked into the warped, messed up world of Videodrome, he becomes almost unrecognisable and inhuman. Woods’ performance is perhaps one of the most memorable things of the film, and that’s saying something. The film wouldn’t work with anyone else in the role, and if you haven’t already seen this film, you really do need to check it out.

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Last but certainly not least is James Woods’ performance in the masterpiece, Once Upon A Time In America (1984) as hoodlum Max Bercoviz. Max represents everything corrupt about American politics, starting the film as a young Jewish hoodlum in Manhattan’s Lower East Side before growing into a bootlegger/gangster before he becomes morphing a powerful US secretary after  the 35 year self-imposed exile of his best friend Noodles (Robert De Niro). Max is cunning, cold and calculated, and his determination in the pursuit of the American dream proves that crime almost always pays.

Woods plays this role almost completely straight without resorting to his over-the-top dramatics, although from time to time he still reveals he is a walking time bomb, and this is somewhat more disturbing than his characters in Casino or The Boost. The real beauty and power of this performance is the chemistry between Woods a De Niro, and I know that may seem like an odd statement to those who haven’t seen the film, but their pairing is so perfect that they compliment each other performance and bring out each others strengths. Without giving too much away, the end confrontation between Noodles and Max is such an emotional scene, about the bittersweet bond of friendship, that always leaves me in tears.

James Woods is an unusual character on and off the screen, but there’s no use denying that he is a great actor, who has delivered some memorable performances over the years. So, I would highly recommend that you take the time to seek this five films out. As James Woods states when he says his the best actor for the job, he means it!

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