comment, Movies, Underappreciated actors

Underappreciated actors – James Woods

So another in another regular blog feature I give you the first in an ongoing series on the great under-appreciated actors of our time. I’m going to start with an easy one, the great Jimmy Woods who played the character from whom this blog gets it’s name.

Underappreciated? Really? We all love getting a little Wood don’t we (Padre)?

“Hey, don’t jerk me around”

I intend to range far and wide with this series, some will be cult favourites, some will be character actors, some simply need introducing to new movie fans. Woods is a little different, yes he is a cult favorite with a lot of strange little movies on his CV, but he’s also starred in studio pictures, and has developed a public persona so well known he has parodied himself on both The Simpsons and Entourage. And yet, Woods has never quite fit in to the square jawed, all American blandness required for most leading roles, with his diminutive, skinny frame, he isn’t the stereotypical action guy either. Hollywood just doesn’t develop the kind of films in the mainstream that suit him, which is why his best roles are in smaller independent films and genre fare.

“Have you ever heard of the little Lindberg law?”

So what makes Woods so great. Well let’s start with the fact that the guy is a FANTASTIC actor. He was a jobbing actor in theatre and TV throughout the seventies, clocking up appearences in the likes of The Rockford Files, Kojak and The Streets of San Francisco. His breakthrough film roles came with 1979’s The Onion Field and 1982’s Fast Walking. These two roles in many ways defined his screen persona.

The Onion Field is a dark crime drama based on Joeseph Wambaugh’s true crime novel. In it Woods played Karl Hettinger, a small time criminal who abducts two L.A.P.D. detectives and attempts to murder them. Woods portrays Hettinger as man living only in the moment, without any moral compass, you truly believe that he is capable of anything. The scene were he and his accomplice drive the two detectives into the middle of nowhere is chilling. Woods eyes bug out of his skull, he is mesmerising, like a snake hypnotising it’s prey.

Fast Walking is directed by James B. Harris who produced some of Kubrick’s early films and would direct Woods again in Cop. The film itself is less successful than The Onion Field, but Woods is great in it playing a corrupt prison guard. This is the first great example of Woods’ signature type of role, the morally compromised, fast talking, sleazebag.

“I’m looking for something that will break through, y’know”

So you are a young actor, people are taking notice, what sort of screenplay do you chose to consolidate your success? If you are Jimmy Woods you choose David Cronenberg’s completely out-there Videodrome (1983). Woods says it was Cronenberg that sold him on the project saying the director under his civilised veneer has “one of the strangest minds I’ve ever encountered”. In Videodrome Woods plays Max Renn the proprietor of the low rent cable porn channel. Even amongst the craziest Rick Backer makeup FX, and given Cronenberg’s often bizarre and intellectual dialogue, Woods keeps the character’s humanity always visible. Cronenberg has said he got on very well with Woods, but also says he is the only actor he has ever yelled at on a set. “He used to drive me crazy before a take, eventually I said ‘Jimmy just go out there and do the fucking lines’. Now normally you wouldn’t say that to an actor but jimmy just said ‘oh, okay’. He wanted that, it’s why I cast him, a kind of dangerous, paranoid intellectualism”.

“We do our fucking business together and fucking broads do not get in the way!”

From Cronenberg to Sergio Leone, Woods took the part of Max in the Italian director’s prohibition era epic of Jewish gangsters in New York Once Upon A Time In America (1984). Woods considers this film to be Leone’s best work, a point that can be argued, but it is certainly one of the absolute classics of the genre.
has risen in reputation with a new restored four hour plus version premiering at this years Cannes Film Festival.

“Okay you got a point, I am a fucking weasel, there’s no doubt about that.”

And here it is, the pinnacle of Woods career, the role for which he was Oscar nominated (he should have won) journalist Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986). This part was tailor made for Woods, Boyle is a sleazy low-life journalist, a womaniser, drug user and drunk. Boyle’s experiences in El Salvador covering the civil war awaken his conscience as leftist peasant revolutionaries rise up against the brutal right-wing military regime only to be crushed when the US backs the military.

Woods gives the performance of a lifetime, burning with intensity in every scene although the standout is perhaps his fury when he observes revolutionaries executing prisioners. Where other actors would wail the line “You’ve become just like them” Woods snarls like a ferret caught in a trap.

“You blow away a broad’s date, the least you can do is drive her home”

All the above at the performances that get mentioned in Wikipedia entries and awards ceremony intros. However some of my very favourite Woods performances come in his cultier films, some of which (Vampires) are actually pretty useless movies. Here are a few personal favorites…

Cop (1988)

A ropey adaptation of a great early pulp novel by James Ellroy. The film badly mangles Ellroy’s plot, but Woods absolutely nails his psychotic detective hero Lloyd Hopkins. As I have said before, Woods is not the most physically imposing man, but when he turns the dial up to 11 (as he frequently does here) it is like standing behind a jet engine at take off. This film also contains on of my favorite kiss-off lines of all time. Woods approached and injured punk with a shotgun. The punk pleads that he can’t shoot him. Woods looks at him coldly and says “well there’s some good news, and some bad news. The good news is yes, I’m a cop and I gotta take you in.” He ratchets a shell. “The bad news is, I’m suspended and I don’t give a fuck”. BOO-YAA.

Best Seller (1987)

Best Seller is actually a terrific movie, and ripe for rediscovery. Directed by John Flynn who made the fantastic Rolling Thunder, the script is by genre legend Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, Q the winged serpent). The film is a buddy movie with a great premise. Brian Dennehy is a retired cop writting crime novels, he is hired by Cleve (Woods) to ghost write his memoirs. Cleve is a hitman who is sick of the lack of respect he gets from his employers and craves validation. Of course Cleve’s employers don’t want the book written and will do anything to keep his story under wraps. Woods and Dennehy have terrific chemistry, and Woods manages to make you love his character, a frankly insane killer. The line “you forgot to flush” after killing someone in a bathroom is bad enough for Arnie, but Woods makes it sing.

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

In John Carpenter’s filmography Vampires is one of his most unsung entries. And with good reason as it is almost entirely unremarkable. It has TV movie level action, a dull plot and a really rubbish bad guy. However Woods brings his A-game to the lead role of Vatican appointed vampire killer Jack Crow. Crow leads a band of vampire slayers a who track down and liquidate vampire nests. Working during the day, the spear the vampires with crossbow mounted harpoons and pull them into the daylight to be incinerated. The team’s latest mission goes very wrong when they fail to locate the vampire “master” when liquidating a nest. Later that night the head vamp brutally kills most of the team and only Crow, his second in command (Daniel Baldwin), a rookie priest and a hooker escape. Pairing Woods against the hulking Baldwin makes the actor look even more physically puny than ever, something accentuated by his fitted leather jacket. However Woods plays Crow as a snarling pit-bull, spitting out and endless succession of profane and often blasphemous dialogue, perpetually furious.

“Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You could stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata WHILE he’s suckin’ the blood outta your neck, all right?”

Vampires is a rubbish film, but Woods is on fire in it.

Other notable roles and cameos

It’s a pretty cheesy early 90s action film, but you should check out Woods in John Badham’s 1991 buddy thriller The Hard Way, Woods plays a basically insane head-case homicide detective forced to baby-sit a pampered Hollywood actor researching a part. Michael J. Fox plays the actor and Woods sends himself up nicely. Woods is pretty goddamn scary as serial killer Carl ‘Kill em all’ Panzram in TV movie Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995), nicely sleazy in Scorsese’s Casino (1995), and chilling as a racist killer in Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996). However by the mid nineties the leading roles turned into character parts, with more substantial roles in TV movies. He had a run as the lead in the TV series Shark (2006-2008) playing a slick but sleazy lawyer, but the show was a run of the mill knock off of House.

However his appearance on The Simpsons is one of the all time best celebrity cameos. James Woods turns up in Springfield to research a role as a shopkeeper, he gets Apu’s job running the Quik-e-mart and turns in a typically intense performance.


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