Introduction


Intense, edgy, driven, sleazy, snarly, threatening. These are the kind of adjectives you can bet on finding in practically every press article about James Woods -- and very often it remains uncertain whether they shall describe the characters he's played or the actor himself. Woods claims he's not like that at all, but then he cannot be judged completely "innocent" of the media's fusion of screen image and private image.

First of all, he is the fastest among fast-talkers both on- and off-screen, oozing seemingly boundless energy. And what the hyper-intelligent Woods lets loose in interviews can be as brash and confrontational as his movie dialogue and often reveals an amazingly vindictive attitude on certain matters. For where - with all due respect! - is the difference between "Die early!" and "Why do you even need to live at all?!" It is therefore no real wonder that many people fill up the public glimpses of the actor's own personality with what they saw on celluloid.
Yet, on the other hand, let's not forget the sunny side of Woods who can also be a hilariously witty and seriously insightful member of the showbiz scene.

Woods' body of work is certainly not at all as one-dimensional as sometimes conveyed either. His social awareness is reflected in his oftentimes courageous choice of most different issue-orientated movies which include my personal favorites Promise (schizophrenia), My Name is Bill W. (alcoholism, AA) and The Boys (passive smoking, cancer), plus Indictment: The McMartin Trial (child molestation), The Boost (cocaine abuse), Holocaust (anti-semitism) and The Summer of Ben Tyler (racial tolerance).

Possibly triggered off by his fabulous turn as an AIDS-haunted 20 th Century Dracula on 1989's Halloween-show of Saturday Night Live , the nineties also saw the hitherto exclusively dramatic actor in a couple of comedies. Especially his brilliant voice-creation for Hades in Disney's Hercules and the ultimate self-parody in The Hard Way which contains some of the funniest fits of anger I have ever seen ( - and at the same time moments of great depth and compassion) let me hope for more producers to make allowance for his comical talent.

Furthermore, it is simply and plainly wrong to say that James Woods plays nothing but mere sociopathic psychos and tough villains. I'll even hold out that he's one of the actors who've touched my soul the most.

Of course, I cannot and will not deny that the majority of his characters are more or less flawed, but that does not yet render them bad guys.
It is exactly this complexity though which makes them worth watching, because it provides the basis for a wide range and change of emotions. True Believer 's Eddie Dodd for example appears completely corrupted and unlikable at the beginning of the movie, but when he regains his lost soul and passion the viewer becomes both electrified and involved and shifts from antipathy to sympathy.

Something similar Woods miraculously manages with many of his admittedly bad guys, most notably in Best Seller and Killer . About two or three times he allows them momentary glimpses of humanity which are definitely not enough for the characters' redemption, but serve to stir and move us.

And please, one should stress that Woods has even played some absolutely good guys. His Temple Rayburn ( Summer of Ben Tyler ) for example is as utterly decent as any of the early Jimmy Stewart characters.

Finally, if I had to pick single scenes which contradict his tough-and-bad-guy-image the most, I'd choose the ones of visions and enlightment which are a recurring theme in a few of Woody's movies and which have made him my "Master of Epiphany". The moods vary between spluttering excitement ( Promise ) and meditative calmness ( Bill W. , Curse of the Starving Class ). And when Bill Wilson says: "The room was filled with light and I was at peace," you believe you can actually touch his soul which lies naked in his eyes -- quite a far cry from the "1000-yard stare".

Uli


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