The JW Effect
For no particular reason, I've found myself re-watching, for sheer pleasure, a bunch of films starring the American actor James Woods. Some of my fondest and strongest memories of cinema (and cinephilia) in the 1980s are tied to movies that he is in: from David Cronenberg's Videodrome and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (today accepted as classics) to far lesser-known gems like James B. Harris' Cop (1988) and John Flynn's Best Seller (1987, scripted by Larry Cohen).
It was only when I caught up — merely 32 years late — with another Harris/Woods collaboration, the intriguing prison film Fast-Walking (1982), that I realised something essential. James Woods is more than a terrific, compulsively watchable, always enjoyable actor. For a few precious years, he actually helped create an entire style of filmmaking (including film scripting) that was inspired by, and keyed to, what he was capable of doing as a performer.
When Woods is the centre of a film, he is really the centre: everything is focused on his actions and, especially, his reactions to what is unfolding around him. Woods' star persona is 100 per cent ironic, cynical, sarcastic: he takes us into that sceptical, distanced, ever-critical view of the world. Yet, even within such a brittle shell, he is playful: a typical Woods move toward his interlocutor is something like: 'Everything you're saying right now is total bullshit, but talk some more, I like it'.
So, the script and the mise en scène have to make room for Woods and plot out his permutating responses to a situation. In the course of any given scene — even in the course of a single, static, close-up shot — he is likely to wheel through a number of distinct reactions, in variable sequence: he will perform contrition, signal disbelief, project sly mockery, flash with white-hot anger.
His body language expresses these states in quickly reassembled hand and finger gestures, hunching of shoulders, quick strides or slow collapses. His voice breaks off mid-sentence, changes tone or pitch; while his eyes radiate intensity. Woods is one those actors who can really listen to the person he is performing alongside — and he turns this listening into its own, compelling spectacle.
There is a 'before' and an 'after' to this golden era of the JW Effect. In early roles for Elia Kazan (The Visitors, 1972) or Arthur Penn (Night Moves, 1975), it is not yet happening. There are directors who would not let him really do 'his thing', even during the glory days: Leone, Jonathan Kaplan (Immediate Family, 1989). And there is a phase where he passes (as the actor reaches 50) from the limelight into secondary roles, in Martin Scorsese's Casino (1996) or the Oliver Stone double Nixon (1995) and Any Given Sunday (1999).
But there is, nonetheless, an outlandish piece of pop cinema, Joseph Ruben's True Believer (aka Fighting Justice, 1989), which pairs him with Robert Downey Jr.; and, at the end of 1990s, two directors who, in two very different ways, grasp what it is possible to do when Woods is front-and-centre in a movie: Larry Clark in Another Day in Paradise and John Carpenter in Vampires (both 1998).
Woods co-produced Clark's film, just as he did with Cop. Roger Ebert described the former as "sleazeball" and the latter as a "violent, sick, contrived exploitation picture"; but in both reviews he went out of his way to praise the inventive contribution of our man James. It is a very bad theory of film and a poor practice of film criticism that rests on the usually unspoken, very Entertainment Tonight premise of 'if it's good, the actors made it; and if it's bad, maybe the actors can save it'.
It is rather the case that Woods collaborated with directors who understood him. And everything that is sleazy, violent, sick and cynical in those films takes us right to the heart of his remarkably cinematic acting.