James Coburn won his Oscar from his only nomination for portraying Glen Whithouse in Affliction.
He has an effective visceral power, and there really is no surprise that he was chosen for the part since Coburn's strong screen presence is on full display here. It is doubtful that any other actor of Coburn's age really could have seemed physically imposing enough to seem threatening to Nick Nolte as Glen's troubled son Wade. Coburn though is always absolutely convincing particularly with his remarkable power he brings to the screen. Coburn always stands strong in every scene, and easily controls most of them that he is in. James Coburn absolutely does command the way Glen needs to for the film.
Glen caused all of this trauma in the kids and in the flashbacks Coburn makes it unbundantly clear why. He is striking in these flashbacks where we see how horrible his cruelty was. Coburn realistically portrays the overwhelming quality of Glen's behavior. It cannot be ignored and it is constant a brutality that Coburn brings to life here. Coburn shows it as something uncontrollable, and something that is always aimed to pierce deeply into his victims. James Coburn never fails to make the fact that Glen's cruelty lead to the delusional behavior of Wade. He succeeds in bringing this terrible man to life.
James Coburn does also have his non drunken scene, where he does show quite a different man in Glen Whitehouse. He actually does not really show a better man exactly, but really just a small and sad man showing that drink is the only way he can cope with his own weaknesses. In his particularly sober scene where he talks about his wife Coburn shows a weak weak man barely able to interact in any meaningful way. He shows the drink as his defense mechanism to be able to stand life itself, his scene where he almost begs to be allowed to get more alcohol, Coburn realizes just how small of a man Glen really is.
Coburn never is one dimensional in the role even though he very well could particularly in his drunken rages, the type of scenes actors usually use as excuse to be so. Coburn though interestingly attempts to show how much of the derangement that creates his cruelty is derived from his perverse sense of masculinity. James Coburn creates a complexity in that he shows that some of Glen's terrible behavior merely is Glen believing he is doing the right thing for children no matter how bad in reality it may be. It is very interesting that Coburn actually finds some logic in this twisted mind, but he does which works almost perfectly for the film. This is a strong performance from Coburn, limited in terms of his time on screen, but substantial in his impact on the film.