The first film in David Cronenberg's output as a director for the 1980's was Scanners. It certainly had effective elements within it but it was almost crippled by the terrible leading performance by Stephen Lack whose performance was so lacking that it is okay to make as many puns about it as you want. Cronenberg never made that mistake again for the rest of his 80's output casting a procession of great actors to lead his films starting with James Woods in this film. James Woods is perfectly cast as the TV programmer Max Renn who in his desire for ratings goes for the lowest common denominator which is the most extreme sex and violence he can find. Woods is a genius at this very particular type of sleaze needed for a part like this. It oozes from him yet Woods never makes this innately unlikable though either, it's neat trick which Woods manages to pull off.
James Woods is one of those great actors who can energize a film merely by his presence. That is certainly the case here as even when Max is technically progressing through the early parts of the plot, that have yet to really change him in anyway. In the early scenes Woods establishes Max as definitely sleazy particularly in his intent, but mostly he's a fairly normal guy technically speaking. Woods has such energy as a performer that he's great to watch even when he's going through the motions of kick starting the plot. Woods even has this certain comedic edge he can call upon whenever he likes that can lighten certain scenes ever so slightly, without it ever compromising the purpose of the scene, or even though there technically is nothing inherently funny going on. Woods brings the right spark that is very much needed for the film that could have been too dour otherwise.
The weirdness begins though once Max watched a Videodrome tape which consists of sexual torture and murder. After watching the tape much weirder things begin to happen as he begins to hallucinate all sorts of bizarre imagery that is in some associated with television or video tape. Woods is a match for the weirdness like few actors can be. It would be extremely easy for a Stephen Lack type to be swallowed whole by the bizarre imagery but Woods knows exactly how to play into it. Woods never is overshadowed by it but rather stands with it in portraying Max's reaction with the weird things going on in front of him. Woods creates this awe and fascination in Max as he is having the hallucinations as if he is almost becoming one in the reality. What Woods does so well is make this unreality seem like a reality by his reactions that always give a grounding to the oddity.
What is particularly interesting about Woods's performance though is outside of the hallucinations, therefore out of control of the Videodrome, Woods portrays Max as really just a normal guy who wants to get to the bottom of what is being done to him. Woods is excellent in portraying rightfully the difference in reactions when Max is being directly influenced by the Videodrome, and when he is at least somewhat in control of his own faculties. Woods is very good in these scenes by really playing them close to the chest and just showing directly the pain he is suffering. All of Woods reactions are very realistic and is incredibly effective by showing Max acting as one would expect from a man who has learned that he has basically received a particularly strange death sentence. Woods is able to elicit sympathy for the sleazy Max by portraying his emotional devastation so honestly.
Things only get worse when Max discovers that he is not just some random victim of Videodrome but has been selectively targeted for a greater purpose. This leads to Max being programmed like a type by the men behind Videodrome to perform some sinister tasks of their design. Woods is fantastic here as these scenes could have easily lead to some seriously corny type of acting as Max becomes a slave to the Videodrome. They don't because of Woods's performance which never fails to ground in his own particular way. Firstly he established the build by portraying the hallucinatory scenes with the needed bizarre devotion. Woods once again brings such a severe intensity that he absolutely makes the control of the Videodrome completely convincing. No matter how weird it gets Woods always stays completely convincing in the role.
Like Jeff Goldblum's performance in The Fly, which was also directed by David Cronenberg and very special effects driven film, Woods's performance also proves that bringing honest human emotion into such a far out concept is quite possible. A lesser actor potentially could have been lost in the imagery, completely overshadowed by it, or just failed to sell it. The imagery never becomes too much because Woods always pulls it into his genuine portrait of Max. Woods matches the imagery with his own driven performance that never fails to keep the film compelling in both in terms of Max's mental degradation as well as the increasingly odd world that Cronenberg creates. Woods keeps the film on a personal understandable turn and not just some sort of freak show where this is happening just to some nameless individual. Woods turns Max Renn into a real man giving the film a much stronger emotional impact and in turn making the film far more disturbing as well.