Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Alternate Best Actor 1983: James Woods in Videodrome

James Woods did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Max Renn in Videodrome.

Videodrome is bizarre yet rather brilliant film about a TV programmer who while looking for more extreme content gets far more than he bargained for.

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.

19 comments:

RatedRStar said...

Crazy film + Cronenberg + James Woods = Gold.

How would you rank Cronenbergs films Louis, that you have seen (discounting The Dead Zone, at least until you reviewed Walken)

luke higham said...

Louis: Thoughts, as well for Cronenberg's films.

Anonymous said...

What are your ratings and thoughts on Claire Trevor in Stagecoach and Key Largo?

Anonymous said...

what would be your thoughts/ratings on Melina Dillon in Absence of Malice and Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull?

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

Woods is an amazing actor, how is he not more well known? Also, who are your top 10 underrated actors, both contemporary and all-time?

Also, RatedRStar: What are your thoughts/ratings on the cast of Exiled, if you don't mind, I just finished watching it and though I did like it I was a bit disappointed, seeing as it was basically a reunion of the cast of The Mission

Anonymous said...

Louis what do you think of Anouk Aimèe in A Man and A Woman? And what would you give her?

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

@GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar: Probably due to his right-wing politics. After 9/11 he went far right, and his career suffered. Lately he's been keeping his mouth shut in hopes people will higher him again.

Matt Mustin said...

James Woods is well-known for being almost impossible to work with.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

That too.

Louis Morgan said...

RatedRStar/Luke:

1. Videodrome - (Dated in the 80's in the best kind of way. It creates such palatable atmosphere with that unique 80's nihilism as an undercurrent in every scene. What more can be said other than its an always intriguing and compelling thrill ride of a most peculiar sort. As stated above Woods is great, and the vision Cronenberg creates is unforgettable)

2. The Fly - (Horror at its finest with all time great makeup effects that makes the fly one's of cinema most memorable creatures. What it so great about it though is it never loses the human element. It actually creates a moving love story brought beautifully to life by Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum)

3. A History of Violence (The best of his "weird" pictures. Although there's a little bit of dodgy acting at the beginning I think that was perhaps intentional to make the town seem idyllic at the beginning. Cronenberg tears that away in his revelation of the true darkness behind it all. It's particularly brutal but effective tale of redemption anchored so well by Mortensen's performance, and aided by the standout supporting work of Harris and Hurt)

4. Dead Ringers - (Perhaps the perfection of lead performance carries it to this height, but nevertheless this is an incredibly compelling film. It creates such a bizarre yet fascinating relationship between these two twins that is both moving while being so unnerving)

5. Eastern Promises - (Perhaps it does not wish the heights it intends. It seems as though it is building more than what it does, but even so it creates a compelling portrait of the Russian mob family and the whole intense situation surrounding them. The whole suggested romantic subplot may have failed but Watts and Mortensen both make it quite affecting even in its own understated way. This is actually one film where I think a sequel could work)

6. Spider - (A particularly intimate feeling film from him. It's strong points are particularly strong namely Fiennes and Richardson's performance, and the way it does create an interesting scenario where it shows the world through the sight of the mentally deranged while in this case never use bizarre imagery. I would not exactly name weak points but it never quite seems like it goes all the way with the potential of the story)

7. Scanners - (A more actiony of his body horror films. It's well directed, with some very memorable moments (head explosion), as well as having solid performance from Patrick McGoohan and particularly Michael Ironside. Unfortunately Stephen Lack brings the whole film down by having unintentionally funny moments and never making it the protagonist compelling, just imagine if James Woods had been in the lead instead)

8. Naked Lunch - (This one I will grant succeeds in creating one messed up world, but the film just did not work for me. I found the imagery kinda repetitive in this case, and I just never found myself particularly involved with this one even though I never thought the film as bad)

9. A Dangerous Method - (Speaking of actually bad though there is A Dangerous Method. Other than Viggo Mortensen's performance as Freud this is a bizarrely forgettable film. It seems like Cronenberg maybe wanted to finally get an Oscar nomination, yet still could not help himself. As it's weird combination of trying to be stately with some random Cronenberg elements that never seem to factor in. The final result is just a boring movie with one bad lead performance. It's the only film on this list where I actually cannot recall the ending)

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous:

Trevor - Stagecoach - 4(She has a very nice understated chemistry with Wayne that works quite well. Her performance is often reactive, but Trevor is always very good at this. She resists the temptation to overact the part bringing genuine emotionally power to what could have been a purely stock character)

Key Largo - 5(Trevor is fantastic here, again never overacting despite playing an alcoholic. She makes the pain of her character always feel real, and her attempt at singing the song is a heartbreaking portrayal of true desperation. It's a fantastic supporting performance that steals the film)

Dillon - 3.5(She's very good in her few brief scenes, but the film gives her so little to do she's simply not given enough time to make her character tragic. It's wholly the film's fault in that regard)

Moriarty - 3(On re-watches I've found her performance to be wholly fine, but never do I think she makes Vicki a particularly interesting character. She's never bad, but do think she's wholly overshadowed by Pesci and De Niro)

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar:

Underrated is difficult to always determine simply because like Gene Hackman is underrated if compared to Robert De Niro, but I'll try my best.

1. Richard Attenborough
2. Viggo Mortensen
3. Brendan Gleeson
4. Eli Wallach
5. Harry Dean Stanton
6. James Woods
7. Raul Julia
8. Robert Shaw
9. Christopher Lloyd
10. Philip Baker Hall

Not an easy list to make and not one I'm that happy with as I had to leave off guys like Guy Pearce, Cillian Murphy, Ray Milland and the list goes on.


Anonymous:

Aimèe - 3.5(I find her work to be charming enough with a good enough chemistry with Tringinant. It's fine work that serves the direction well, but that's about it)

Robert:

To be fair to Woods, it is unfortunately the case that most of his contemporaries from the 80's (William Hurt, Goldblum, Irons) aren't exactly that much, if at all, better known today.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

All of them still get steady supporting work a lot. Woods doesn't even get much of that.

RatedRStar said...

@GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar: I enjoyed Exiled quite a lot, I think it is stronger in some ways than The Mission but weaker also, I think it is stronger in that it is more human, as The Mission had its characters be unstoppable killing machines at times lol whereas Exileds was more weaker and emotional, it is weaker in that its not as fun as The Mission and 2 of the characters from The Mission are not as well used

as for the cast.

Anthony Wong (4) He is once again playing the cold character, but he seems a lot more conflicted and Wong handles it very well, I should say like the Mission that the chemistry is as good as ever with the actors.

Francis Ng (4) Francis Ng once again plays intense and emotional, and once again he delivers as usual, Donald have you noticed that Ng looks younger in this than in The Mission, must be the hair lol.

Nick Cheung (4.5) I was very surprised by Cheung, he handles the hatred of Simon Yam very well, but his key scenes of him in pain are very well handled, he was quite endearing which I don't usually say as I have been disappointed by Cheung in the past.

Roy Cheung and Lam Suet (3.5) The biggest problem with Exiled is that these 2 great actors are not used nearly as well used as The Mission, I will say that they are still good and provide and nice bit of light-hearted humour and warmth.

Simon Yam (4) A Pantomime villain as its most over the top lol, I found him quite entertaining and certainly an effective villain, especially in the restaurant scene.

Arthur Kennedy (3) Gordon Lam lol, is actually decent here, he is believable as a threat, he has a great couple of reaction shots when Yams henchman pulls a gun on him during the restaurant scene and when he is told that he was betrayed, but he isn't given enough to do, I actually would have liked to see more of him, which is surprising considering how dull Lam can be in certain films.

I should say the other performances are fine but unmemorable, as for Josie Ho, I really dont no what to make of her performance, the first time I watched it I thought she was great but the second time I thought she was just thinly developed.

RatedRStar said...

@Donald: What were your thoughts be on the main 5 lead members from The Mission and Exiled.

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

@RatedRStar:

The Mission-
Anthony Wong (3.5). I'm not his biggest fan, frankly. Might be a bit controversial with my rating here but I felt he was a solid, stoic presence, but nothing more.

Francis Ng (4.5). I'm a big fan of Ng, and I like how he remains properly intense throughout, and yes for some reason Ng looks so much older in here, aesthetically I think his short hair works wonders in making him such a memorable presence.

Lam Suet (4). I like him here, as I like him in anything I've scene. I need to re-watch, so that might potentially bump him up but he was very cool, and all his little character tics did not distract and created a very interesting character.

Roy Cheung (5). I cannot explain why I love this performance so much. He just exudes so much cool and humour, he reminds me a bit of James Woods actually with all the energy he brings.

Jackie Lui (3). Lui, on the other hand, is just not very interesting. He is never bad though, he has his charming moments.

Simon Yam (3.5). I really don't like Yam as an actor--having said that he is properly ridiculous here as, well, a rather ridiculous character.

I need to refine my thoughts on the cast of Exiled but my ratings would be:

Wong: (4)
Ng: (4.5)
Cheung: (4.5)
Lam Suet: (3)
Cheung: (3.5)
Yam: (3.5)

Also, what are your thoughts/ratings on Ronald Cheng in Vulgaria, he is a riot :D

RatedRStar said...

@Donald: I am very happy that you liked Roy Cheung, I highly recommend you see his 2 award nominated performances, they are even better =D, Francis Ng is always great, its a shame that he is now more of a tv actor than a film actor due to similar circumstances like James Woods for being hard to work with.

Roy Cheung sadly was recently arrested for drug addiction so I hope he recovers cause that is one actor I hold in a very high asteem similar to Claude Rains due to him being unappreciated (I hope you saw this Louis lol).

Anthony Wong, um I may have given the impression to Louis and some others that I am a huge fan of his but I feel when Wong was not nominated for awards or working with a great director he would be a little lazy with his choices.


Ronald Cheng in Vulgaria (5) Basically I felt similar to Louis with his review of Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, I really dont like Vulgaria as I thought most of the performances (including Chapman To) to be self indulgent and just plain unfunny, Cheng was my aspirin for this film, very funny and bringing plenty of fresh energy to lifeless surroundings, I should say Ronald Cheng is a charming comedian but he often picks very bad movies such as the Lunar Year films, heck he was award nominated for one lol.

RatedRStar said...

@Donald: What are your thoughts on many other Hong Kong actors? I am interested to know, thats if you have seen many others.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Robert Shaw and Ray Milland are the most underrated actors of all time.

I liked Woods here but not half as much as you did, I loved the film as a whole but I don't think his performance was worth a nomination or anything.

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