By Mike D'Angelo
Updated July 18, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

No matter how much they may protest, and no matter how furiously they strive to establish their chameleonic credentials, most actors wind up being typecast. Diane Keaton is a lovable ditz. Denzel Washington is a taciturn hero. Sandra Bullock is the girl next door. Jeff Goldblum is a brainy motormouth. Gary Oldman is…okay, skip Gary Oldman. I said ”most.” The human instinct to pigeonhole is a powerful one; play two charming thugs in a row — or even just one in a box office smash — and you might as well have the words charming thug stenciled on your forehead. Like it or not, you’ve just been assigned a cinematic species.

Or two. What James Woods has achieved is considerably less common, maybe even unique: Somehow, he’s managed to create two contradictory screen identities, and to do so without discomfiting the viewing public. On the silver screen, he’s almost invariably a louse — scheming, ruthless, homicidal, or just plain psychopathic. (As the voice of underworld ruler Hades, in Disney’s current Hercules, he’s taken this persona to its wittily logical conclusion.) The characters he plays in made-for-TV movies, on the other hand, are more likely to be toting grocery bags than automatic weapons: a lonely widower (Jane’s House, 1994); a courageous defense attorney (Indictment: The McMartin Trial, 1995); the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (My Name Is Bill W., 1989); even Navy admiral, and eventual Perot running mate, Jim Stockdale (In Love and War, 1987). Remarkably, he’s equally successful in both guises: Woods nabbed a Golden Globe nomination last December for his role as an Atticus Finch-like lawyer in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production The Summer of Ben Tyler, then added an Oscar nod a few weeks later for his portrayal of racist assassin Byron De La Beckwith in Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi. Still, despite his evident range, he must at times feel straitjacketed: Whether he plays a sinner or a saint depends largely upon the size of the screen.

There are exceptions, of course. One of Woods’ most celebrated TV-movie performances was as the title character of Citizen Cohn (1992), in which he was unforgettably unctuous as Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man, lawyer Roy Cohn. And shortly after he received his first Oscar nomination (for his explosive turn in Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Salvador), Hollywood briefly attempted to establish Woods as a leading man, casting him as an adoptive father in Immediate Family and as a crusading, ponytailed attorney in True Believer (both 1989). Both movies stiffed, however, and the tabloid stories about his ugly contretemps with Sean Young, which broke at about the same time, helped to scuttle any nice-guy image.

Whatever the reason, Woods has spent most of the ’90s in supporting roles, enlivening otherwise tedious movies with inventive variations on the cinema scumbag. Many people who dozed through the abysmal Stallone!Stone! thriller The Specialist (1994), for example, are probably still irritated with Woods for repeatedly jolting them awake with bursts of manic energy. (”Oh, man, somebody’s acting again.”) He also appeared to good effect in both of 1995’s three-hour biographical snooze-fests, playing Sharon Stone’s greasy ex-boyfriend in Casino and Watergate conspirator H.R. Haldeman in Nixon. Lately, it’s been get in, dazzle ’em for a few minutes, and get out while the gettin’s good.

The trend continues in Ghosts of Mississippi, the latest sorry step in Rob Reiner’s decline from sharp pop satirist to hectoring, Oscar-hungry bore. The film is based on the true story of Beckwith’s conviction, three decades after the fact, for the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, thanks to the tireless efforts of attorney Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin) and Evers’ widow (Whoopi Goldberg). Woods is typically impressive as the elderly Beckwith, the epitome of casual, unapologetic racism, but casting him was essentially a stunt, and a misguided one. Usually, when actors take a stroll down Latex Lane, it’s because the role spans generations. But about 98 percent of Ghosts takes place in the 1990s, and we see Beckwith as a younger man only in the opening scene, when he shoots Evers. Why not simply cast an older actor in the role? No matter how brilliant Woods may be — and he surely deserved his Oscar nomination — the artificial jowls and gray-haired skullcap make his every scene a distraction, a demonstration of acting chops rather than the depiction of remorseless bigotry that Reiner and screenwriter Lewis Colick presumably intended. Still, what with Goldberg’s somnambulistic nobility, and the fact that this is yet another civil rights movie in which the struggles of black Americans take a backseat to the heroics of wealthy white guys, Woods’ presence is the least of Ghosts‘ problems. C

Ghosts of Mississippi

  • Movie
  • Rob Reiner