If you don’t know from Eve Babitz, prepared to be charmed. I wrote about her last week over at Esquire Classic, and can’t recommend her two volumes of memoirs—Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company—enough. For a little taste of Babitz’s talent, check out this 1987 profile of James Woods, which was originally published in American Film magazine and appears here with the author’s permission.—Alex Belth
“Out of the Woods”
By Eve Babitz
Whenever I think about James Woods, it is either as the affront he was in Split Image, where he plays the cure almost worse than the disease for a family who wants to have their kid deprogrammed from some Moonie-type cult, or else—and this is worse, especially since I was about to go to the Beverly Hills Hotel for one of those “interview breakfasts” in broad daylight—or else I see him hovering over Deborah Harry in Videodrome, helping her indulge her decadent, perverted taste for pain, sticking long needles through her earlobes, licking drops of blood as she slinks orgasmically beneath his hot breath, his hot eyes, his hotness—his coldness. Even Pauline Kael calls him James “the Snake” Woods.
“He’s such a sleaze, Eve,” says the only woman I know who’s immune to him. “He’s like the only guy in the eighth grade who knew about sex.”
“But someone had to,” I reply, thinking of the moment in Videodrome when James Woods spots this TV show of torture that at first he flinches from, but from which he cannot turn away.
Which is exactly how I feel about him.
* * * * *
The Polo Lounge (or the room right next to it where they serve their gardeny breakfast) is graced by ladies in pink outfits to match the pink tablecloths and pinkness of the Beverly Hills Hotel since time began. However, most of the patrons are in the movie business with a vengeance not to be denied. If you like this kind of thing, then the Polo Lounge is it.
He arrives looking like something fresh, aslant in the sunlight and breakfast shadows of an L.A. morning. His clothes are light, his feet are light, and his expression is blank. He seems as capable of being blown out the door as a tumbleweed.
An agent clasps him on the shoulder and says in his ear: “How would you like to do Dracula for Ken Russell?” Woods tells me about it as we move into the Polo Lounge, and I feel suddenly that he is as at home here as a hustler is in a pool hall. All that energy he usually uses to punch weasels into High Art is whirling through his bloodstream.
“Dracula,” I mutter, thinking it’s redundant: James Woods as Dracula—he already is Dracula.
“Hi Olivia, do you have some cream, sweetheart?” he greets our waitress as we settle into one of the ivy green booths. “Did you cut your hair? You look adorable,” he adds as he takes a menu from Olivia, whose hair is short, permed, and gray.
“Thank you,” she says, laughing. “It looks nice for about a month, then it gets too long.”
“Then you look like, uh.” He pauses. “Angela Davis.”
Olivia brings us breakfast, which for the forty-year-old Woods consists of a large orange juice, bacon (“real artery jammers, babe”), and a toasted bran muffin. No cigarettes—he gave them up several months before. Not long ago, he confesses, “I actually had one in my mouth and a match lit. And I thought: If God wants me to smoke this cigarette, he’s going to put this match right to the end of it and I’m going to inhale. And that very moment, God, believe it or not, masquerading as a second AD, came to the trailer and said, ‘You’re needed on the set.’ And I thought: Well, it may not be Jesus in a crèche, but it’s good enough for me.”
I am anxious to know how he feels to be nominated for Best Actor in Salvador. “It was the single happiest day of my life,” he says, looking very sincere and very unsnakelike. “It’s hard to explain, because people sort of expect me to be outrageous and cynical—and I am, about things that deserve cynicism. But I’m not cynical about things like having all your colleagues toast you with something like an Oscar nomination.”
“How did you find out about it?”
“I unplugged my phone in the bedroom and didn’t set the alarm clock, hoping to sleep through the nominations because they were at five-thirty in the morning, and I couldn’t imagine getting up to be disappointed one more time in my life. And I kept hearing the phone ringing in the other room. And I looked at the alarm clock and it was, like, five thirty-one. So I picked up the phone and it happened to be a friend of mine who had told me that I wasn’t nominated for the Golden Globes, when I was, because he got the information wrong. So I thought he was teasing. He said, ‘You got nominated.’ And I said, ‘This is not funny.’ And I hung up on him. And then the phone started ringing some more. He said, ‘I swear to God. Turn on CNN.’ And I turned it on and I was stunned.
“Actors pretend to be so blasé about this stuff: ‘Ah, the Oscars. They don’t mean anything.’ And yet I’ve never met an actor who hasn’t been rehearsing a speech every day of his life on his way to an audition.”
The agent bobs back, smiling loudly at Woods. “We just want to know, are you prepared to shoot Dracula in four days in between two pictures?”
“If I don’t have to do any overtime,” Woods replies.
The agent proceeds: “Listen, when we first tried to put this picture together four years ago, we got a call from this rock star and we flew to Washington, D.C., where he was doing a concert, and the guy actually told Ken that he would be prepared to drain his blood before shooting so he could really look the part—and he said he would actually sleep in a coffin to get into the role.”
Olivia serves us coffee, and the agent, at long last, leaves.
“This guy wants to drain his blood and sleep in a coffin’? It’s like Laurence Olivier’s great line to Dustin Hoffman, who stayed up four days to look tired. He said, ‘Can’t you try acting?’ ”
I am wondering whether he felt Platoon had anything to do with the renewed attention being lavished on Salvador.
“Luckily, Salvador was on videocassette at the time, and people started saying, ‘Gee, Platoon was good. I wonder what Salvador is like.’ The problem is that you try to put a film like Salvador in a theater when there’s fifteen hundred theaters with Pretty in Pink playing for the fifteenth week. Even though the theaters might be empty by the fifteenth week. But a lot of times, when you go to these sixplexes in some shopping mall somewhere in Costa Mesa, it’s the same six studio pictures.”
“So now that Platoon and Salvador have made it, are we going to see a slew of movies about Vietnam and Nicaragua and Beirut?”
“You know, for eighteen years of my career, I’d always hear that I wasn’t a leading man. I would say, ‘Well, how about Humphrey Bogart? How about Dustin Hoffman? AI Pacino? How about…?’ Even Bill Hurt is a good-looking guy, but he’s not some classic walking surfboard. Each time, they sort of get it, but they only get it that one time. It seems like they go out of their way to avoid quality, to find an excuse to hire every football player and model they can. It’s almost uncanny how difficult it is to convince them that maybe, instead of a run of movies about kids getting laid in the backseat of the car, maybe you could have a run of movies about Vietnam or Central America. There are two kinds of movies being made: There’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and there’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you know, John Hughes’s imbecilic movies. Will I get invited to the prom or not? Who gives a rat’s ass.
“Now Platoon has finally done it. But if Oliver had the script of Salvador right now, and he brought it to a studio, they probably would say, ‘God, you’re great. And Platoon was sensational and we really want to be in business with you, but do you have anything else, maybe? Instead of this thing about Central America?’”
Before I met Woods for the first time, his press agent had told me, “The great thing about Jimmy is that you don’t really have to interview him. Once he gets going, he’s off.” It’s true.
“I hate the guy I played in Salvador—I think he’s a total asshole. I don’t hate him; I’m indifferent to him—the kind of guy who is a drunken, boring, disgusting fool who’s always gypping people with money and lying and bullshitting and all the other wonderful things that compulsive obsessives do—but I loved the story. And I found a way of turning that character into a fictional amalgam of what he is and what I hoped he could be in his life, which caused untold amounts of violence between me and Oliver Stone, but the final synthesis was worthwhile.”
“I hear Oliver Stone is pretty intense.”
“Well, he met his match the day he walked on the Salvador set in Mexico with me. But our arguments were over the right stuff. They were about interpretation, balancing the picture, not making it a polemic. Not making the character too heroic, which Oliver didn’t want. And not making him such a loathsome scumbag that the audience would be so turned off that they wouldn’t get any of it, which was my point of view. And so we had two very antithetical points of view that resulted, I thought, in a very constructive synthesis. And I like to work that way. If it’s all peaches and cream, you’re in trouble, believe me. It’s a cardinal rule of filmmaking that if everybody’s happy at the dailies every night, you’ve probably got a piece of junk on your hands. We struggled through that thing like a war. We’re great friends now.”
“Give me an example of a fight.”
“One day Oliver and I were having a terrible argument. And he said, ‘You know, you’re a rat and a goddamn weasel and I hate you and I hope you die!’ I said, ‘This is great—ten minutes before a scene.’ The next day, we’re doing the scene where I’m trying to convince Elpedia Carrillo to marry me. I was supposed to say to her, ‘OK, so I’ve done some bad things in my life.’ Instead, I said,’OK, I’m a rat and a goddamn weasel!’ And I threw it right in. And he said, ‘Oh, you had to embarrass me, right? You have to throw it into the take.’ And that came out of an argument that Oliver and I had. And he was gracious about leaving it in.”
“What did Richard Boyle think of your Richard Boyle?”
“Richard was pretty content to sort of try screwing the extras and having free lunches and free drinks—which I say affectionately. He was always on the set and, in all seriousness, was concerned to make sure the Salvadoran uniforms looked right, and that the peasants looked right, and so on.
“At one point, one of Boyle’s friends there said, ‘Richard would never wear a Hawaiian shirt.’ I said, ‘No, but on the other hand, what Richard really wears is so frigging ugly that if you put it on the screen, people would walk out of the theater.’ I mean, he has the worst taste in clothes imaginable. My shirts weren’t what he would wear in actual fact, but they did poetically capture the spirit of Boyle more than what Boyle himself would actually wear.”
“So I guess you’d work with Oliver again?” I break in, spearing a strawberry.
“He wanted me to do Platoon, but I didn’t want to go get any more tropical diseases this year,” he replies. “I’ll stick by Oliver, even if his next one isn’t courted and wooed by the critics. I know the vagaries of this business. I know that they can turn on him like a lightning bolt. They may; I won’t. You know, John Daly, chairman of Hemdale, is doing Oliver’s film after the next one. When the bigwigs who all turned down Salvador and Platoon wanted it, he said, ‘Hey, John Daly was my friend. John Daly’s got it.’ I had a studio exec say to me, ‘Well, Oliver Stone doesn’t want to talk to me.’ I said, ‘Well, he knows that you hate him. You may work on the premise of “Hey, if it’s big bucks, screw it!” But there’s a moral consideration. You spit in a guy’s face, he doesn’t wipe it off with a hundred dollar bill. You think I’m a piece of crap? Then I’ll just stay a piece of crap and now you can’t have me, even though I’ve been dipped in gold. Oliver believes in something. You don’t. That’s the difference.”’
* * * *
I first met Woods in a nunnery—that’s right, a nunnery—in downtown L.A., built on a giant estate overlooking the entire smog-laden city baking in eighty-five-degreeish desperation. The bougainvillea are staggered on the terraced garden walls; the walls are stained an Italian sepia, like a Leonardo line drawing. The mixture of downtown L.A. and this thrust of pastoral, idyllic Italy is unnerving.
But then, what about Jimmy Woods isn’t.
The movie is called Best Seller and it’s about a Joseph Wambaugh-type cop-writer (Brian Dennehy) who is contacted by a white-collar hit man (Woods) who wants Dennehy to expose the corporation he works for.
When filming stops for resetting the cameras, Woods comes to me in his Armani suit and we begin to walk down to his trailer.
Me: “Let’s get serious. Where do you get your technique?”
Him: “What kind of technique?”
Me: “Do you have any technique other than plowing forward?”
Him: “I don’t even know what you’re talking about—technique for what?”
Me: “Acting, acting, what you do.”
Him: “Yeah, I put batteries in my alarm clock and try and get here on time.”
Me: “Do you have a philosophy of acting?”
Him: “I admire the James Cagney ‘plant your feet on the ground, look the other guy in the eye, and tell the truth’ school of acting. I’m not into the ‘four hours before you go to work pretend you’re a radish’ school of acting.”
By now we’ve reached this kind of luxurious trailer and spend the next few hours facing each other in claustrophobic air-conditioning across a table in a breakfast nook meant for old retired couples to play gin rummy.
Me: “They said you quit the Tavianis’ new film because you were afraid of being kidnapped and wanted a twenty-four-hour-a-day bodyguard.”
Him: “Actually, it was a stronger reaction. It was when I read that France and Italy provided safe havens for terrorists—and had a tacit agreement with them. And I thought: You bastards weren’t objecting when we left half a million American bodies here to protect your grandmas from being raped by Russians drinking gasoline in 1945. You know what, why don’t you rely on Libyan tourism?”
Me: “Are there any kinds of roles that you don’t want to do, or that you wouldn’t accept?”
Him: “I have made a conscious effort in the past year or two to avoid villains, only because I did a couple that were rather well received, even though they were extremely different characters. But the press can tend to typecast you. Best Seller is my farewell to villainy, but it was such a delicious character, I couldn’t resist it.”
An AD comes to summon Woods to the set. He stands in line with the rest of the people, assembling his lunch—pork chops, apple sauce, peas, mashed potatoes with lots of gravy, and chocolate milk. Director John Flynn comes over and says, “He acts with a pin stuck through his muscle. It gives him that edge. Otherwise he falls asleep.”
“Yeah, with you directing, I’m surprised I don’t have narcolepsy.”
“Yeah, when you sit through the rushes—”
“We could bottle those babies and sell them for Valium.”
* * * * *
Fade to pink and the slanting sunlight of a Beverly Hills morning. We’re back at the Polo Lounge. These days, Woods is busy on a new project for Atlantic Releasing Company, except that this time he’s behind the camera, as well as in front of it. He’s coproducing a film based on the novel Blood on the Moon, a murder-suspense thriller in which he stars as a Los Angeles police detective. I wonder whether, in his role as a producer, he is “nice”?
“I’m never going to be nice. Nice is what studio executives are when they’re offering your part to somebody else behind your back after they’ve already made a deal with you.”
“So what’s it like to be a producer?” I ask.
“It’s great, because I treat people the way I would like to have been treated when I was only an actor,” he says, pushing his plate aside. “It’s easy, if you’re honest—if you’re straightforward. If I’m asking somebody to work for less than the usual salary, what I do is bring out the budget and show it to them. I don’t bullshit around with them.”
“There’s been a big stir about David Puttnam coming out against inflated stars’ salaries,” I say, glancing at the movers and shakers at nearby tables. I can talk Industry with the best of them.
“But it’s not just the stars’ salaries, it’s the executive producers’ salaries. I know that people do not go to see a movie because Jon Peters produced it. They go to see a movie because Robert Redford is starring in it. Or Oliver Stone directed it. I mean, the people who make movies should get paid for making movies, and the people who make phone calls should get paid for making phone calls—by the hour. Unfortunately, they’ve got it all backward in this business.”
Suddenly he looks almost remorseful. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “There are studio heads who are friends of mine, whom I like very much. I always dump on these guys and I don’t mean to, because I do not envy them the task they have before them. If I had to answer to the people they have to answer to, I’d probably hang myself. Their job is to make money. The Killing Fields was a studio movie. Terms of Endearment, finally, was a studio movie. And they were great movies.”
This is almost too nice, so I change the subject. “You once told me that it’s usually a bad sign if everything’s going peaches and cream. Do you know when it’s working and when it’s not working?”
“Almost invariably. Not only the performance, but the feeling on the set. I mean, if I see, like, an unbelievably stupid costume on somebody, chances are that there’s five other unbelievably stupid costumes on other actors, because people are either good at what they do or bad at what they do. And usually they’re bad, not for lack of talent, but for lack of dedication. And that drives me crazy. The one thing that makes me want people to disappear from a set is that they’re too busy doing something else and don’t have time to do the job that they’re getting paid for. You know, buying a string of condos in Marina del Rey or whatever else they have on their mind. My attitude is that when you make a film, you eat, drink, and sleep it. And be thankful that you can go twenty-two hours a day, because if you’re spending any time less than that, you’re probably not giving it your best shot.”
“Are you interested in directing?” I ask.
“The T-shirt at Creative Artists Agency—have you ever seen it? It’s an agent sitting behind his desk, holding his head in his hands, and there’s a chair with a dog sitting in it, smoking a cigarette, and the suitcase he has says, ‘Ralph, the Talking Dog.’ And the caption is, ‘Of course, what I really want to do is direct’: So, you know. If I ever direct, you’ll know when you go to see the movie, and you can tell me.”
“Is there anything else you’ve always wanted to—”
“—the world? No. I’m fine. See, I wasn’t terrible after all. It’s all a myth.”
I actually had hoped not. But maybe so.