James Woods is stuck in fast-forward again.
Wide-eyed, excited, involved and talking faster than most people should try to think, he is darting around in a movie gear-cluttered office inside this city’s main Carnegie Library.
Woods is rehearsing a scene from “Citizen Cohn,” an HBO bio-movie about Roy Cohn, the surly chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy who became a national household name and baby-faced pariah of America’s left wing during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1953-54.
The anti-Communist crusader who also prosecuted the Rosenbergs all the way to the electric chair later became--among many outrageous and controversial things--a law-flouting lawyer, a tax-dodging financial operator and an influential political fixer in New York City. Cohn, a major celebrity of the Manhattan night-life scene for years, died of cancer caused by AIDS in 1986.
The movie begins and ends with the venomous Cohn writhing in agony on his hospital deathbed and it uses a series of flashbacks and pain-induced hallucinations to dramatize his complex life story. David Franzoni and Mitch Booker (a pseudonym) wrote HBO’s “Citizen Cohn,” which is based on Nicholas von Hoffman’s 1988 book of the same title. The movie premieres this week, on the heels of " Woods’ new film “Diggstown,” which opened Friday.
The scene Woods is rehearsing with such intense interest will be a very minor one for him: Sen. McCarthy (Joe Don Baker) and his young assistant Robert F. Kennedy (David Marshall Grant) will storm into Cohn’s inner office, where Cohn is on the phone with gossip columnist Walter Winchell (Joseph Bologna).
Yet as director Frank Pierson--trailed by several technical people--is walking Baker through the scene at half speed, Woods is buzzing around them, juking this way and that, pointing, brainstorming out loud.
How about if Cohn tugs on his tie, Woods asks, adding that he’ll be able to use it again in a later scene? And, yes, Woods assures someone, Cohn’s 1953 telephone would have had a hold button on it. And, Woods suggests, what if Cohn says, “Walter, I’ll get back to you,” just as McCarthy blows into his office?
Woods thus manages to squeeze a quick line of dialogue for himself into the only scene in which he would have had none. He works the timing out with Baker, then gets the OK from the statesmanlike Pierson, a hands-off director-screenwriter whose many credits include a 1975 Academy Award for writing “Dog Day Afternoon.”
Of course, Woods wasn’t always so chipper during “Citizen Cohn’s” 27-day shoot this spring. One day he exploded twice in anger on the set after repeated problems with a prop. An extra who witnessed the blowups described them as being like a tornado touching down in an empty field--scary but harmless and quickly gone and forgotten.
Woods has been known to have fierce creative battles with some directors. He and Oliver Stone had protracted screaming matches on “Salvador.” Stone later told GQ that Woods is a “lunatic” but well worth the price, and the two are friends and mutual admirers today.
The easygoing Pierson is not put off by Woods’ barrage of interventions. He welcomes them and likes 85% of them, he says, as the office scene is being readied for filming. “You just foul off the ones you don’t like into the left-field seats.”
Until the script doctors made Cohn’s beknighted character more sympathetic, or at least tried to make his pathologies more understandable, the original screenplay “was a kind of political diatribe, really just a vicious attack on Roy Cohn,” says Pierson.
Wanting to attack Cohn is understandable, considering his hate-filled career. A lifetime friend and hero of the anti-Communist Republican right wing, Cohn was both a blatantly promiscuous homosexual and a homophobe. He made speeches to conservative groups attacking gay rights and, even as he was dying of AIDS, baldly lied on “60 Minutes” when directly asked if he was a homosexual.
Despite this and much else, Cohn’s bipartisan network of powerful pals was awesome, from presidents and gossip columnists to mobsters and cardinals. He was chummy with J. Edgar Hoover and Norman Mailer and dated Barbara Walters.
When Cohn was disbarred in New York shortly before his death, the roster of those who testifed to his honesty and good character--despite a career of evidence to the contrary--included William F. Buckley, William Safire, Geraldine Ferraro, Alan Dershowitz, George Steinbrenner, Donald Trump, plus Walters and bishops, FBI agents and ex-Reagan White House aides.
The role of Cohn seems perfectly suited to the talents of the cinematically volatile Woods. Producer Doro Bachrach doubts that “Citizen Cohn” would ever have been made without his participation. Bachrach, who most recently produced “Love Hurts” with Jeff Daniels, pursued Woods until she landed him, and she’s pleased with her catch in every way.
“I love working with him. I feel very strongly about it. He’s an extraordinary collaborator. He’s funny. He’s quick-witted. He’s a team player.”
Woods is incredibly well-prepared for each day and he thinks like a producer, Bachrach says, which he sort of is. Woods’ production company, Breakheart Films, is getting a presentation credit and he and the all-star cast--Pat Hingle, Lee Grant, Bologna, Baker et al.--are working more for love than for their usual amounts of money.
Interviewed in a spacious motor home parked outside the library, Woods raves about Pierson’s brilliance, the sensational script, the fine ensemble cast of dedicated actors. Dressed in Cohn’s early 1950s brown suit, smoking a cigarette, he’s friendly, cooperative, interested and, for a few minutes or so, almost reserved.
But he soon revs up. Responding to questions with long paragraphs of rapid-fire sentences, his hands whip around, his voice rises. The quick mind that won him a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology races ahead, so that he’s constantly interrupting himself--on everything from references to Hegel’s dialectics, the fascistic tendencies of political correctness, unnamed women who have brought him joy or trouble--yet always managing to retrieve his train of thought.
He’s a thousand miles from resembling the over-the-top characters he played in “True Believer” or “Boost.” But he’s defintely the same charged-up guy we’ve seen talking animatedly with Letterman and Leno.
Woods, 45, has thought a lot about Cohn, who he says is “the rotting underbelly of American politics. He was always there. He was a symbol of this cancerous dark side of American politics.
“I don’t particularly like what I know about him, but that’s just my own personal opinion. It has nothing to do with my responsibilities as an artist to re-create him in as much dimension as I can.
“I think if you try to judge a character before you play him you don’t give it the kind of multidimensional, surprising, kaleidoscopic sense of quirks and mannerisms and reverses of emotion and moods that happen with real people.”
Woods’ intensity meter hits 9 when he trashes the tabloids and the magazines US, Entertainment Weekly and People. It hits 10 each time he veers off on an oblique, mid-sentence reference to his ex-wife Sara Owen, who accused him of physical and psychological abuse in People in December.
In a statement accompanying Owens’ article, Woods categorically denied what he called “vicious lies” that he said were well-timed for a court hearing on her lawsuit for divorce money. He’s unprintably bitter or off-the-record about the People article, which did nothing to improve his already low opinion of most of the press.
Much of what has been written about him, Woods says, is “almost invariably stupid, and very often outright--actually, it seems to me, almost premeditated--lies.”
“You get this sort of momentum, this kind of sleazy press momentum about people, that’s really unfair. Nick Nolte is a hero this year. For 20 years, they portrayed him as a wild man, drunk, crazy, all this stuff. Why don’t we just look at his body of work and say, ‘Do you think it’s really true?’ ”
Woods, who says he wouldn’t trade his career with any other actor, is particularly dismayed at the media’s lack of interest in the acting process. And he resents being unable to shake being typecast as “perhaps America’s most hostile actor.”
Pauline Kael branded him with that title after he had won critical acclaim for the scummy murderers and creepy misfits he played in his earlier movies: “The Onion Field,” “Videodrome” and “Against All Odds.”
Woods says the hostile tag is just not true. “ ‘The Onion Field’ got people thinking a certain way about me that really is not a reflection of who I am,” he says. “I’d have been better off as one of the cops who got shot.
“I always say to people, ‘Gee, in the same year I made “Holocaust,” where I played this artist who’s beaten to death and dies in Auschwitz, and who was one of the most fragile people who ever lived. If you put those two people together, maybe you’ll see that it was, like, just some good old hard work and acting.’
“Maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m not intense. Just maybe it’s possible. If anyone bothered to go beyond the cheap thrills of selling papers and tabloids, it’d be wonderful to find out this inside secret.”
“Citizen Cohn” premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO and will al s o air Aug. 25, 27 and 31.