That drawl, that stillness, that gaze. He is a fascinating watch, is that James Spader. Sometimes he seems like an entity trying to figure out what it is to be human; sometimes he is something more than human. His severity blended with his precociousness makes for unpredictable and hypnotic performances every time. He’s an underrated cult icon, in everything, and nothing, a phantom, a larger than life personality that slips and snoops and lives for the characters luring in the side-lines.
A guy impossible to really pigeon hole, Hollywood never knew what to do with him. With minor roles as various yuppie-types during the eighties in films such as Mannequin (Gottlieb, 1987) and Wall Street (Stone, 1987) or entertaining arseholes in The New Kids (Cunningham, 1985) and Less Than Zero (Kanievska, 1987), Spader’s career has been marginalized and yet uprooted by the actor himself over the years. He never just plays a yuppie; he never just plays an oddball. Romances, thrillers, dramas; Spader does his own thing. In his Hollywood, he is anomaly, one I always find a joy to see on screen, always capable of doing something different with a character who in another’s hands could be dull or generic. I mean, this guy was brilliant as Ultron in an Avengers film that is not remembered too fondly., the highlight of an otherwise lacklustre entry. He was my favourite part of Steven Spielberg's rather bloated Lincoln.
In later years he has become a small screen legend with amazing turns as Alan Shore in The Practice and a personal much binged favourite, Boston legal. He’s surprised all in The Blacklist (the first series was peak) and divided fans with his turn as the slimy, sex-obsessed oddball Robert California in The Office’s season eight. As a member of the approving side, I still believe that some of the best scenes of that season were carried by this weird character. In this list I will refrain from including these roles, for this is place to celebrate his cinematic output, because if there is anything I have obsessively invested in, it is Spader’s unusual career. The films have not always been great, but there has never been a doubt that he is the best thing in them.
10. Bad Influence (Dir. Curtis Hanson, 1990)
Following a stream of obnoxious antagonists and weasly pains-in-the-arse, Spader had a chance to play against type and so did co-star Rob Lowe in Bad Influence, following his own tenure as misunderstood bad boys and loveable rogues. Not so much as a role swap but as a twist on their usual casting, we see Spader, a nerdy and shy suit whose life is turned upside down when he meets a mysterious drifter who teaches him to step out of his comfort zone and enter a world of garish parties, risqué sex with women and high-octane antics. However, things go too far one night and he discovers that the new figure in his life is not quite what he seems. The movie is a lot of fun. Of course it’s not high-brow; it’s a nineties thriller that I have an irrational nostalgic fondness for. But it’s a great display of Spader’s range in a semi-mainstream film.
9. The Pentagon Papers (Dir. Rod Holcomb, 2003)
A little seen film but a striking one at that, it is an assured performance from Spader. Based on the true story of Daniel Ellsberg who uncovered the deception of the US government to downplay the dire situation in Vietnam during the war, he leaks the information to the press whilst also battling his own perception of the war he once supported and the nation he once had faith in. More serious than many of the other entries on this list, it still displays a mature transition, an ability to hone a grounded character through a harrowing narrative. It is a breath of fresh air from some of his stranger roles, a man faced with his shame and rectifying it by doing the right thing, at the risk of everything else.
8. White Palace (Dir. Luis Mandoki, 1990)
Many of Spaders’ films of the nineties were Erotic something-something’s. Some of them were questionable, a little over-the-top, a little weird (1993’s Dream Lover, I’m looking at you). He’s really good at them, the more perverse the better. But others were capable of being surprisingly touching. A meeker type he embodies in White Palace, but sparks fly with marvellous co-star Susan Sarandon. A widowed Jewish advertising executive in his twenties falls hard for a forty-something diner waitress; their class and age differences come between them as friends and family doubt their relationship, however their chemistry is unquestionable, and in one another they find a comfort and trust that they had been seeking.
7. Wolf (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1994)
Definitely one of the weirdest films Mike Nichols ever directed but it’s fitting that Spader would happen to be in it and now, upon reflection, Wolf is kind of an underrated gem almost thirty years on. It’s a Horror Romance from the nineties; that gets brownie point from the get go. Supporting a main cast of Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeifer and Christopher Plummer, the story follows a publisher, Will (Nicholson), whose life is re-invigorated when he is attacked by a wolf, gaining supernatural powers and heightened senses. However, he must hide wolfish tendencies under the intense scrutiny of his rivals and the woman he has fallen for; meanwhile mysterious animal attacks are happening across the city. Spader, as Stewart, was once his protégé, now office rival, sleeping with Will’s wife, and a total sleaze; he nails it too.
Encapsulating the smarmy duplicity of his character, he is still genuinely holding his own in every scene with a great like Nicholson and is absolute proof of Spader’s often underrated talent. He also enjoys some of his own scene-chewing moments. His confrontation with Pfeiffer in the police station really is eccentric, playing up the farcical elements of the film – in no way a bad thing either, the best parts are when it embraces its werewolf-in-the-office premise – yet so utterly hypnotic, and not just because of his freaky contacts and freakier sniffing. Countless times, my sister and I have re-enacted his ‘What an odd question’ scene, it’s just highly entertaining.
6. Crash (Dir. David Cronenberg, 1996)
Remember when I mentioned ‘perverse’. I didn’t even like this film the first time around. Nor the second or the third but I kept watching it. Yes, my Spader obsession had a huge part to play - he looks great, he performs great – yet the whole experience is so weird you have to kind of remind yourself that it existed. Over time I kind of grew to love it, some overexposure and Stockholm syndrome like indoctrination for sure, but now it’s one of my favourite Cronenberg flicks and kind of a party piece for me (The Greasy Strangler another favourite to break to the ice).
Based on JG Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same name, considered un-adaptable and too taboo for the time, of course Cronenberg found something cinematic in the depravity. Following car crash survivors who develop a sexual infatuation with motor accidents, they enter an underworld of eroticized danger, the stakes getting higher and higher as they seek the ultimate pleasure. This kind of role somehow suits James Spader, the otherworldliness, the strangeness, the grotesque; he captures the descent into this world magically. He also gets to star in what is still considered one of the freakiest sex scenes of all time involving a gaping scar; iconic.
5. Stargate (Dir. Roland Emmerich, 1994)
Of all the ‘Star’ franchises, this was always my favourite. The most Hollywood leading man Spader ever got to be and an attempt to make him conform to a nerdy meek persona, even that he does endearingly, utterly sincerely, and different. The first to helm the iconic sci-fi character Dr. Daniel Jackson, it’s his performance that provides the heart of the film, certainly what brings me back again and again. In fact, the music, the atmosphere, the fantastical (the suspicious similarities to Disney’s Atlantis – not a bad thing, I love that too), its’ an escapist adventure that I adore indulging in. Sometimes I forget that Kurt Russell is there…
Scientist Daniel, rarely taken seriously in his field, is approached by a military facility to decode an ancient Egyptian artefact. The hieroglyph harbours important information, which reveals the possibility of Stargates, portals between worlds. The springboard for the rest of the franchise and considered by many fans as a lesser entry in the canon, I simply can’t shrug it off. Spader really is great and so likable. I love that his career became so unpredictable and diverse, but I often wonder what would have been if he had entered the world of Hollywood blockbusters; what kind of films he would have made as a leading man.
4. The Music of Chance (Dir. Philip Haas, 1993)
As a huge fan of the original 1990 absurdist novel of the same name by Paul Auster, I can say that this is probably one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen committed to screen. So it’s a huge shame how little seen it is. When I think of different, impressive performance in Spader’s career, I will think of this. As the twitchy, obsessive card-shark Jack, he alongside Mandy Patinkin’s Jim partake in a high stakes poker match with two eccentric millionaires. When they lose, they are put to work on the property building a never-ending stones wall.
It’s that kind of storytelling I simply love in cinema. A strange premise, a stripped back cast, an unusual pairing. The story is infused with element of Godot; its terrifying banality making room for some immersive characterization becomes strangely hypnotic. Spader’s Jack is self-assured but a total mess, restless and aggressive. He paces like a caged animal, animated beside Patinkin’s reserved lead. He’s allowed to let loose and inhabits the weird story, he’s heart-achingly fragile, a man destined to spiral in his pursuit of money and success, for a life of wandering, of hollow dreams. An amazing performance overall.
3. Pretty in Pink (Dir. Howard Deutch, 1986)
I don’t want to hear about how disappointed John Hughes was in this interpretation of his screenplay. I don’t want to hear how 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful was better, the rewrite and truer to the original vision. I don’t want to hear about who Andie should have ended up with. Pretty in Pink is iconic. It is one of my favourite brat pack flicks; the soundtrack, the mood, the lines, the cast. It has Steff too. Spader’s Steff is the best eighties teen villain of all time. His unprovoked bitchiness, his aesthetic, his unspoken backstory that in the twenty-first century would have filled pages upon pages on fanfiction sites (four years he has lusted after Andie, he admits this, they would have a field day with the premise, angst upon angst, lusty lemons…); you love him as much as you hate him. That voice, that indestructible hair, his crass gestures. He’s glamorously grotesque.
Andie (Molly Ringwald) is in her final year of high school, an outcast whose mother left home when she was young and caring for her depressed father, she is determined to make it through with the support of her friends including the lovesick Duckie (Jon Cryer as arguably one of cinemas most irritating sidekicks). She didn’t expect to fall head over heels for a guy, Blane (Andrew McCarthy) from the right side of the tracks. Meanwhile, their social circles are trying to drive them apart. Spader is Blane’s best friend, Steff. A self-entitled rich bastard who hates Andie more so because he lusts after her; rejected over and over, he cannot fathom how he can like such a poor girl, and how a poor girl can so confidently dislike him. Now is it Spader’s performance or the writing, I don’t know? There seems to be dynamism in the character that makes him one of the most interesting in the whole thing. Perhaps it’s just years of relentless viewings and obsession that has made him into a fabled mystery I must unravel.
2. Secretary (Dir. Steven Shainberg, 2002)
I’ve spoken about this film before in my article Top 10 Love Stories to Indulge in on Valentines Day, exploring my favourites from around the world. I’ve yet to see anything that can match it for energy or mood; it touches my heart in ways that sometimes can be hard to explain. It’s weird and shocking, funny and moving and still one of my favourite romances of all time. James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal helm this quirky love story in what I still consider amongst some of their finest films. Together they are sweet, sexy and terrifying; I can imagine no one else in the roles. Mr. E. Edward Grey and Lee Holloway are perfect. Spader’s Grey is so odd, sensual but unsettling, obsessive and unreasonable beside Gyllenahaal’s blossoming wallflower, finding herself and sexuality under the gaze of her boss.
Lee has been released from a mental institution where she was admitted following a severe self-harm incident; she must now adjust to daily life even as her family falls apart at home, forced to portray a manufactured perfection that conforms to her family’s world. Meanwhile, she is treated as a child. When she finds an advertisement for a position as a secretary with a local lawyer named Mr. Grey, she attends a strange interview, eventually landing the job. But an untraditional relationship unfolds, as both emotionally stunted find a way to express themselves through BDSM office games. Awkward as they are, it is a beautiful portrait of an unconventional romance, of finding oneself and voice and exploring women’s desire.
1. Sex, Lies and Videotape (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1989)
This is it. The film that I am repeatedly enthralled with upon multiple re-watches. The film that brought independent cinema to the mainstream, that transcends it’s controversy and tells a raw, unusual tale of sexual repression and intimacy. That each time the films asks more questions, that with my own personal growth I take more and more from the film yet find the familiar anxieties and heartaches I related to all those years ago upon my first viewing, is proof that the story has a certain universality that maintains its relevance. Maybe not as taboo as it once was, there is still a sense of daring, provocative and titillating in its subject; something that still tugs at my heart in that final act which traps me in its spell. One of the major attributes besides the writing, beside the direction, besides Cliff Martinez’s engaging score is James Spader’s powerful, Cannes winning performance as Graham.
Ann (Andie Macdowell), a prudish, housewife, is put out when her lawyer husband John (Peter Gallagher) invites an old college roommate to stay. Unawares to her, her husband is having an affair with her outgoing sister, Cynthia (Laura Sa Giacomo) whilst she is at home keeping house and attending therapy sessions where it is revealed that she struggles with her sexual life and identity, conforming to her pure, straight-laced image. When Graham arrives, to John’s disappointment he is much changed from the man he knew in school; once a scheming lothario, he now is a soft-spoken nomad living from the boot of his car. Choosing to settle in the town, he lives a life he deems more honest whilst engaging in a strange hobby; interviewing and filming women discussing their sexuality, pasts and fantasies.
On paper it seems like a typically odd Spader role. But he never pulled anything quite so understated and convincing, vulnerable and impenetrable. Graham is eerie in his stillness, honest yet deceptive. The delivery, the timidness, the control in Spader’s movement, tone, he remodelled himself in this character. Equal parts attractive and repellent, he’s an eternal question mark. ‘I’ve got a lot of problems, but they belong to me…’ is one of my favourite scenes in American cinema (bold statement I know, and vague as hell but I get that line stuck in my head a lot), and in the hands of Spader is something so frightening and real. It’s beautiful cinema. Go watch it.
Honourable Mentions: Bob Roberts (Robbins, 1992), True Colours (Ross, 1991), Storyville (Frost, 1992)
There we go, my obsession with James Spader put into a maniacal article. But let’ get more exposure on this underrated star, the guy who even after all these years is exciting to watch. I hope you found a new favourite and enjoyed the exploration into the cinema of his work.