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In Defense of Woody Harrelson

Not only did Netflix deliver half the movies I used to write this article, it gave me my lead. This is how the rental service begins its description of “White Men Can’t Jump,” the 1991 Ron Shelton flick that helped make Woody Harrelson a star: “Pretending to be just a goofy white guy with no skills, Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) earns his keep by hustling pickup basketball games in Los Angeles.”

“Pretending to be just a goofy white guy with no skills ...” In one half-sentence, Netflix described Woody Harrelson’s entire career.


Woody proving Netflix’s point in “Semi-Pro.”

Now you see him ...

It’s a rather startling career. He rose up out of one of TV’s smart ensemble shows, “Cheers,” to become an unlikely movie star in the early 1990s, playing not only naive and boyish, a la Woody Boyd, but dangerous and homicidal, a la Mickey Knox in “Natural Born Killers.” Then at the height of his acclaim, after knocking off box-office hits such as “Indecent Proposal,” cult hits such as “Kingpin” and an Oscar nomination for best actor in “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” he kinda went away.

Sure, he starred in a few films (“Palmetto,” “Play It to the Bone”), but more often you’d see him in small roles in smart ensemble films — such as Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” or Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog.”

He kept popping up on TV, too — “Spin City,” “Ellen,” reprising Woody on “Frasier,” a recurring role on “Will and Grace” — but we assumed it was temporary and he’d be back with another “Larry Flynt” soon.

He narrated a documentary about one of his favorite subjects, “Grass,” and appeared in another, “Go Further,” in which he and his friends try to revive the Merry Pranksters spirit of the 1960s by bussing/bike riding down the West Coast, preaching the benefits of organic and raw foods, but encountering a poorer, more desperate America than they seem to realize: kids in Oregon towns who inhale what they can to get high; loggers who, offscreen, call him “Woody Allen” and order him out of town.

Instead of starring roles we heard gossip. Wasn’t he busted for planting hemp in, like, Ohio? Didn’t he unfurl a banner on the Golden Gate Bridge? Some of the rumors went beyond the usual anti-war, anti-global warming Hollywood brand of politicking. His father had been a hit man? His father assassinated JFK? WTF?

And suddenly it was 10 years after his Oscar nom and his resume was strewn with forgettable cameos — who was he in “She Hate Me” again? And what the hell was “Scorched”? — and you realized he’d done it. The unlikely movie star had taken himself out of the race.

The question is why.

... now you see him again

Eight years ago, when he was on Broadway in “The Rainmaker,” Woody blamed “The Money Train,” his follow-up buddy pic with Wesley Snipes, for souring him on the Hollywood scene. “I’ll never do anything for money again, never because it’s the right career move,” he told The New York Times back then — which explains a lot of his career moves.

In a more recent New York Times interview with David Carr, he blamed the Gloria Steinem-fueled controversy surrounding “Larry Flynt” for making him walk away from it all. “That sort of broke my heart,” he said, “because what people were saying really had nothing to do with the work and what it was about.”

So let’s talk about the work. Woody has four basic roles: chump who gets played (“White Men Can’t Jump,” “Kingpin,” “Palmetto,” “After the Sunset”), jealous boyfriend/husband (“Doc Hollywood,” “Edtv,” “The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio”), cowboy (“The Cowboy Way,” “The Hi-Lo Country,” “A Prairie Home Companion”) and homicidal maniac (“Natural Born Killers,” “Wag the Dog”).

He usually plays the dumbest guy onscreen, the goofy white guy with no skills. He’s good at the blank, trapped stare of the screwup, the bitter, puckered mouth of the cuckold. He’s also got that winning smile. It seems contradictory but there’s something both sly and ingenuous about it. Maybe he’s sly about its ingenuousness. It’s as if he’s saying, “I may seem innocent, but we both know I’m not.”

David Carr called that smile “a little deranged,” which it is, but it took Oliver Stone to see it. Even Woody was taken aback by the “Natural Born Killers” casting. “Why did you think of me?” he asked Stone, who replied, “I see violence in you.” Woody was perfect in the role of the charismatic killer even if the movie was a disappointment — another of Oliver’s anarchic tornadoes. Oliver tore up everything and put nothing back.

Then came “Larry Flynt.” Woody takes his character from small-town nightclub owner to national smut peddler to born-again evangelical to drug-addicted paraplegic to establishment gadfly to big-time smut peddler with a raspy voice talking out of the side of his mouth, and he keeps him whole and believable every step of the way. There’s a scene near the end in a psychiatric prison where he looks so wrecked, so exhausted by life.

There are a lot of Woody naysayers out there: People who slam his off-screen habits and causes and — more — his acting talent. Have they seen this film?

Have they seen “The Thin Red Line”? He has the most memorable death scene in one of the greatest movies ever made. His character, Sgt. Keck, attempts to throw a grenade against Japanese troops but pulls only the pin from his belt. Horrified, he stares at the pin, then throws himself away from his men as the grenade goes off.

We move quickly from the horrific (the agony on his face) to the comic (“I blew my butt off! I blew my butt off!”) to the sublime. He tells one soldier to write his wife and say he died like a man. He gives another his canteen. Then the camera pans dizzyingly up through the tall grass and the wind blows and you can tell the life is leaving him. “Whoa, where am I?” he says, dazed. Then: “I’m cold ... I’m cold ...” The scene is exquisite in its blend of horror and beauty.

Death becomes him

In his most recent film, “Semi-Pro,” he has the thankless task of playing straight man to Will Ferrell, but it was in last fall’s “No Country for Old Men” that he really showed his chops. He arrives halfway through and redefines the relentless killer Anton Chigurh. His Carson Wells seems to know what he’s up against but brims with confidence anyway.

Then Chigurh arrives and all that confidence drains away. Fear replaces it. Bargaining. It was while watching Woody that it began to dawn on me: Chigurh is more than an indie-film Terminator. He’s Death. The movie begins to resonate beyond its specific story and into metaphor. We’re all going to be in Carson Wells’ place someday. We’re all going to have to deal with Anton Chigurh.

Not bad for a goofy white guy with no skills.

—Erik Lundegaard, too, pretends to be just a goofy white guy with no skills, but he spells it “skillz.” This article was originally published on MSNBC.com.