When Woody Harrelson first joined the TV series “Cheers” as the ditzy bartender Woody, no one could have foreseen the talent lurking under his male version of the dumb blond. But Harrelson, who stars as a dirty cop in his latest release, “Rampart,” is far from a one-trick-pony. He’s proved himself not only one of the most talented actors of his generation, but one of the most versatile.
A Little Too Natural
To be honest, Harrelson can be one of the most disturbing actors of his generation at times, too, namely in his portrayal of serial killer Mickey Knox in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” Let’s just say he’s perhaps a little too natural in the role.
Harrelson blindsided fans with the chilling portrait of an icy sociopath on a cross-country murder rampage with Juliette Lewis. Fans who watched the DVD extras of the original release had an even bigger surprise when Harrelson revealed that Stone hadn’t been trying to cast against type, but had seen something “violent” in him that no on else had. And Stone was absolutely right — few people knew that Harrelson’s father had been an infamous mob hit man.
Few could deny that not only did Woody break the “Cheers” typecast that could have sunk his career, but smashed it into smithereens. When you’ve played a serial killer, you probably want to try to find characters a little more socially and morally acceptable for some of your upcoming roles. Like, say, a legendary “pornographer” who became an unwitting soldier in the fight for freedom of speech.
Do the Hustler
Harrelson made news again for playing the notorious publisher of Hustler magazine in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” opposite Edward Norton and Courtney Love. Not only did he get the chance to play another deranged character, but one with a twisted sense of humor and a healthy disrespect for government and society. On top of that, the role also gave him the holy grail of “please take me seriously as an actor” scenarios — the man who tragically ends up in a wheelchair (think Tom Cruise in Stone’s “Fourth of July“).
Where “Natural Born Killers” stirred up a lot of negative publicity for its ultra-violence and prophetically dead-on portrayal of where our tabloid culture was headed, “The People vs. Larry Flynt” garnered Harrelson some serious respect in the film community. He earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his wickedly funny portrayal of Flynt, hailed by the real Flynt himself, who had a cameo as a judge in one of many courtroom scenes.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
After a wildly eclectic mix of roles, from a war photojournalist in “Welcome to Sarajevo” to a singer on “A Prairie Home Companion,” Harrelson waited a long 15 years to get that recognition again as soldier Tony Stone in “The Messenger.” Along with the grievously underrated Ben Foster — who is also in “Rampart,” both directed again by Oren Moverman — Harrelson plays a man who delivers the worst news that any soldier’s loved one can possibly get.
With years of larger-than-life characters under his belt, Harrelson proved he could do something a bit more subtle. Well, except a little drunken debauchery thrown in for fun, or it wouldn’t be a real Harrelson performance, would it? He chalked up his second Oscar nomination, this time as supporting actor. Harrelson may not have won, but it was clear his previous nomination was no fluke.
Land of 1000 Zombies
Of course, being Harrelson, what do you do when you start getting all the uptight critics lauding you? Why, you make a zombie movie, of course. And better yet, a silly zombie movie like “Zombieland.” No big awards for this one, but it’s fair to say the guy probably didn’t care with all the fun he must have had with that one — especially getting to play around with Bill Murray in a cameo that is the highlight of the film.
And here we are again, back to a serious movie with the release of the action drama “Rampart.” And here we are again with Oscar buzz. Will Harrelson finally get his gold statue on this one? It’s a long haul to the 2013 Oscars, as the film was too late for this year’s awards, but Harrelson has already been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead for his portrayal of a very bad cop.
“Rampart” opens Feb. 10 in limited release, with a cast including Ned Beatty, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Robin Wright, Steve Buscemi, and Foster, who also co-produced. It’s a fair bet any movie with Harrelson in it is bound to be, if nothing else, entertaining. And never, ever boring.