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The 10 Greatest James Spader Movie Performances

04 May 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Matt Hendricks

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Since his threatening but silky smooth voice is on the verge of being stuck in our minds for an entire summer, it’s time to look back on actor James Spader’s fascinating film career before he lent his voice to 2015’s most highly anticipated comic book adaptation, The Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron.

For years, Spader has been known to the general public primarily for playing one of four types of roles: “the preppy villain”, “the pervert”, “the geek”, or “the mysterious guy with a past”. To a large but exclusive amount of gals and guys, he has also been quite often referred to as “the hot guy from (eighties or nineties movie title inserted here)”. At the time of its original air date in the nineties, he was just cool enough to be referenced in the pilot episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Underrated and under used for years (and often miscast but always interesting when he was), Spader never truly connected with large cinema audiences. Like so many of the more skilled and underrated film actors of his generation,

Spader wasn’t able to give large audiences regular glimpses of his unique onscreen presence until he turned to television in the 2000’s with his comically skilled turn in Boston Legal. Even then, we didn’t quite know what to think or what to do with the guy. And, as his sadly misused presence towards the end of the television series The Office showed us, we still don’t.

With his ice-cold stare, his hypnotically quiet speaking tone that is simultaneously innocent and menacing, and an almost robotic (but always smooth and somewhat snake-like) control of his body and mannerisms, Spader is a true and fascinating anomaly. He has been in a lot of bad movies, but has never himself been bad in any of them. He can easily come across as charming, non-threatening, dweebish, highly weird, downright terrible, heartlessly snooty, or sociopathically cruel.

At his best, he can be all of the above, all at the same time and make it look like the simplest, most natural behavior in the world. In spite of his many strengths, however, Spader usually doesn’t truly come alive onscreen unless he’s being given the chance to let his inner creep or misfit shine.

As his performances have told us throughout the years of his career, his face’s most natural state is the “James Spader stare” of his. He could be looking right at something or someone with razor-like focus or he could be looking right through it and daydreaming about his laundry.

You truly cannot tell. Spader’s face doesn’t easily communicate emotions. That’s why his presence is a true gift to the right role and character: he keeps us guessing (and ultimately watching) as to what exactly is on his mind. The ten films listed below best represent this strength to the fullest degree.

 

10. Less Than Zero (1987)

Less Than Zero (1987)

“The preppy villain, Part One”. Spader has a supporting role in this extraordinarily slick, extraordinarily eighties adaption of Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel. The film abandons the author’s nihilistic, almost surreal tone and goes for a more typical and obvious (especially for the times) anti-drug messaged film.

Spader plays a heartless drug dealer to (a very young) Robert Downey, Jr.’s out of control addict character. The melodramatic tone of the film is very much exemplified by Spader’s sleazy “it’s business” callousness. There is no soul to this character, no hidden layers. He showcases the emptiness and lack of empathy that the movie itself (more successfully than not) really wants us to know is demonizing, not glamorizing.

Given the parameters he was forced to work within, Spader still manages to give a memorable and disturbing performance. While later work would tell us he is capable of so much more, slimy roles that you love to hate him in like this (Pretty in Pink, anyone?) are what made us take note of him in the first place. What a fantastic prick he can be…

 

9. Jack’s Back (1988)

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“The mysterious guy with a past, Part One.” Highly unknown and (once again) very eighties piece of pulp cinema, Jack’s Back is an interesting footnote in Spader’s career. It’s an important addition to this list because it served as the bridge between his array of supporting eighties sleaze balls and his period of being a reliable (though impossible to label) leading man.

Jack’s Back is the kind of movie that HBO or Cinemax would have on at three in the morning several times a month in the eighties and early nineties. It’s cheesy, synthesized, morbid, and eerily creepy. Spader fits perfectly within the fabric of the film, totally being within his element (especially if you view the film in hindsight).

He starts off in the film playing a nerdish (practice for future work to come his way) medical student, then takes over as his (much creepier and secretive) twin brother who witnesses the murder in a nightmare (yes, it’s that kind of movie, but it actually works quite well). He then finds himself in a dangerous plot involving a serial killer who is mimicking the infamous Jack The Ripper murders around the hundredth year anniversary of the crimes (again, it’s just that kind of movie).

Mysterious, quiet, and ambiguous in many different ways, Spader’s work in Jack’s Back was the beginning of a new era for the actor. He is seductive, charming, and potentially sinister. This combination would serve Spader’s work well for years. Given the right role, Spader proved he could be a fascinating (though, to many, just plain strange) leading man.

 

8. Stargate (1994)

Stargate (1994)

“The geek, Part One.” Much like Spader’s black and white portrayal of a villainous drug dealer in Less Than Zero, his portrayal of a nerdy scientist/hero time traveller is equally one dimensional and uncomplicated. That’s not an insult. For the purpose of what the film is and needs within it, Spader splendidly blends right into cinematic popcorn and fireworks display that is Roland Emmerich’s Stargate.

Spader’s presence is quirkily entertaining and his character’s arc (while somewhat simplistic) is quite entertaining. Spader’s geek science guy is a believable cartoon within a cartoon world. While this isn’t necessarily Spader in his strongest role, it’s refreshing to see him drop any pretenses and simply have fun in a fun movie. Prior to Avengers 2, this was one of the actor’s first and only roles in a major Hollywood spectacle. He doesn’t fit the mold often but, when he does, he can do it quite well.

 

7. Storyville (1992)

Storyville (1992)

“The mysterious guy with a past, Part Two”. Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost’s feature film Storyville is a highly unseen (it is currently next to impossible to find anywhere) but quite effective southern mystery thriller.

Spader plays a small town lawyer who finds himself caught in a dangerous plot while simultaneously running for office and trying to uncover the story behind his father’s suicide. Twists, turns, set ups, heartbreaks, double crosses, and violent solutions ensue in this expertly crafted modern noir thriller.

Spader is effectively wide-eyed and awestruck as his world crumbles down and all hell breaks loose around him. He gives a subtle and subdued performance as a man who falls victim to his own faults and his uncontrollable past. His role is rather quiet, passive, and contemplative, but, as per usual in Spader’s work, you can often see the life and feelings of a character right behind that glassy stare of his (or he could still be thinking about his laundry, you never know).

The film is a very mature and reactive turning point for the actor, and a very tight directorial debut (and only feature to date) from Frost.

 

6. White Palace (1990)

White Palace (1990)

“The mysterious guy with a past, Part Three.” Spader is surprisingly relatable and vulnerable in what could arguably be labeled as his most underrated, unnoticed and subtle performance. Playing a man who recently lost the love of his life, Spader is a prissy, snobbish (traits he often excels at) character who is all but dragged into a relationship with an older, down to earth fast food employee played by Susan Sarandon.

Spader isn’t entirely likable as the often snooty character who takes Sarandon for granted and (usually obliviously) insults her throughout the film. The film succeeds because Spader still somehow makes the audience empathize with his conflicted protagonist, and you always understand why the two characters are attracted to (and put up with) each other (a feat very rare in most romantic films today).

Spader humanizes the character’s faults and drops the one-note tone of his early (though highly memorable) melodramatic work. As a result, Spader gave us one of the best examples of all the depth, range, and thought he brings to his work as an actor.

 

 

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  • I’m stoked that Secretary is listed as the best as I think it’s his most accomplished performance to date with all of the things you mentioned and more. At the same time, it’s a character that is truly just as dysfunctional as the Lee Holloway character since he is extremely repressed and tries not to open up to her. The scene where he is sitting down and telling Lee that she needs to go as she says no as he tells her he couldn’t do anything with her anymore. The way Maggie touches his hair is easily the most touching and erotic scene in that film because you could tell that he wants to be loved and cared for but is so fucked up inside.

  • Steven Wray

    I’m also glad the Secretary came in on top. Haven’t seen Dream Lover in over a decade, but it stuck with me as a memorable performance. He is definately unrated & underutilized, just too bad he is now getting attention from comic book movies & TV instead of dramatic roles like Crash & the Secretary.

  • Jordynne Rios

    I am on a huge Spader kick at the moment. I appreciate that Pretty in Pink was not on this list.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Stargate? I’d put Endless Love over that one.

  • Richard McLin

    Forgot two of my favorites.
    1: Two Days in the Valley
    2: True Colors

  • jj1960

    Thank you for a wonderful article detailing so many of James Spader’s great performances. He is a very unique and gifted actor.

    One of my favorite Spader films is a little known one called The Stickup. It was written and directed by the same person as Jack’s Back, Rowdy Harrington. Two other noteworthy performances, in my mind, were his hit man in 2 Days in the Valley and W.N. Bilbo in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. But, alas, I cannot make up my mind which of your top ten I would take away in order to place them in the list. Thanks again for a great rundown of his performances.

    • “The Stickup” would be in my Top 10. Definitely. I loved not being able to work out if he was the good guy or the bad guy. Just as you think Parker might be a good guy, he ambushes Natalie when she gets back from work because he doesn’t trust her.

    • Less Lee Moore

      I LOVE THIS MOVIE

  • Michael Song Lim

    This was a very well-written, well-researched post. You can tell it took some time to write it. That’s a good thing.

  • No Tuff Turf? lol 🙂

  • Alex Nasaudean

    Speaking of sex is Hilarious!

  • Less Lee Moore

    Awesome post. I have been a Spader fan for more than half my life and you really hit all the marks with this list. I do confess a deep love for Tuff Turf, though.