5. Crash (1996)
“The pervert, Part One.” Not to be confused with Paul Haggis’ 2004 Best Picture Oscar winner of the same name. This is the other Crash. The one directed by David Cronenberg about a group of people who band together because of their common interest in being sexually aroused by car accidents. That sentence will remain the same no matter how many times you read it. Again, this is not the movie that makes white people think they understand racism. It’s truly something quite different.
Spader is fearless and daring in the role, once again proving he is an actor capable of guiding his audience through just about anything with mystery, believability, and (an often very strange) integrity. One of the most memorable (and utterly disturbing) scenes in the film is something most actors of Spader’s stature would probably never even finish reading in the script, much less have the courage to do themselves (much, much less with a straight face).
The scene involves the backseat of a car, Spader, Rosanna Arquette in leg braces, and the vulva like scar on the back of her thigh… I would advise you to stop thinking about it right now or you might not get it out of your head.
As disturbing and as far down into the recesses of humanity it goes, Spader’s commitment to his actions creates a believability in Crash that anchors it and keeps it from sliding completely off the rails. He seems perfectly at ease with his surroundings, which reminds us all why we ever loved and feared him in the first place. Spader and Cronenberg are a match truly made in heaven, and it’s time these two reunite for another audacious head-scratcher of a movie.
4. Wolf (1994)
“The preppy villian, Part Two.” Spader plays the backstabbing protégé to Jack Nicholson’s senior book editor (who also happens to be in the process of turning into a wolf, but that’s beside the point). Guided by director Mike Nichols’ expert hand, Spader gives a hilarious and entertainingly over the top (and brilliantly comedic) portrayal of a pretentious, social climbing, and utterly spineless antagonist.
There’s not much else to the character other than him being an ethically weak and utterly despicable human being, but Spader grabs onto these characteristics with so much glee and ease that it’s impossible not to be wickedly entertained by him.
When he himself turns into a wolf by the film’s climax, Spader is so at home that his onscreen presence alone almost usurps the star power of a seasoned great like Nicholson’s. At the very least, Spader certainly holds his own with amusing, predictably creepy, and not so predictably funny results.
3. Bad Influence (1990)
“The geek, Part Two.” Bad Influence tells the story of a repressed and meekish business executive who is bored with his life, his job, and his fiancé. When a welcome distraction in the form of a charismatic stranger (a career highlight for Rob Lowe) enters and pushes himself into his life, Spader’s world changes, gets turned upside down, then utterly explodes.
Spader brings in some much needed shading and humanity in the film’s lead. Starting off as the innocent little lamb who gets corrupted by Lowe’s big bad wolf, Spader makes his character’s journey highly relatable. You never question why Spader allows himself to get sucked into Lowe’s charms, and you always understand how his proceeding behavior (and ultimate corruption) is the direct result of contamination by Lowe’s (title moment!) bad influence.
Spader as the vulnerable, naïve, and trusting victim is a welcome change of pace for him. He expertly carries the film with his believably enthralled and ultimately terrified reaction to Lowe’s presence. The result is quite a surprising feat, especially if you take into consideration some of the actor’s best work before and since.
Most likely, Spader would have been most at home in Lowe’s sociopathic role, but seeing him take on the challenge of working outside his box and playing more of an everyman has quite satisfying and memorable results.
2. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
“The Pervert, Part Two”. Spader plays an impotent, emotionally lost man who can only connect to women if he videotapes them talking about their past sexual experiences. Steven Soderbergh’s directorial debut is an entrancing, character-driven story about, well… The title pretty much says everything.
Spader’s hauntingly disconnected performance is a career- defining highlight. It was the first fully adult performance of his career. He is closed off and always fascinating to watch, even (or perhaps especially) in his most frozen and pensive moments. Spader’s work in Sex, Lies, and Videotape is an astute study of a man in self-imposed exile.
If you look at him closely enough, you can almost see the history and pain inside his character writhing underneath his icy stoicism. Or, once again, he could just be thinking about something else. You really never know…
1. Secretary (2002)
Everything James Spader has to offer as an actor is on full display in Secretary, the actor’s truest and greatest performance to date. The geek, villain, pervert, and pained mystery man roles are all slapped together in one fantastically accomplished (and thoroughly bizarre) character and role. Secretary feels like it might as well have been made specifically for Spader, or he for it.
Spader plays (another) emotionally disconnected man who hires a seemingly mousy new secretary for his law firm. We soon learn the young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) medicates her own personal issues by dispensing herself pain (burning or cutting herself, for example).
Spader’s character can quickly relate to her and understand, though, since he himself medicates his own personal issues by dispensing pain to others (smacking, hitting, or emotionally humiliating, for example). In short, she’s a masochist, he’s a sadist, and love is soon in the air…
The true joy of Secretary (not to subtract from Gyllenhaal’s wonderfully quirky yet deeply sincere and brave performance) lies in seeing Spader tightly grab onto the reigns and go on the emotional roller coaster ride his character takes him (and us) on. Awkward and shy to piercingly curt to boyishly innocent to verbally assaultive to so-meek-he-can’t-make-eye-contact to physically threatening…
Spader bounces all over the place while still maintaining an emotional and organic believability throughout. It’s quite an accomplishment, and one that appears (like every good Spader performance) unbelievably effortless.
Spader’s performance in Secretary is an idiosyncratic, dangerous, and ultimately moving one. He truly owns his role in a way that only a great actor can when handed the role of a lifetime. Secretary and James Spader were quite lucky to find each other, and the rest of us are all lucky to be able to enjoy the result.
Author Bio: Matt Hendricks is an independent filmmaker with several projects currently in development.