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Combustible Woods

An incendiary afternoon with reformed bad boy James Woods.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

The light-filled, newly finished kitchen in James Woods' Beverly Hills home is aglow with warm woods and hand-embossed copper. The six-burner cooktop stove rests in the granite center island. The contents of the refrigerator and the cupboards are immaculately arranged. The kitchen has clean lines, yet it looks as if it was also designed to be messed up. Cooked in. Dined in. It is huge and homey.

James Woods grabs cans out of the cupboards and pulls the eggs and butter out of the fridge. Like he does most days, he concocts a meal that would make even uber-homemaker Martha Stewart green with envy, all the while carrying on a rapid-fire monologue about the sorry state of affairs between men and women at the close of the millennium. Concentrating on slicing the onions for the home fries, he takes a moment to fire up a Montecristo No. 2. Nattily dressed in a pair of olive corduroy pants with a perfectly pressed Ralph Lauren shirt (yes, he even does his own ironing)--James Woods seems like the answer to every woman's dream. Why isn't this man married?

Then, as he discusses the contents of the morning's Los Angeles Times editorial page, he opens a can of whole potatoes for the home fries. Culinary Secrets of James Woods, Lesson One: Don't be afraid to use canned food. As he scrambles the eggs, he wonders whether onions and cheese would be a welcome addition. He sets the table with some wonderful old dishes, talks about playing golf through back pain during the previous week's Pebble Beach Open, and squeezes fresh orange juice, all while watching over six pots on the stove, each one at a critical point. And, of course, talking seven million miles a minute.

Everything about the brunch is perfection--right down to the crisply cooked bacon, gently wrapped in paper towels to soak up the excess grease. Culinary Secrets of James Woods, Lesson Two: Pay attention to details. Which brings us to the most important Culinary Secret of James Woods: Stay in control. Complete control. And yet make everything look easy. Effortless.

Perched on a bar stool amid the pots and the plates of food, Woods muses over the "bad boy" perception that just about everyone seems to have about him. "I don't get why people don't understand this about me. I'm like the nicest guy on earth. I wasn't that bad to begin with. I was just a little insecure. I was scary in movies, I wasn't scary in real life. I was kind of a minor, minor, minor league little troublemaker. I wasn't a big one like most of them.

"One of the reasons people think I'm tough is, when you're insecure, you kind of compensate by being a little hysterical. I'd kind of have little mini fits every once in a while. Little 'poo-poo head in the schoolyard' fits. Now I realize that nobody's interested. It doesn't work. It doesn't help me at all. So I decided to kind of shut up and be an adult. To be a little bit less of an asshole and a little bit more of a man. And given this moment right now, I'm glad I finally did something with it. I'm glad I stopped the bullshit that I wasted my time with for the past 20 years. And for the first time in my life, I think I'm really, really happy. I guess I'm finally sort of accepting things I can't control anymore."

A Zen philosopher once said that you can never step into the same river twice. Well, the same holds true with the Woods. Yet he is always engaging. Consistently enigmatic. Exasperating. Often brashly charismatic. He is a man who possesses the appealing combination of being seriously smart and dangerously funny. He is a gentleman of the highest order, tempered by just enough of the rogue to keep you constantly off balance. He is opinionated, strong willed and unafraid to stand behind what he says, or what he has done.

Sure, he has made mistakes, many of them publicly, and has paid a higher price than most--usually in the media. But he has learned from all of them. The product of a loving family, he yearns for the companionship of an as yet unnamed soul mate. And, at 50, his biological clock is ticking. Loudly.

What distinguishes James Woods in an overcrowded con-stellation of movie stars is a consummate talent: a rare set of gifts and skills combined with passion, a creative fearlessness and a determination to achieve his vision. This alchemizes into an unstoppable artistic force that must always be reckoned with, offscreen as well as on.

"Actors of Jimmy's intensity and brilliance produce in the public mind an image that spills over into real life," says Frank Pierson, director of Woods in HBO's Citizen Cohn. "People tend to watch them closely, hoping to see when they might slip over the edge and do something really bad. So if they see him coming first, they can cross over to the other side of the street. Truly, Woods walks upon life's stage with the same white heat with which he acts. And nobody who knows him can call him unopinionated."


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