Few actors are as busy this year as Woody Harrelson. The former “Cheers” star is currently scheduled to release five films this year. The independent comedy “Wilson” landed with a thud earlier this year. However, Harrelson headlined the critically successful blockbuster “War of the Planet of the Apes,” which opened last month. Also upcoming for Harrelson are roles in “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” and “Shock and Awe.”
As was suggested earlier on this site, there may be a narrative building around Harrelson receiving an Oscar nomination for one of his roles this year. His best shot appears to be this week’s release, “The Glass Castle.” Based on Jeanette Walls‘ autobiography, the film deals with a young woman (Brie Larson) confronting her upbringing by an aloof Mother (Naomi Watts) and an alcoholic Father (Harrelson). In honor of his decades long career, let’s take a look at his ten best film performances
10. “North Country” as Bill White (2005)
There’s a dry, procedural nature to the equal rights focused coal miner drama “North Country.” Stars Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand elevate the musty material, but Harrelson also manages to turn in a strong, un-fussy performance. The role of a crusading lawyer usually takes a backseat to the more showy plaintiff roles. This same dynamic is present here. Harrelson’s Bill White battles his own demons as he takes on the case of abused female mine workers. However, he knows how to take a backseat and be a calming presence in the film. This highlights his strong courtroom work even more when his character is asked to step up. It’s a role we’ve seen before, but Harrelson manages to add new shades to a familiar trope.
9. “The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio” as Kelly Ryan (2005)
As the loud, chronically unemployed husband of contest guru Evelyn Ryan, Harrelson is handed a somewhat one-note role. However, much like his co-star Julianne Moore breathes an inner life into her leading role, Harrelson unearths dimensions to this character. Kelly moves from berating Evelyn to celebrating her joy at the drop of the hat. Most of the time, this depends on his character’s sobriety. Depicting both sides of the man at the center of this tempestuous relationship helps us further sketch out Evelyn’s autonomous journey to providing for her family. It’s a simple movie, but the performance helps elevate the work of the actors around him.
8. “No Country for Old Men” as Carson Wells (2007)
Obviously Javier Bardem won the lion’s share of raves for his Oscar winning villain Anton Chigurh in the Best Picture winning Coen Brothers film. However, as another member of the ensemble, Woody Harrelson proves he can excel within the Coen Brothers mode of filmmaking. His cocky bounty hunter, Carson Wells, adds a degree of levity to the increasingly tense film. While Chigurh roams about as a mysterious, yet ominous figure, Wells’ relationship with him gives us a window into the character’s mind and past. Harrelson works best in an ensemble, where his fellow actors raise his game and he asks the same of them.
7. “Natural Born Killers” as Mickey Knox (1994)
There’s a crazed sort of energy about Woody Harrelson as an actor. This willful abandon makes him the perfect person to portray Mickey Knox, one half of a murderous duo driven by the media. One is drawn in and repulsed simultaneously by Mickey’s charisma throughout all of his heinous acts. Harrelson also matches perfectly with Juliette Lewis, as Mickey’s lover and cohort, Mallory. The two up each other’s game at every turn. This elevates Oliver Stone’s audacious piece into a challenging and sinister gem of filmmaking. This is one way to announce to the world you are no longer Woody from “Cheers.”
6. “Zombieland” as Tallahassee (2009)
As a zombie killing recluse, there are so many ways Harrelson could’ve phoned in his performance in “Zombieland.” In fact, there are many ways the movie itself could’ve phoned it in. However, Harrelson delights in the gross-out, offbeat humor that surrounds Tallahassee. There’s a playful sense of glee in Harrelson’s performance as he tosses of profanity laden one liners. Perhaps the best moment happens when Tallahassee becomes starstruck upon meeting Bill Murray, in a legendary cameo. However, amidst all the fun and guts, Harrelson also manages to sell Tallahassee’s tragic family backstory. It’s a winning comedy performance that illustrates how he became famous in the first place.
5. “Seven Psychopaths” as Charlie (2012)
Speaking of comedy, Harrelson manages to combine his “Natural Born Killers” mania with his sharp comedic timing here. As Charlie, a gangster with an insatiable love for his dog, Harrelson finds the absurdist comedy lying within this character’s tragedy. He utilizes his sociopathic arsenal of violence to reunite himself with his prized shih tzu. Writer/director Martin McDonagh has carved out a filmmaking niche for himself, mostly due to his rat-a-tat-tat peppered dialogue drenched in violence and profanity. His storytelling sensibilities pair well with Harrelson’s commitment. This fusion produces a wild, hilarious and, in a way, unsettlingly crazy performance that deserves more praise.
4. “Rampart” as David Douglas Brown (2011)
Harrelson’s fierce commitment shines in this brutal character study of a complicated, brazen cop. Filled with many morally compromising moments, Harrelson never shies away from the grit present within the character of David Douglas Brown. However, the most powerful character moments involve David’s interactions with his family. In particular, this includes a pre-fame Brie Larson as Barbara, one of David’s daughters. The movie came and went with nary a peep. However, this was a shame, as it is a small, dynamic gem that people should seek out if they have the opportunity.
3. “White Men Can’t Jump” as Billy Hoyle (1992)
“White Men Can’t Jump” remains one of the most effortlessly joyful comedies of the 90s. The film owes much of that success to Harrelson’s loose, yet deft, central performance. As hustler Billy Hoyle, Harrelson navigates potentially tricky racial boundaries to craft a winning con artist buddy comedy. Having been on “Cheers” for seven years at this point (he would do eight by the end of the series), Harrelson’s role in “White Men Can’t Jump” served as the catalyst that jump started his film career. The best moments of the film explore the interactions between Billy and his fast-talking, whip-smart wife (Rosie Perez). One through line through this article is how Harrelson as a screen partner works to make others on screen even better.
2. “The Messenger” as Captain Tony Stone (2009)
Few films are as melancholic as “The Messenger.” As a soldier tasked with informing families their loved ones have died in battle, Captain Tony Stone deals with grief on a daily basis. As he leads a new trainee through the horrifying daily duties, we see the emotional callus on the gruff, no nonsense soldier. The film pries past this hard surface to reveal the bruised, tattered heart beating underneath. Harrelson received the second, and final so far, Oscar nomination of his career for this performance. He lost the Supporting Actor prize to Christoph Waltz’s juggernaut performance in “Inglorious Basterds.” However, Harrelson’s introspective and transformative work here remains a bright spot of the category.
1. “The People vs. Larry Flynt” as Larry Flynt (1996)
Woody Harrelson was made to play Larry Flynt. The role combines all of his talents – charisma, comedy, tragic loss, indignation and grandstanding. Harrelson more than deserved his first Oscar nomination, his only for lead actor, in the role of pornographer extraordinaire, Larry Flynt. We watch Larry move from horny, eccentric entrepreneur to free speech champion. Harrelson does more than just have tremendous, infectious fun with the role. He sells the importance of Flynt’s plight. Despite being a flawed, profane figure, he crusades for an essential right to free speech. In lesser hands, the performance could have been hammy or odious. However, Harrelson drills down to the humanity that makes Flynt such a relatable and intoxicatingly interesting figure.