Mission Accomplished: James Woods as Lester Diamond in Casino (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1995)
“A friend once told me, “People who live in bad neighborhoods love James Woods.” – Gavin Smith writing in Film Comment
Casino, Martin Scorsese’s 1995 Las Vegas opus, recounts the rise and fall of Ace Rothstein (Robert Deniro). It’s the story of a former bookie sent by the Italian mob to manage a casino in Vegas. The film follows Ace through the heady success of his early years to the chaotic betrayals of his final days. Watching the film is kind of like being struck by a bolt of lighting while reclined in a bathtub full of neon ice cubes. The camera whips and swings across roulette tables and pastel cars. The shots are held together by frantic editing and wall-to-wall pop music. It’s a mix of the extreme excess of Wolf of Wall Street with the tough guy routine of Goodfellas. You know, money and sex in one room while in the other room somebody’s hand is getting smashed with a hammer.
Sharon Stone contributes an incredible performance as Ginger Mckeena, a prostitute whom Ace eventually marries. And Joe Pesci barrels his way through every scene as Nicky Santurp, a gangster from the east. Yet, for all it’s memorable characters (even Don Rickles as Ace’s silent toady) and scenes (Pesci helping his wife shake out a cache of diamonds hidden in her weave), there’s one character who transcends. One character with the shiniest silk bathrobe. One character with the dangliest gold necklace. One character with the gall to counsel Ginger over the phone on her wedding night while simultaneously doing blow beside a stripper. I’m of course referring to Lester Diamond (James Woods), Ginger’s former pimp. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Maybe fifteen minutes tops. But oh boy, when Lester Diamond appears before us, Casino reaches its sleazy apex.
James Woods has made a successful career of smaller, usually villainous roles in films like Videodrome, Ghosts of Missisippi, and Once Upon a Time in America. And because he’s often relegated to “character” acting, I forgot just how long this dude has been around. If you roll over to his imdb page you’ll see that he’s been everywhere. Doing everything from prestige Oliver Stone films like Nixon and Salavador (for which he was nominated for best actor) all the way to TV schlock like Rudy:The Rudy Gulliani Story. The latter is an essential film for anyone who values bloated scope and on-the-nose dialog like: “It’s not astrophysics. It’s called The Law. And the law is about to become a stark, concrete reality for those who would break it. This is New York City. I love this city! This is the greatest city in the world, and I am going to make it safe for people to live in again, so help me God, and each and every one of you is going to help me.”
Anyway, Casino is one of the truly bright spots in Woods extended ouevre. His character, Lester Diamond, is a two bit hustler who shows up every once in a while to guilt Ginger into giving him some money. Not only does James Woods have the perfect look for the role, a long and pock marked face, hair swooped to one side, and a mustache that’s fussy and thick. Woods also does a masterful job fleshing out the internal emotions of a character that could easily be dismissed as filler.
Take for instance Lester’s most important scene. He and Ginger have met in one of those strawberry shortcake diners right outside the city. Ginger is meeting Lester so she can give him a wad of cash. Suddenly Ace walks through the door. Ginger almost immediately goes to pieces. But the way Woods plays this scene is extremely telling of his character’s naive cockiness. He doesn’t shiver in his seat or cower when Ace eases down beside the two of them. Even when Lester shakes Ace’s hand, he does so with a kind of “lets get this over with” demeanor. The smirk. The downcast face and upturned eyes. Ginger is petrified while Lester is bemused. Only when Lester notices the bruisers at the every exit does he suddenly realize the seriousness of his situation. We begin to understand that this is a guy who’s achieved his limited “power” by choosing those he exploits very carefully. He’s never been confronted with scary power, real ruthlessness. He’s a jackal suddenly caught in a lion cage. That’s why, even though he’s despicable in every way, you can’t help but feel a little bad when one scene later Lester gets pulverized in the parking lot.
Woods plays Lester like a child trapped in a pimp’s body. This becomes abundantly clear when Lester interacts with an actual child. Much later in the film Ginger has gone off the rails and kidnapped Ace’s daughter. She and Lester are in California with the kid. Lester has just gotten off the phone with Ace. Ace has threatened to kill Lester if he doesn’t bring his daughter back. Unlike in the diner, Lester is scared this time. Lester hangs up the phone and starts yelling at Giner that they need to leave immediately. The daughter, sitting on the couch next to Ginger, starts making funny faces at Lester. Lester is trying escape before Ace’s goons show up to pulpify his face and yet this little girl is taunting Lester with her tongue out. Lester loses it, belting profanities and making all kinds of threats. But the kid doesn’t care. She thinks it’s a game. And it IS. All these people are children. Again, Lester assumes he has more power than he actually does. And because of what Woods brings to the role you kind of feel bad for the guy.
Hell, even his name, Lester Diamond, is a childish juxtaposition of high and low, the polished and the smudgy, the cool and the lame. Lester is the dweebiest of anglo-saxon first names. It’s top five on the pocket protector scale, maybe behind Dwight or Ernest. Then you have Diamond, the most expensive stone in the world. The epitome of a genteel, 60s version of refinement and taste. These two names come together to make: Lester Diamond. Here’s a guy who wants to badly to have the class and awe-inspiring maturity of a diamond, but ends up looking and living like a Lester. He’s a pre-kardashian. He believes, like so many c-listers and Russian club goers, that ritz equals taste. That wealth should be seen. That power is in the cut of the cloth, or in his case the color of the epilets. But the wealthiest guy, the most powerful one in the room, is never the one trying to impress. All of Scorsese’s characters suffer from this to some degree. They all try to project power through clothing and material but it’s Lester who does so without the slightest glimmer of grace.
– Soooo James Woods is apparently a die hard conservative…and knows how to use twitter. Eh, makes sense I guess.