James Spader has had quite an interesting career arc going from young, promising film actor in the 1980s to a re-born TV star in the mid 2000s. Lately, though, both his film and TV careers have slowed down somewhat after his sweeping success on “Boston Legal” for four seasons. Despite having a memorable and brief role on NBC’s “The Office” last year, his movie career went into a near freeze after appearing in sporadic and sometimes unmemorable films throughout the 2000s.
But there couldn’t have been a more inspired casting choice last year when Steven Spielberg assembled his cast for “Lincoln.” For James Spader, it must have been a thrill to be in a high-profile historical drama where his character has no known photograph for reference. In that regard, Spader arguably created one of film’s most memorable historical figures without having to be as serious as 19th century photographs would have us think.
The mystery is still there why lawyer and lobbyist William N. Bilbo has no surviving photograph, considering his role in making sure President Lincoln’s 13th Amendment got passed. It was still brilliant of Spader, though, to cover himself with a handlebar moustache and bushy hair for unrecognizability. As well, the flippancy of the Bilbo character made it appear as if Spader was acting in an entirely different movie.
In fact, it’s a shame Spader doesn’t make a movie based entirely around the Bilbo character when the lobbyist’s unknown background could open the floodgates to any type of plot. Even if not possible, Spader managed to do something different that reignited a spark in his acting career. After heading into cinematic sci-fi a decade ago, is it possible he can carve a niche as a comedic character actor in historical dramas?
That looks more likely when you see Spader’s reported next role in a Tommy Lee Jones historical drama. Set just 10 years before “Lincoln”, “The Homesman” has Spader joining a similarly starred cast and playing (surprise!) a swindler. Of course, that gives indication he’ll provide a bit of comedy once again, or perhaps in a way that makes his character sting even more.
Spader should ultimately be encouraged to carve his own little cinematic niche like the one above. Not many have the option of playing a comedic character in a grim-faced historical drama and stealing the show. However, with more historical dramas being made, his character acting status could eventually help propel him into his own starring movie vehicle.
Would Spader fit starring in a comedy set in an historical time period? He fits the subtle and smarmy characterizations that Robert Downey, Jr. masters, and we see how successful that’s been in the “Sherlock Holmes” franchise. If Spader were given a similar starring role, he’d run that all the way to an Oscar nomination.
It also wouldn’t hurt to use that Bilbo moustache yet again for pure character, no matter if it’s a movie set in the present day.