Our memory of Kevin (reprobate) Spacey’s career deserves better. Not the person, but the career.
When Louis C.K.’s career ended because of accusations of sordid behavior, several major writers rushed to memorialize him – hurried to tell us what Louis C.K. meant. Caveats and qualifiers were in full effect, but there was a heartfelt sincerity to the Louis C.K. requiems.
Kevin (asshole) Spacey’s career ended the week before C.K.’s because of some other accusations of sordid behavior. Why hasn’t Spacey’s career received anything like these half-sympathetic elegies of C.K.’s career in places like Slate, Vulture, Variety, The New York Times, and The Washington Post?
Maybe it’s because the charges against Kevin (douchebag) Spacey were so much worse (and seem to be getting worse by the day). Maybe it’s because writers had heartily championed C.K. in the last five years, and rushed to leaven their prior praise with now-proper opprobrium. Maybe it’s because the writers’ editors had assigned them to review I Love You Daddy and they could no longer offer a boilerplate review. (Maybe when or if Spacey’s next movie comes out, the critics will have more to say.) Maybe C.K. was simply a better artist, a greater innovator, the David Bowie of his chosen art form.
Maybe (walking horror) Spacey is considered more of a hired hand, while C.K. is more of an auteur, with his production company’s shows all over the cable landscape. I contest that one: if not for Spacey and his willingness to take “House of Cards” to Netflix, the most ground-breaking production house of the last five years might never have broken ground. Be that as it may, I believe there’s an unspoken reason for the C.K. memorials compared to the Spacey ignorials: for some, a loved comic feels like a more intimate friend than a loved actor. But: not for me, and I doubt I’m alone.
Consider the unexpected mid-career deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman: did you read any of the online tributes? And I’m not talking about the pro forma obituaries, but the longer “here’s what he meant” encomiums. I ate them up like potato chips. It was part of my grieving process. Spacey’s career is as dead as Williams’ and Hoffman’s, but advertiser-supported sites aren’t allowed to mourn that career because of the absolutely, 100%, no-doubt reprehensible things he did. On some level, the end of his onscreen presence isn’t about him; it’s about US. We have experienced a LOSS. You have heard that funerals are for the living, right?
I never met Spacey; this isn’t one of those journalist post-scripts that includes “he was so nice to me when we met.” I’m just like you, a film fan. And as a film fan, I feel betrayed by Spacey but also caught up short. I feel we need to process this loss somewhere. The following reckoning, then, in no way disrespects Spacey’s victims; if anything it might actually assist their process as part of understanding what drew them, and us, to this sick degenerate in the first place. This is all processing, here, and that includes trying to understand what his films now mean now that we know who he was/is. I might add here that I’m hardly a Spacey “stan”; for example, until researching this piece, I never knew that his real surname is Fowler. (Appropriate, because he’s fouler than chicken shit.)
One more time for the cheap seats: Kevin (pervert) Spacey does not deserve one iota of our fawning or forgiveness. But his star image and decades-long career meant something to us, and recent revelations don’t flush that meaning down a memory hole. What you’re about to read is less about him and more about how he made us feel – then and now. Still think this is problematic? Re-read last year’s major-media tributes to Prince. (Prince was born a year before Spacey, so they were the same age when their careers died; by the by, Prince would not have looked like a saint in the current post-Harvey environment.) The most re-tweeted Prince pieces are so…personal, right? They’re much less He Influenced These Hall of Famers and much more This Is How I Felt When I Saw and Heard Him.
Our collective memory of the stardom/talent of Kevin (shithead) Spacey deserves such a piece. And since no one else (that I know of) has written one, please, allow me.
(MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD)
Before the A.M.
Apparently, I had already seen Spacey, however briefly, in Heartburn (1986), Working Girl (1988), and Henry & June (1990), but the first time I put his face with his name was during an autumn evening in 1992 in Washington D.C.’s West End Theaters. Capital City cineastes know the sizes of those boxes, and my living room-sized-room watching Glengarry Glen Ross was hardly full. From the turnout, you’d never have guessed that corporate ballbusters would spend the next quarter-century showing this movie to their younger sales staff.
After Pacino, Lemmon, Baldwin, Harris, Pryce, and Arkin, Spacey was, well, the other guy. It felt like his name was on the right side of the poster only because, as the seventh and final member of the cast, it would have been vaguely insulting to leave him off. As in the movies where I’d already seen him, or more correctly, hadn’t really seen him, Spacey blended seamlessly into the background. As Glengarry goes on, his “normalcy” and even his age irks, because he represents the stifling corporation against our beloved, more seasoned actors. The Hollywood Reporter called his work “coldhearted” and from “barnstorming melodrama,” but he’s more: as John in Glengarry, Spacey is every thirtysomething middle-manager you ever knew who was sick of you pretending you’re some delicate genius. Even amongst a murderers’ row of acting talent, Spacey was already making a virtue of his quotidian appearance to come off as unexpectedly ruthless.
And now that we know him, here in late 2017, we wonder how often his “everyman” persona was used to catch people with their guard down – off screen.
My only other pre-1995 Spacey sighting was at the California Theater in Berkeley in March 1994 for a film called The Ref, kind of a 90s-flavored Dog Day Afternoon meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where thief on the run Denis Leary holds guns to the heads of a married couple that already want each other’s heads. Also, it’s Christmas Eve. Spacey plays the put-upon resentful man so well you almost forget it’s a performance; unlike Michael Douglas in the previous March’s Falling Down or Richard Burton in Woolf, Spacey (with less of a star persona) simply seems to be that emasculated mascu-lash-out. The film isn’t perfect, and Spacey is somewhat overshadowed by both Leary and Judy Davis as his wife, but that only serves to underline his persona up to this point: the establishment normcore jerk who can’t wait to prove that you don’t know better than him.
Watching that clip here in 2017, I’m sensing some unfake-able hostility toward young people here, and wondering how that played out when the cameras stopped.
Anyway “persona” is an over-statement, because up to that point nobody really knew Spacey. If he’d died in 1994, he might not have merited an obituary in Entertainment Weekly. It was 1995 that became his annus mirabilis.
Seven Shark Suspects
1995 was a strange time to be alive in America. Apple-pie-American-looking Timothy McVeigh blew up a building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. The summer was dominated by two events: the Unabomber terrorizing America with letters and threats, and the double-murder trial of wealthy celebrity O.J. “I’m not black. I’m O.J.!” Simpson. Americans were becoming more familiar with the devil in their midst, the one they hadn’t expected. By the time Unabomber masks saturated Halloween, the time was right for ordinary to be dangerous and dangerous to be ordinary; the time was right for Kevin Spacey.
I didn’t see Swimming With Sharks during the few weeks in May that it was out, and I dare you to find me one of the 743 people who did (this number was exaggerated for humor). So start with the late summer release of The Usual Suspects, currently #26 on imdb users’ Top 500 list. In many ways, director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie combined the best of what was going on at the time: Elmore Leonard, neo-noir, Indiewood, Tarantino, crime, pulp whodunnits, twist endings…but what none of the other filmmakers had was Kevin Spacey as Verbal.
The first time I saw it, I absolutely believed that this was a supine weasel, because of lines “How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?” This impression was only furthered by his ten-cent philosophizing like, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof…he’s gone.” Any time an actor can convince you of one “greatest trick” while actually pulling off another “greatest trick”…well, that’s the last time he convinces you he doesn’t matter. You’ll never again believe he’s a half-wit cripple who’s in way over his head. I will never forget the many genuine gasps in that movie theater as Spacey/Verbal’s feet straightened out on the sidewalk. You knew, at that point, that you were dealing with an actor at a Dustin Hoffman-esque level of deceptive ingenuity. Because The Usual Suspects is more or less a caper with a thin layer of supernatural speculation, Spacey’s virtuosity almost becomes the meaning of the film.
As Keyser Soze, Spacey proved a rare agility with masks. We all have to reckon with how much we enjoyed his use of masks for the next two decades, to the point of not seeing what we might have.
Perhaps oddly, in his next film, Seven, currently #22 on imdb users’ Top 500 list, Spacey didn’t do much in the way of deception (except for a bit of mendacity about his “final sin”). Instead, after 90 minutes of relentless confusion and rain, Spacey’s John Doe arrives like a freight train of exposition and demented zeal. The rain stays off screen when Spacey is on, as though his statements are a shining truth, no matter what Mills (Brad Pitt) thinks of them. Not every actor, shorn of his/her hair and placed in the back of a cop car, could hold his own against an agitated Brad Pitt and a calm Morgan Freeman (as Somerset); Spacey does more than that.
I have a theory about a reason for the enduring popularity of director David Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker’s Seven: since 9/11, as a country, we keep replaying the moment when Somerset tries to stop Mills from breaking down John Doe’s door: “if you do this, John Doe wins.” But Mills does it anyway, just as we put people in Guantanamo anyway, just as we throw away all our moral capital anyway, because we have come to see our enemies as fanatical John Does who must be obliterated and humiliated with all our powers, even when they correctly say, “I’ve never been particularly special.” People weren’t wrong to compare Seven’s antagonist to Hannibal Lecter (clearly Seven wouldn’t have been made without The Silence of the Lambs having been a blockbuster), but Lecter never seemed ordinary; Spacey shows us the danger is ourselves. We sense that Mills and the system (dozens of cop cars) have over-reacted to this hokey sin-branding serial killer, and indeed Spacey’s smirk at our/Mills’ righteousness will be echoed by thousands of internet trolls who goad targets into behaving too sincerely. Spacey’s performance makes the movie’s meanings linger.
It turns out that Spacey IS a good example of the rot at the heart of society. It just took us a while to learn the real reason why.
For film fans in the winter of 1995-96, reeling from The Usual Suspects and Seven, the newly minted videocassette (yes, for VCRs) of Swimming With Sharks became something of a must-watch, like Reservoir Dogs three years before. Here Spacey combined his tied-up hostage from The Ref, and his middle-manager’s slow-burn against a room of dinosaurs in Glengarry, into a hard-burn demolition of Generation X’s complaints about bullying bosses and what Douglas Copeland had just christened “McJobs.” As Buddy Ackerman, there’s not a piece of the scenery that Spacey doesn’t chew on, and the whole thing is as delicious as lemon slices (uh, before you put the slices on paper cuts). Interestingly, this was the first time I (and most other film fans) had really seen him exude vulnerability (distinct from the softness revealed to be duplicity in The Usual Suspects). He would barely do it ever again, a restraint that both made and unmade his eventual career.
When Spacey won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, sure, it was fair play for The Usual Suspects, but Spacey had built his Oscar head of steam because of many other organizations who expressly award for two or three of the year’s films. His annus mirabilis was rewarded with what he called onstage “the pudding,” and Hollywood suddenly had a new star.
The Warner Bros. Years
The bad news for Spacey was that he became a star at the wrong time – not in the 1970s, when offbeat scenery-chewers like his Glengarry castmates Pacino and Arkin often became A-listers, but in the 1990s, when the biggest younger stars scanned as less psychotic and more hunky-attractive while vulnerable: Cruise, Costner, Washington, Pitt, Clooney, and (if you squint) Hanks. The good news for Spacey was that by 1996, an entire ecosystem existed for non-model, white-male, strong character actors to thrive in independent films, people like John Goodman, John Turturro, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi (let’s face it: Coen Brothers actors). The bad news for Spacey was that he didn’t want to be part of that ecosystem, to be like Harvey Keitel (the king of 90s indies!) and do it for the art; he wanted to be like his mentor (also a Glengarry castmate) Jack Lemmon, and rise to the top of the studio A-list because of talent that outshone average-ish looks.
How many people did he hurt on the way to this goal? We don’t know.
For that reason, then, a crucial film from Spacey’s annus mirabilis turned out to be Outbreak, an otherwise unremarkable intended blockbuster in which Spacey delivers an otherwise unremarkable performance as a concerned doctor/scientist. Outbreak, a movie about an African virus killing an American town, was Wolfgang Petersen’s follow up to In the Line of Fire (1993), a terrific drama in action movie clothes that John Malkovich really should have won Best Supporting Actor for. One likes to think that performance under that director was part of what drew Dustin Hoffman to the sort of thinking-action-lead-role he’d ruled out ten years before. Anyway, Hoffman and Spacey being miscast are just two of the reasons the film wasn’t a bigger hit. Based on his later work, however, Spacey was right where he wanted to be, on the Warners lot. He’d used Indiewood to prove his leading-man chops with Swimming With Sharks and wouldn’t be going back; instead, Bogart-style, he’d work his way up the Warner Bros. ladder.
Spacey’s next two movies with Warners were both based on best-selling books, and in them he played oily, duplicitous Southerners, prefacing the work he’d do later on “House of Cards.” At one point, John Grisham’s novel “A Time to Kill” was considered unfilmable because of its opening scene of a 10-year-old being raped, but after three other Grisham adaptations made $100m each, and after the aforementioned spring-summer of McVeigh, Kaczynski, and Simpson, America was judged ready for homespun violence. Once again, enter Spacey. As the suave, seen-it-all district attorney in Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill, Spacey’s work is basically unimpeachable. His agent’s issue was probably that his face wasn’t on the poster and he couldn’t even get an “AND Kevin Spacey” after Samuel L. Jackson and breakout star Austin residents Bullock and McConaughey.
Doing Warner Bros’ John Grisham adaptation may have been an extended audition for Warner Bros’ John Berendt adaptation. Berendt’s non-fiction-ish book had been on the New York Times bestseller list for even longer than Grisham’s (is that possible?), in fact more than four years. Spacey was climbing the ladder, working his way up the big-budget director A-list from Peterson to Fincher to Schumacher to…Clint Eastwood. For the first time, Spacey starred as one of two leads in a major-studio production, the other lead being John Cusack, who was trying anything and everything to rebrand himself out of his teenage John Hughes persona. In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, based on Berendt’s reporting of real incidents, Spacey plays the heck out of Jim Williams, a self-made art collector/antiques dealer/closeted homosexual who may or may not be a murderer. Spacey keeps you guessing right up until the film ends with Williams congratulating his lawyer on securing the acquittal…and dying of a heart attack. Though Williams finds himself in a brief abstract purgatory with the man he may have killed, Eastwood’s heart isn’t in that sort of fantasia, and so Spacey as Williams doesn’t get any true character comeuppance, a moment when he says anything like “I thought I knew everything, now I know I was wrong.” Such a moment might have improved the movie, but could Spacey have delivered it? After playing Buddy Ackerman in Swimming With Sharks, Spacey didn’t really do comeuppances; he’s far better at making you wonder if he’s a sociopath.
You can’t sit here in 2017 and say we should have known about his offscreen predatory behavior. Lots of people play creeps. Anthony Hopkins, who played Hannibal Lecter, may be a perfectly wonderful man. But…looking back, maybe the point is that Spacey wasn’t quite as strong an actor as we guessed. Perhaps he projected a trace of menace because he truly bore more than a trace; perhaps that’s why he rarely played men who eventually got called on it. If that’s true, then real film fans have to admit that on some level we enabled that menace, because, carefully deployed, we often find it charming. Watching Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it’s easy to see why Cusack as the reporter/audience proxy is too seduced by Williams’ charms to really solve his case, but…it’s also easy to see why the movie wasn’t a hit. The novel’s hothouse real-life-but-not-really whodunit seemed to die on screen; questions of “good and evil” were better explored in The Usual Suspects.
Turned out Spacey didn’t have to sweat that, because by the time Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil wilted at the box office, Warners had already released the sturdy oak that L.A. Confidential became. For the first time, Spacey’s name was very visibly first on a major studio’s poster, a poster that, unlike Midnight‘s, clearly showed Spacey’s face (even if it was a little more interested in Kim Basinger and her cleavage). While it’s true that Spacey, as corrupt 50s L.A.P.D. detective Jack Vincennes, cedes the film to up-and-coming stars, Spacey plays it like he’s the reason you came, wearing his role like his eggshell-white blazer, striding in and out of rooms with a breezy equanimity missing from other roles. Spacey probably genuinely felt at home in the 1950s (from whence Lemmon and uh, Bobby Darin had come – more on Darin later), doing neo-noir, and on the Warners lot. His patience with the studio, like Bogart’s more than a half-century before, had paid off. And his potent talent remained sufficient to provoke empathy: when James Cromwell turns and shoots Vincennes/Spacey, you the viewer feel like you have just been shot. Watch:
Credit to director/writer Curtis Hanson, but credit also to Spacey for playing Vincennes as someone worth relating to, unlike the way he’d played many previous roles.
When Billy Crystal opened the Oscar broadcast by saying “L.A. Confidential, you might be the iceberg tonight,” Crystal meant that the film would have been favored to win Best Picture if not for a tiny indie called Titanic. Nevertheless, L.A. Confidential was a fine career move for Spacey, a many-laureled prestige hit that everyone saw…and when they saw it, they noticed that his first-billed role was actually supporting. Back to his particular first-world problem: studio supporting-actor champ or indie lead? Spacey needed Warners, or another big studio, to cast him as the lead and put him on the poster, stat.
The best Warners could offer was The Negotiator (1998), where Spacey shared the poster with his A Time to Kill castmate Sam Jackson, and…was second-billed to him again. It was actually another negotiation for lead status for both men. And the premise was reasonable enough, a smartly written two-hander about dueling hostage negotiators forced to become enemies. But it never really caught fire, on screen or at the box office. Certainly Spacey never lets down his guard, unlike the Jackson role. It was the first time since Outbreak that a Spacey role didn’t feel like it needed to be played by Spacey; someone like Willem Dafoe or Jimmy Smits could have done as much with it. And that’s one thing we have to reckon with here in 2017, when we ask about women who left the business because of Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK: if we had learned of Spacey’s proclivities sooner, what other great actor(s) may have emerged? The what-ifs will always bug me.
In 1997, Spacey couldn’t buy a stand-alone lead role on a real budget from Warner Bros. or any other studio. He still wasn’t Jack Lemmon. Out there in real America, they wanted more movies starring Cruise and Hanks and Travolta. Making things worse, Spacey’s persona was becoming attached to the crime genre; was he ever going to make a popular movie where people didn’t solve problems with guns? Was he ever going to play a dad, or someone with a dad or mom, or someone with more to lose than being right all the time?
What could Spacey do to break through? In January 1997 he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” proved his remarkable gift for mimicry (especially in the “Star Wars” audition segment), and left people wondering why he never did more comedy. In October 1997, he appeared on the cover of Esquire with the headline “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret.” Coming scant months after Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay,” moving America toward more acceptance of homosexuality, Spacey’s cover was…more progress? (There was no way to know that Spacey would wait 20 years to really come out, and in the worst way possible.) A step backward? A coy reference to his closeted, secretive character in (the newly released) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, reinforced by everyone’s memory of his secretive façade as Verbal/Soze in The Usual Suspects?
Magazine covers are supposed to be pre-requisites to the A-list; did this Esquire cover knock Spacey off the A-list? Was Spacey’s rumored homosexuality holding him back from roles? What to make of the conventional wisdom of the time, that mainstream audiences wouldn’t pay to watch a gay man play a straight man kissing a woman? (What to make of Spacey’s insistence on bringing his mother with him to award shows?) Did Spacey become something of a cult hero for the LGBT community, or for anyone rooting for a disenfranchised group, for misfits who aren’t supposed to be leads? This is part of why star personas are complicated: they mean far more to the fans than the actor behind them could possibly have intended. Spacey may have been a pile of snakeshit in real life, but as an actor in movies, we had reasons to root for his success, reason to hope that his talent could make him the next Jack Lemmon.
The Negotiator succeeded in negotiating a new standard for Spacey: a seven-figure salary. And since Warner Bros. failed to negotiate more leads, Spacey started putting his “ask” (price) outside the Warners lot. He took a million-dollar role that he could have done in his sleep, and probably did do in sweat pants in about four days, as the bad-bug Hopper in A Bug’s Life (1998) for Pixar before Pixar was OH MY GOD PIXAR. It took Spacey about twice as long to do Hurly-Burly (1998) for the same fee, this time starring alongside Sean Penn and an accomplished cast. The finished product wasn’t bad, but too inside-baseball regarding Hollywood to get audiences to care. But hey, at least he was diversifying: no one held a gun in either A Bug’s Life or Hurly-Burly.
If we get to a point where every TV network stops showing any film with Spacey’s face, I suspect A Bug’s Life will remain on Disney’s (new) streaming service. Because you don’t see his face, and because, well, he’s playing a heinous insect anyway. But it’s worth sticking a pin in this, because it suggests that none of us are absolutists about separating, or not separating, the art from the artist.
What’s odd about Spacey is that after he became established, he rarely tried to work with great artists. I suspect that if Spacey had been willing to lower his fee, he could have worked for just about any great indie director of the 1990s – say, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, an Anderson, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Jane Campion, that sort of thing. But Spacey wanted to be Lemmon, and would any of those artists get him there if he committed months to them?
The theatery hurly-burly of Hurly-Burly reminded Spacey: if no studio would cast him as a lead, any stage director would. Let’s see, what English-language role has the most lines this side of a one-person show or Shakespeare…how about the four-hour “The Iceman Cometh”? Gracing a British stage turned out to be smart, because it reminded people that Spacey could be a terrific lead actor. The New York Times called him “breathtaking,” and added, “Kevin Spacey is now giving the finest, most fiendishly mesmerizing performance of the Broadway season to date.”
In retrospect it felt like Spacey was born to play Hickey, Eugene O’Neill’s anti-hero who returns, after years away, to his dive-bar hangout to warn his old friends about living for pipe dreams that will never come true. Eventually, he admits to killing his wife to free her from her attachments to both him and pipe dreams. That’s when he breaks down and admits that people need pipe dreams to exist; now that he accepts the absurdity of life, he begs for the death sentence, but his friends decide to testify to his insanity at his trial.
In many ways, Hickey is Spacey as we now know him, the pedantic intellectual asshole who has hidden a terrible crime that his friends rushed to cover. I find it interesting that this play, often considered one of the five best written by any American, has never been adapted into a proper cinematic movie (outside of TV), starring Spacey or anyone else. It’s not just that it’s entirely set in a dingy bar (Glengarry, of course, is set entirely in a dingy real-estate office), but that Hickey’s resolution isn’t really much of a resolution at all, less of a problem for stage audiences who expect a play to merely examine weighty ideas without necessarily having to care about eventual catharsis.
Variety saw “The Iceman Cometh” and raved: “But Spacey is the self-evident draw here, and his achingly compassionate, yet merciless, Hickey offers the kind of occasion from which hallowed theatrical memories are made. His achievement is that much greater when one considers how deft and light on its feet it seems within a play that could in no way be described as either.” Take that, Warner Bros. Take that, the other studios (namely Fox, Sony, Disney, Paramount, and Universal). Take that but…they still weren’t taking on Spacey as a lead. On some intuitive level, studio executives may have known that a star has to play hubris and eventually be humiliated. (You don’t have to be a great actor, just a different one from Spacey; think of how effectively Tom Cruise plays humiliated just before Renee Zellweger finally says “You had me at hello.”) “The Iceman Cometh” didn’t prove that Spacey could really be a movie star, yet. What would?
Finally, for the first time since he was a near-unknown making Swimming with Sharks, Spacey took on an indie-film project that would clearly take a lot more than a week of his time. Still, Spacey did it his way: lead billing, biggest part, $1 million fee out of the film’s $15m budget, a liminal studio (DreamWorks, not Warners but not October Films either) and a stage-legend first-time film director that Spacey could presumably push around. If it had failed, and considering the risqué subject matter it might well have failed, Spacey wouldn’t have had too many more chances to grab that leading-man brass ring.
It didn’t fail. Even in 1999, the year of so many Hollywood-changing films (The Matrix, Fight Club, Star Wars Episode I, The Blair Witch Project, and The Sixth Sense are some of them), American Beauty stood out. At the time, director Sam Mendes’ and writer Alan Ball’s American Beauty felt like a witty comment on so many American problems: the President seducing a young female intern, homophobia, alienated boys e.g. Columbine, sexualized girls e.g. Britney Spears, and mostly consumerist suburban malaise. Ten years after “winning the Cold War,” America was having a bit of a mid-life crisis, and if you squinted just right, this movie somehow illuminated that crisis by making you appreciate the sublime wonder of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. (Yeah, doesn’t sound right, does it?)
Unlike any other $15m dramedy that centralized masturbation and pedophilia, American Beauty earned more than $100 million at the North American box office. I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who said that suburban rot was better explored in The Ice Storm (1997), Happiness (1998), or Election (1999), but one thing those films were missing were a go-for-broke lead performance like Spacey’s. To wit:
“Although it’s difficult to believe that humor can be found in this toxic portrait of superficial suburban values, predatory sexuality and domestic violence, rest assured it earns its laughs at every turn, thanks in large part to a remarkably nuanced performance by Kevin Spacey.”
“Kevin Spacey gives the performance of his life as Lester Burnham, a 42-year-old disaster with a dull job writing pretentious advertising copy for a media magazine, who is festering from a lack of affection.”
“Spacey makes Lester seem so real and natural that it is easy to overlook just how great this performance is, but if you look closely you will see a brilliant artist at work.”
“Kevin Spacey is the greatest actor of his generation, hands down, no contest. In fact, the first time I saw American Beauty I was so blown away by his portrayal of Lester that I never even noticed the great performances being given by the other actors in this film.”
Lester Burnham was almost too perfect for Spacey, because he got to keep lecturing (the film ends with him narrating “You don’t know what I’m talking about, but someday you will”), and he didn’t have to have a “what have I done? I stink” moment. (When Angela asked Lester near the end, “What do you want?” and he said “I want you” I thought really? He hasn’t evolved? But hey, that’s Spacey.) Somehow the lack of the comeuppance worked because it was paired with his untimely death (as in Seven, Midnight and the Garden of Good and Evil, and L.A. Confidential). No doubt Spacey appreciated the Sunset Boulevard-like framing device, no doubt he liked stretching out his character from The Ref, but he must have also been pleased that America was finally seeing him as a heterosexual parent. He was probably pleased to play the worst kind! At one point Spacey as Lester says, “The car I’ve always wanted, and now I have it: I rule!” When he raised his fist in sincere irony (yes, I said sincere irony) my theater cracked up laughing. I believe they were laughing partly because star persona, actor, role, and script had converged: Spacey had what he wanted, ostensibly because of quitting his old gig.
Of course, now that we know what we know, it’s hard not to be particularly revolted at the pederasty plot in American Beauty, as well as the scene where he threatens his boss with a made up sexual-harassment charge. “You’re a sick fuck,” the boss says, and Spacey/Burnham replies, “No, I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.” The emergence of victims doesn’t change the fact that he was our ordinary guy, standing up for his right to be alienated. That is what his star image meant; that is why we now feel betrayed. We didn’t know how sick it was for Spacey to be threatening someone else with a false claim of sexual harassment; now that we know, it can change what it means, but not what it meant.
Instead of puking in retrospect, we should remind ourselves how far we’ve come (or haven’t) since those Clinton/Columbine/Britney/LGBT-unfriendly days of 1999. Most Oscars for Best Picture go to period pieces; when Best Picture is something current, AMPAS is saying it smartly reflected its times, and at the time most people agreed. There was probably an extra kick in thinking Spacey might be gay and that he was “allowed” to kiss women in movies; before Neil Patrick Harris on “How I Met Your Mother,” this was basically unheard-of.
As the film won Best Picture, as Spacey thanked Jack Lemmon while winning his second Oscar in four years, this one for Lead Actor, you knew he did, as he’d said, “rule.” He’d achieved full Lemmon. He was A-list because of talent that transcended his hair and teeth. And that’s always a little bit of a victory not just for anyone in the closet, but for all us underdogs, all fans of the Duvalls and Hoffmans and other, not to put too fine a point on it, lead character actors.
Of Oscars and O-fers
Where to go from there? On Spacey’s victory-lap appearance on “Inside the Actors Studio,” he brought back his tremendous gift for mimicry; if Spacey really wanted to be Lemmon, why not make something funny like Some Like it Hot or The Apartment? Instead, after shooting American Beauty, before its release, Spacey picked up his then-standard $1m fee to star in a $7m offbeat comedy called The Big Kahuna, basically Glengarry Glen Ross with half the cast, half the insight, and less than half the potency. Despite LionsGate wisely timing its release one month after the American Beauty-ful Oscars, The Big Kahuna died at the box office in a way that no film then starring Hanks, Cruise, or Gibson ever did. Another indie from the same period, for which he was paid his usual seven figures, called Ordinary Decent Criminal, didn’t even get a theatrical release in the USA.
In retrospect, “Ordinary Decent Criminal” might be the perfect words to describe the Spacey persona, and maybe that shines a light on the current feeling of betrayal: he was supposed to stand for us ordinary guys, not assault us and cover it up. Now let me tell you about another possibility: before we felt betrayed by Spacey, he may have felt betrayed by us. Let me explain.
Spacey’s first real attempt to cash in on his new A-list status was by (triumphantly) returning to Warner Bros. for a Mimi Leder-directed film called Pay It Forward (2000), the first picture to star Haley Joel Osment after he twisted America’s brains in The Sixth Sense. After Helen Hunt earned an Oscar for As Good As it Gets, every A-list actor teamed up with her: Gibson, Hanks…so why not Spacey? On paper, the role ticked all the Spacey boxes: social studies teacher with a hidden heart, burn victim, heterosexually active, and being paid double his prior “ask.” Plus it was a non-crime-story from a bleeding-heart-progressive novel (in said novel, Spacey’s character is African-American, so Spacey was doing this in whiteface, but because it was the year 2000, no one noticed). Spacey turned in another strong performance, but…was it a little too David Mamet, too alpha-male, for larger audiences? Watch:
When a guy starts with such a volatile, bitter side, do we really let him convince us of pathos? Did he finally get the long-delayed comeuppance? I don’t think so, and I think that’s one reason the film didn’t click with audiences. Pay It Forward failed to pay for itself, earning $32 million of its $40 million budget in North America.
Perhaps you’re wondering how often Spacey worked for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax? Only once, on an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Shipping News,” more or less about a midlife crisis in remote Newfoundland. The lead role in the book is described as something of a big burly man; did Spacey really think he looked that good in American Beauty’s weightlifting scenes? Replacing Travolta and sporting a chestnut Beatle-top, Spacey was matched with the kind of Oscar-caliber talent in which Miramax specialized: Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, and humanist director Lasse Hallstrom fresh off of The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000). On paper, great film.
On screen, the temperatures seemed to correspond to the pace. The iconography of the rose petal bed from American Beauty was exchanged for Spacey/Quoyle falling in icy water, a somewhat less compelling image. Spacey and Dench share some terrific byplay, but Spacey’s scenes with Moore feel forced, even given the material. Spacey doesn’t quite project enough vulnerability for us to care about what happens to him the way we would a Hanks or Washington; we figure he’s Spacey, he can take care of himself. Maybe Spacey never really let any of us inside the real him, on screen or off (again, unlike a Hanks), and maybe that’s part of this non-grieving we’ve been doing here in 2017. Even back in 2001, if audiences were supposed to equate Newfoundland with the bitter isolation at the heart of every man’s soul, I believe they were closer to thinking: oh right, this is why I don’t live in Newfoundland/trust in Spacey. Miramax spent $38m on The Shipping News, which earned $11m in North America.
Our memory of enjoying Kevin Spacey is tied to our memory of enjoying mid-range, mid-budget films made for adults like A Time to Kill and L.A. Confidential, both of which cost more than $40m to make. Inflation means that price would be maybe 50% higher today, but Hollywood today almost never makes mid-budget films even at the old price. After the failure of enough films like The Story of Us ($50m budget), At First Sight ($60m budget), Random Hearts ($64m budget), Forces of Nature ($75m), Message in a Bottle ($80m), Pay it Forward and The Shipping News, Hollywood got an unfortunate message: invest big budgets in superheroes and fantasy, not adults working on adult problems.
Can you blame any of that change on Kevin Spacey, for making bad films for grown-ups? Maybe a little. Surely you can’t blame him for pivoting Hollywood toward genre? Well, actually…he showed a surprising willingness to parlay his persona into science fiction (for the first time) with his other project of 2001, K-PAX. One could picture the pitch meeting: people like Spacey, but they think he’s weird, right? His name is Spacey, get it? His goddamn hip-hop name is K-Spax. We use all of that and have him weird out the OLD Starman, Jeff Bridges, by eating unpeeled fruits and vegetables right in front of him. Somehow, Universal heard a version of this pitch and ponied up $68m. It’s not that K-Pax is bad, really, it just relies on audiences willing to marvel at Spacey being the Brother from Another Planet. As it turns out, there’s about a $50m ceiling on such audiences.
In real life, I’m not certain Spacey ever took the alien mask off. You can see it in his bemused expression on “Inside the Actor’s Studio”; masks were just too much fun, and perhaps people knowing his real pain was too difficult. Specializing in masks doesn’t make you a serial predator – didn’t seem to work that way for Crispin Glover and Andy Kaufman – but it does make it harder for us to feel any kind of sympathy for them, perhaps partly because in their films, we never had to.
Back in 2002, Universal and Spacey weren’t done with each other. Crime films were Spacey’s specialty in the 1990s, so perhaps it made sense that in the 00s, Spacey would turn his attention to criminal justice. The problem was that audiences and even studios showed diminishing interest in following that muse. After planning a fall release for The Life of David Gale, Universal saw the rushes (and test-audience cards), lost faith in its Oscar prospects, and shelved its release until February 2003. In The Life of David Gale, Spacey plays the titular character, a professor and anti-death-penalty-crusader who is…falsely accused of rape, and gets Kate Winslet and Laura Linney to stick up for him. This is, to put it mildly, another plot that’s hard to rewatch in our current context, but to be fair, it was hard for audiences then. Unlike Tim Robbins’ outstanding Dead Man Walking (1995), this anti-death-penalty jeremiad never lets up on its proselytzing for a moment, and the moralizing takes the juice out of the drama. (My wife happens to love this film, I’m not really sure why.) Spacey as Gale is fine, but he’s so didactic that you wish Winslet or Linney would give him the comeuppance he deserves, instead of the death he probably doesn’t.
Roger Ebert gave the film a rare zero stars and wrote: “I am sure the filmmakers believe their film is against the death penalty. I believe it supports it and hopes to discredit the opponents of the penalty as unprincipled fraudsters. Spacey and [director Alan] Parker are honorable men… The last shot made me want to throw something at the screen – maybe Spacey and Parker.”
The Life of David Gale was postponed, but at least given a wide release, upon which it earned about half of its $38 million budget in North America. Far worse, Spacey’s next project was dumped without publicity into 90 theaters where it earned all of (yes) $343,847. What really stung was that The United States of Leland (2003) was Spacey’s first foray into producing, and he’d gathered a stellar cast: a pre-Notebook Ryan Gosling as the titular character, other pre-star turns by the likes of Michelle Williams, Kerry Washington, and Michael Peña, and steadfast support from Don Cheadle, Lena Olin, Sherilynn Fenn, Martin Donovan, and himself.
The story was about a teenager sent to juvie for killing a special-needs kid, and a reporter, Pearl (Cheadle), trying to learn why. Eventually, Chris Klein (hot off American Pie) as Allen kills Leland with Pearl’s knife for what he did to the kid’s family, but the movie has the audacity to end with a flashback of Leland quietly making his move to kill the kid…meant to be wickedly subversive, perhaps, but playing as cryptically immoral. Pearl starts to question his exploitative tendencies, but the film barely does. The film is so committed to the premise of Leland and his father being estranged that Gosling and Spacey never share the screen – and that also feels like a mistake. Characters come and go too quickly for us to really care about them or give us anyone to root for, under a direction that was far flatter and mundane than that of David Gale. There’s a reason that writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge would never work as a writer or director again. There’s also a reason that Spacey had avoided, and would avoid from then on, unproven Sundance sensations.
Some stars, like Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, seem to be interested in working for as many “great” directors as possible, probably because they’re guessing that future generations will know names like Scorsese and Spielberg and Nolan if they don’t know much else. (Don’t we look back on, say, the 50s, and choose films by the likes of Hitchcock and Ford and Kurosawa over anything but the most famous “Singin’ in the Rain”-type one-offs?) Spacey didn’t and doesn’t seem concerned about his legacy in the same way. Was or is that because he prefers theater? One wonders if Spacey has a bit of an issue with control, and doesn’t want to permit himself to be putty in another person’s hands.
But if Spacey refused to work for A-list directors and bombed with less seasoned ones, what could he do? Spacey decided that there was one person he could rely on – himself. In one media, that turned out to be a brilliant decision; in another, not so much.
In 2003, Spacey spent the rest of his Oscar capital on two passion projects. The smart move was taking creative control of London’s Old Vic Theatre, becoming director of a new permanent company, starring in two productions a year, and corralling Oscar-caliber talent on a semi-regular basis for about a decade. Somewhere, in some alternate reality, Spacey went off to the Old Vic, turned his back on Hollywood forever, made terrific theater for the rest of his life, and never molested, bullied, or intimidated another young man. That’s a nice “Sliding Doors” alternate reality.
But it’s not the one we live in. Spacey’s next career move was probably his worst, starring in and directing a Bobby Darin biopic called Beyond the Sea. “Beyond the Pale” was closer to the critical consensus about a 45-year-old man mostly playing Darin in his twenties, especially paired with a fine actress, Kate Bosworth, who as Sandra Dee was the age she was playing – less than half of Spacey’s. If you were one of the many Americans who hadn’t seen Spacey in a movie since American Beauty, you might have wondered, upon seeing commercials for Beyond the Sea, what Spacey was doing in a romance with the Mena Suvari character. Hadn’t someone shot Lester before he could do that?
The vanity project that was Beyond the Sea needed a better vanity mirror. In 2004 Hollywood didn’t have the de-aging technology down (a la Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), relying on Spacey’s stardom to paper over any believability problems. Actually, Spacey was kind of terrific as Darin, but if he wanted to play a ring-a-ding-ding crooner, he should have done what those crooners actually did back then and starred in a musical like “Guys and Dolls.” Perhaps Spacey thought that a historical song-and-pathos biopic was a surefire way to compete for a new Oscar in 2004, and in a way he was right…for Jamie Foxx for Ray, whose turn as Ray Charles entirely overshadowed Spacey’s as Bobby Darin that season. This sentence won’t surprise you: Foxx got us behind the mask, while Spacey barely tried. Beyond the Sea made $6m in North America, less than Spacey’s acting/directing salary on the picture.
Spacey’s next movie, sometimes called Edison and sometimes called Edison Force, was a standard new-reporter-trails-corrupt-cops-and-thugs picture starring Morgan Freeman, LL Cool J, Justin Timberlake, AND (finally the “and”!) Kevin Spacey. It was also a $25m fiasco that didn’t get released in the United States. At some point on Twitter, someone asked Spacey to name a bad Spacey movie, and he tweeted “Edison.”
No one should now be following Spacey on Twitter. Even pre-Twitter, back in 2005, audiences seemed to sense there was something about him they just didn’t like, or cotton to. The lack of vulnerability didn’t help, and in retrospect it’s hard not to associate that with his hidden predatory behavior. Yet look at it this way: he suffered something for that. After pretty much owning the Academy Awards in 1995, 1997, and 1999, Spacey had gone 0-for-9 since. (Not counting his delicious cameo as Spielberg’s Dr. Evil in Austin Powers 3.)
Yet wasn’t his work at the Old Vic increasing his stage legend? Orson Welles used to openly wonder why he (Welles) didn’t simply spend more time in the theater, instead of being seduced, and often having his time wasted, by the muse of cinema. By 2006, that muse no longer wanted to make biopics or adult-novel adaptations; after Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Caribbean, that muse wanted to get into the CG/fantasy game. If Spacey wanted to leave the Old Vic and return to the Warner Bros. lot, he would have to play the sort of supporting/character part they actually wanted him to play, a variation on John Doe/Hopper. It was time for Spacey as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (2006).
Make no mistake, Superman Returns was a hit, earning $200m in North America. As we say in sports, Spacey got off the schneid. I liked Superman Returns, but the film seemed overwhelmed by the ghosts of Christopher Reeve (who died in 2004) and September 11, casting Brandon Routh as a Reeve-doppelganger and elaborately explaining why the Man of Steel wasn’t there to help when the World Trade Center collapsed. The problem of being mired in the past included the choice of Lex Luthor as a villain; Super-fans will tell you that Superman has at least five other arch-nemeses that could do just as well. That said, if you shave Spacey’s head, call him a psychopath, and ask him to read aloud a phone number, you’ve done half your job. Almost effortlessly, Spacey can pull from that well of personal evil and make it effective on screen. (That he also did so off screen is not our fault.) It’s not Spacey’s fault that the film didn’t age well and that DC/WB decided to move into a more officially Christopher Nolan-stamped universe.
In Superman Returns, it’s arguable if Superman actually beats Lex Luthor; less arguably, the new superhero/fantasy-based Hollywood economy beat Kevin Spacey. He wasn’t the only one knocked off the A-list. Fans don’t remember the Hollywood crash of 2005, when expensive would-be blockbusters tanked week after week after week, but the studios sure do. Since 2005, and even more since the 2008 meltdown, studios have absolutely refused to party like it’s 1999. Belt-tightening started with star salaries and projects for grown-ups, a shift that hurt Spacey’s career as much as anyone else’s. With the exception of a Roadside Attractions dramedy called Shrink (2009) that saw 27 screens and earned half of what The United States of Leland did, and a true indie Jack Abramoff bio-pic called Casino Jack (2010) (budget $12.5m, box office $1m), the next six years saw Spacey relegated to ensemble works, where he tended to play the (non-vulnerable) straight talker. Others could have easily played these roles; it’s a shame that we didn’t know, hadn’t evolved yet. That said, if the scripts were strong, as with 21 (2008), Horrible Bosses (2011), and Margin Call (2011), Spacey’s unique Spacey-osity proved a felicitous ingredient. If the scripts weren’t, as with Fred Claus (2007) and The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)…well, the less said, the better.
All this is to say that in early 2011, when Spacey and his Seven director David Fincher started shopping an American adaptation of the British “House of Cards” to the likes of HBO, Spacey’s career was on life support. That may be one reason none of the cable networks bit on “House of Cards,” not with Spacey and Fincher’s requirements about fee and control. Yes, people, we were THIS close to Spacey ending his own career with his behind-the-scenes hubris regarding his own value and deserved power.
But again, that’s not our reality. In our reality, Ted Sarandos was empowered by Reed Hastings to make one of the larger wagers ever attempted in show business when Sarandos committed Netflix to two seasons of “House of Cards” without even seeing a pilot. Netflix was jumping from a reputation as “the next Blockbuster Video” to a production house, avowedly using algorithms to make a $100m bet on content, making a two-season bet on a TV show, handing over complete creative control to a notorious auteur, and dropping an entire season of TV at once. None of these had been done. If it failed, well, Spacey got paid anyway, but if it succeeded, he would be the public face on a content revolution.
From the absence of postmortems after Spacey’s fall from grace, you’d almost think that Spacey hadn’t made a movie since The Usual Suspects – you know, like Kevin Pollak, Chazz Palmienteri, or Stephen Baldwin (I’m kidding). Certainly, Netflix didn’t see him that way in 2011; instead, they claimed that their hidden data proved people would watch a Spacey-Fincher-fronted show. Without using secret algorithms, I can tell you that when it comes to breaking the Hollywood rules, an established star has to be the straw that stirs that drink.
Spacey took straw-stirring seriously, telling the press that: the idea of presenting all the episodes at the same time was a “new perspective,” Netflix’s commitment to two seasons improved focus (“we know exactly where we are going”), and Netflix was worth watching, as when he said, “I was lucky to get into film at a time that was very interesting for drama. But if you look now, the focus is not on the same kind of films that were made in the 90s. When I look now, the most interesting plots, the most interesting characters, they are on TV.” We hear the word “represent” a lot, and it’s easy to lose sight of its multiple meanings, but Netflix relied upon Spacey to represent their shift from “We rent DVDs” to “We produce quality.”
Beau Willimon is the credited creator of “House of Cards”; he’s no doubt the show runner. But based on everything we know about them, I have to believe that Spacey and Fincher were instrumental in establishing the show’s cold, manicured, almost clinical tone, compared to the, well, hurly-burly of something like “The West Wing.” I happen to believe Willimon’s work is almost under-rated; the camera and edits always feel inevitable, like they couldn’t have been put anywhere else. Robin Wright has been delivering a master class on performance and I look forward to her taking the reins in Season 6, as with the source material (if that happens). I have to believe that with Willimon and Wright on board, “House of Cards” would have and could have been a terrific show with, let’s say, Samuel L. Jackson or Jeff Bridges as Francis Underwood.
Last time I’ll write this: we don’t live in that alternate reality. In our reality, Kevin Spacey “trained” to play Underwood by playing (at the Old Vic) the lead in “Richard III,” the deformed avenger who frequently asides to the audience that he must attain power over all his subordinates. Unlike any other TV show, Spacey was free to approach his role knowing that two seasons later, he would be coronated as President. Spacey could take a movie-like, theater-like approach to atomizing Frank (F.U.) Underwood’s steady march to accruing more and more power. In a way, he could play the role as a lightly fictionalized version of how his career went from 1992 to 2000, or perhaps how he wished it had gone from 1992 to 2011. He could, at turns, be the surly, surprising middle manager of Glengarry, the ornery husband of The Ref, the canny deceptive manipulator of The Usual Suspects, the psychopathic lecturer of Seven, the Southern hail-fellow of A Time to Kill and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the perspicacious detective of L.A. Confidential, the seducer of young women (and his own life-changing epiphanies) of American Beauty and Beyond the Sea, and especially the often-deluded moralist of Pay it Forward and The Life of David Gale. And he did it like this:
As the montage shows, Frank loved to give lessons. Frank rarely shows much vulnerability or pays much price for these lessons, which is part of why the show was starting to grate on people in Seasons 4 and 5. In post-Harvey Weinstein Hollywood (and perhaps Washington D.C., stay tuned), it turns out that a lot of Frank’s/Spacey’s wisdom is bullshit, or has now been made bullshit. Probably the most shocking moment in “House of Cards” is when Frank/Spacey throws young female reporter Zoe/Kate Mara into an oncoming subway train, killing her. The post-Weinstein moment is almost as though Zoe, in the form of real life New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, have emerged from the subway to haunt and taunt Spacey. (Yes, I know they didn’t report on Spacey directly, just go with it.) But what if Zoe/Kantor/Twohey had actually been there to listen to Spacey summon a career’s worth of pedanticism as he lectured the audience? What if Zoe, summoning their spirit and her own, could have talked back, and given Frank/Spacey his long, long, LONG-deserved comeuppance? What if lessons like theirs are the ones we should be hearing now and going forward?
Frank: “When the money’s coming, you don’t ask questions.”
Ghost Zoe: “Actually that’s exactly when a free press does ask questions, and your money hid your despicable behavior for far too long.”
Frank: “The higher up the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
Ghost Zoe: “Why climb mountains at all except to Lord it over people? Maybe see people less as stepping stones, more as potential allies.”
Frank: “There is only one rule, hunt or be hunted.”
Ghost Zoe: “Third option: we all find a way to live together. Figure it out.”
Frank: “It’s like a Do Not Enter sign, it just begs you to walk through the door.”
Ghost Zoe: “Actually, nothing tells you to violate rules other than your own sense of being better than everyone else.”
Frank: “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”
Ghost Zoe: “That’s exactly the attitude that excuses sexual misconduct, but not for you, not anymore.”
Frank: “It’s not knowing how [the story] will end. Everyone is fair game now.”
Ghost Zoe: “Good one.”