The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Kevin Spacey

Last week, we took a look at the career of legendary character actor Tommy Lee Jones. This week’s subject slips right into that same rarefied category, as truly an actor’s actor and a consummate pro...
Kevin Spacey
kevin spacey house of cards

It’s hard to believe but Kevin Spacey’s been kicking around Hollywood for longer than many of JoBlo.com’s readers have been alive. From his first bit part as a guy who mugs Meryl Streep in HEARTBURN to his recent run on House of Cards, Spacey’s established himself as a master craftsman - the type who can elevate pretty much anything he’s in. Wonder why movies like NINE LIVES exist? Because Kevin Spacey is willing to do them- that’s why. Even if the movie is absolute garbage, Spacey always gives it his full effort, never once falling into the trap other performers do by phoning-in roles they think are beneath them. I can imagine Spacey, at the mic recording his part as the cat in NINE LIVES agonizing over his line readings, wanting to make sure each is just right. That’s what makes him Kevin Spacey, and that’s why he’s had such a long career.

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The first time I saw Spacey was in the Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder vehicle SEE NO EVIL/HEAR NO EVIL, which is really only worth watching now to see Spacey channel George Sanders as a slick thief - a role far removed from his later work. A few years ago I caught a re-run of Wiseguy where he played a crazed arms dealer named Mel Profitt, and damn if he’s performance was Emmy-level good, even though it’s a show few remember nowadays. As such, it took Spacey a good ten years of toiling in the business before he really started to make a name for himself, with his part in SE7EN and his star-turn in SWIMMING WITH SHARKS the movies that really put him on the map.

kevin spacey the usual suspects

Like anyone, his career has had its ups and downs since. After winning an Oscar for AMERICAN BEAUTY, Spacey struggled to find a worthy follow-up vehicle and got trapped doing schmaltzy Oscar-bait like PAY IT FORWARD and THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE. Yet, he kept at it, with his production company Trigger Street emerging as a massive power-player, being behind movies like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and more. Meanwhile, Spacey also served as the artistic director of London’s Old Vic theater, with his efforts eventually earning him an Honorary Knighthood (being an American he’s ineligible for full knighthood).

kevin spacey house of cards

Around this time, it had seemed like Spacey’s acting fortunes had faltered somewhat, with only J.C Chandor’s MARGIN CALL garnering a huge amount of acclaim. However, Spacey - in a genius move - took a huge gamble and signed-on to star in Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards, a multiple Emmy-nominee that helped put the streaming service on the map and paved the way for all their current programming, among which House of Cards remains a consistent highlight.

His Best Work
kevin spacey seven

While I’m tempted to list Spacey’s turn as Francis Underwood here based solely on the merits of how juicy a part its proven to be for him, Spacey’s parts in THE USUAL SUSPECTS and SE7EN remain - to me - his finest work. While Verbal Kint remains his most iconic role, Spacey’s never been more mesmerizing than as the bible-influenced serial killer, John Doe, in SE7EN. What’s so cool about the part is that Spacey goes un-billed in the opening credits, with his appearance having been more-or-less kept a secret, so when he turned up in the third act even in 1995 when he wasn’t that popular, we were surprised to see him. To say he’s unsettling in the role is a massive understatement. How he underplays the part, adopting a weird form of empathy and calmness, had huge impact and were it not for his presence there’s no way SE7EN would be considered the classic it is today, with his story about his meeting with Paltrow’s character and how he eventually had to kill her having the most impact of all - to the extent we’re both relieved and horrified when Brad Pitt’s now-widowed detective murders him in the finale. It’s a part that can’t help but worm itself into your brain and haunt your nightmares.

His Most Overrated Film
kevin spacey mena suvari american beauty

This one comes with a huge asterisk. When I saw Sam Mendes’s AMERICAN BEAUTY in 1999, I thought it was a masterpiece. While I think many other films that came out that year have had more staying power (FIGHT CLUB, THE MATRIX, THREE KINGS, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) I think it deserved to win all the Oscars it did and in a way it’s a classic. However, I also find it curiously dated in a way that’s bizarre considering it’s only seventeen years old. Maybe it’s the glut of suburban malaise movies that followed but now it feels somewhat ponderous, with the occasionally satiric tone not meshing that well with the corniness of scenes like the one where Wes Bentley explains to Thora Birch why a floating plastic bag is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. What’s especially dated is the way homosexuality is treated. At the time it was daring, but now it seems hokey the way Chris Cooper and Kevin Spacey’s climatic kiss is supposed to be so taboo. Screenwriter Alan Ball covered similar ground more successful in his HBO show Six Feet Under. AMERICAN BEAUTY remains an important film but it’s also one I’m not quite sure holds up anymore - although as a product of its time it’s still compelling.

His Most Underrated Film
kevin spacey beyond the sea

I always thought Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic BEYOND THE SEA was unfairly maligned by critics. You can tell this was Spacey’s dream-project, to the extent that he directed, wrote, produced and starred in it, in addition to singing all of Darin’s numbers. Given that Darin died at thirty-seven Spacey was more than a little old to be playing Darin as a swinging teen idol in the early-sixties, but damn if it doesn’t work. While the format, where Darin essentially acts out a movie version of his life, is strange the movie is very entertaining and Spacey’s performance as Darin is spot-on, as is his singing. Kate Bosworth is also very effective as Darin’s wife, actress Sandra Dee. While mostly forgotten now, BEYOND THE SEA is well-worth revisiting.

His Best Scene

Without a doubt, Spacey’s most iconic moment is the finale of THE USUAL SUSPECTS where, after spinning a yarn for Chazz Palminteri that’s made the whole film up to now turn out to be a lie, he walks into the streets and straightens out his limp to meet the waiting Mr. Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). That scene, where we realize that Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze is truly one of the great moments in crime cinema and one Spacey will always be remembered for. That said, I came mighty close to choosing the Rollo Tomasi scene from L.A CONFIDENTIAL.

His Five Best Films

5. House of Cards (TV)
1. SE7EN

Up Next

As always, Spacey’s a busy guy (with ELVIS & NIXON due out this week) and while NINE LIVES and BOSS BABY sound pretty dire, he’s also acting in Edgar Wright’s BABY DRIVER and - of course - another season of House of Cards.

Source: JoBlo.com



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