The Essentials: 6 Kevin Spacey Performances

On entering adolescence, and discovering that cinema had more to offer than Roland Emmerich and Jackie Chan, this writer’s favorite working actor swiftly became Kevin Spacey. The actor had been working for over a decade, converting his theater cred into supporting roles in the likes of “Working Girl,” “Henry & June” and “Consenting Adults,” but the middle of the 1990s saw him take pivotal roles in a number of the decade’s biggest and best cult successes, becoming a by-word for a certain kind of morally ambivalent figure, even while creeping towards stardom in commercial hits like “Outbreak” and “A Time To Kill.”

By the end of that decade, Spacey was a fully-fledged movie-star; he had two Oscars, he’d proved he could lead mainstream fare with the above-average thriller “The Negotiator,” and he’d even voiced a Pixar villain before doing such a thing was fashionable. Unfortunately, the decade or so since has been hugely disappointing for those of us who considered ourselves fans of the actor, on screen: he used his new A-list status to topline a series of dreadful, sentimental dramas (“Pay It Forward,” “K-PAX,” “The Shipping News” and, in particular, “The Life Of David Gale,” one of the worst films of the decade, and an impressive nadir for Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney and Alan Parker), before producing, writing, directing and starring in redundant vanity project “Beyond The Sea.”

Since then, things have improved, although not by a huge amount: he had fun as a villain in “Superman Returns” (less so in “Fred Claus”), had a hit in “21,” and otherwise has given decent performances in films that few saw — “Telstar,” “Shrink,” “Casino Jack.” Of course, this isn’t the full story: he’s moved into production, with his Trigger Street company, who were behind “The Social Network,” and has since 2003 been the artistic director of the famous Old Vic Theatre in London, reviving the troubled house entirely, and turning in the kind of scintillating performances that we once came to expect, in shows as diverse as “Richard II,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “A Moon For The Misbegotten,” “Speed-the-Plow,” “Inherit The Wind” and, at present, a much-praised turn for Sam Mendes in “Richard III.”

As such, it’s hard to criticize Spacey too much for the disappointing nature of his screen work — it’s clear he essentially takes roles that will give him the financial freedom to run the Old Vic, his true passion. Another such paycheck role hits theaters this week, “Horrible Bosses,” and, while it’s far from his best work, it’s at least reminiscent of the glory days, and seemed like a good excuse to look at some of our favorite Spacey performances. While a re-team with David Fincher on the Netflix original series “House of Cards” is looming, we hope that he doesn’t leave the cinema behind entirely — we’d love for him to bring out another turn of the quality of the six below.

1. “The Ref” (1994)
By the time he appeared in the late Ted Demme’s underrated 1994 film “The Ref,” Kevin Spacey had gotten the attention of moviegoers, in films like “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” and of critics, in films like “Glengarry Glen Ross.” His performance as the cuckolded, browbeaten Lloyd Chasseur opposite motor-mouthed Denis Leary and the manic Judy Davis, though, was one of the first indications that he would be among the most consistently impressive actors working today. It also proved that Spacey could alternate between comedy and drama flawlessly, even within the same film. Spacey is perfect as Lloyd, the hippie-turned-WASP who is trying to keep a marriage together with his unfaithful wife, Caroline (Davis). Their already fragile world is interrupted by a thief-on-the-run (Leary) who holds them at gunpoint when they are on their way home to host Christmas dinner. Even though Lloyd and Caroline are kept hostage by the most stressed out (and incompetent) thief of all time, the couple continues to insult one another despite the fact that there is a gun in their faces. Spacey shines while trying to pretend both that he’s not being held captive and that his marriage is not falling apart, while simultaneously trying to host Christmas with his annoying relatives. The brilliance of Spacey’s performance comes from his ability to spit the most hateful vitriol at his wife one minute then turn around and sincerely kiss the ass of his overbearing, puppet master of a mother (Glynis Johns) the next. While in many ways “The Ref” is a precursor to his Academy Award-winning role in “American Beauty” which came only five years later, Spacey is infinitely more entertaining here in what is one of his most re-watchable performances to date.

“2. Swimming With Sharks” (1994)
If Spacey’s turn in this weekend’s “Horrible Bosses” seems familiar, there’s a reason for that: it’s in many ways a replay of his vicious, Machiavellian movie mogul in 1994’s indie “Swimming With Sharks,” and Spacey brings a certain star persona to the turn that Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who turned the part down) might have missed. The film, by former movie studio lackey George Huang –who was encouraged to make it by his pal Robert Rodriguez — follows Guy (Frank Whaley), an aspiring screenwriter who takes a job as an assistant to studio executive Buddy Ackerman, who turns out to be virtually psychotic. Like a Tarantino version of “The Devil Wears Prada,” Guy snaps, restraining his employer, beating and torturing him. Spacey makes a tremendous, foul-mouthed villain, as he’s shown time and time again, but what elevates the performance here are the nuances: the vulnerability he shows talking about how he turned out the way he did, the subtly paternal relationship with his underlings. The film itself isn’t quite a classic: Huang’s a better writer than he is a director, and the film, a stagey two-hander, never quite feels like cinema (indeed, it was adapted for the stage in 2007 with a London run starring Kevin Spacey as Buddy and future Doctor Who Matt Smith as Guy). But Spacey really got a hell of a showcase here, and almost everything that follows can be put down to his performance.

3. “The Usual Suspects” (1995)
With four films released and a directorial debut in the can (the little-seen “Albino Alligator”) 1995 was clearly Spacey’s year and his somersault into the big leagues. We have the towering success of “The Usual Suspects” to thank for this. It was Spacey’s little film that could: Christopher McQuarrie’s potty-mouthed script and Bryan Singer’s slick direction relies on Spacey’s central performance as the mercurial Roger “Verbal” Kint to bolster their successes. Simultaneously feted as a masterpiece and dismissed as a cheap card-trick breathing down “Rashomon”’s neck since its release, whether or not you think the film’s final moments amount to nothing but a calculated rug-pulling exercise it’s plain to see that with “The Usual Suspects”, Spacey landed a hell of a role, and it’s formalized the persona he’s been trading off since the film came out. Kint is the film’s narrative lynchpin: apparently a low-rent short-con grifter and crippled patsy left for dead who – as it turns out – may or may not be an all-powerful “devil” called Keyser Söze at the head of a shady criminal underworld pulling all the strings. Spacey’s performance runs the gamut of emotions – from squirrelly yammering fidget to detached dead-eyed quasi-Machiavelli – underpinned by his laconic unassuming drawl and complemented by a subtle physical performance. Taking the hoary literary cliché of the unreliable narrator and offering it up to the audience as literal manifestations of Kint’s elaborate imagination, Spacey humanizes the calculated clever-clever impulses of McQuarrie’s hyper-real prose and seduces the viewer as ably as Kint does Chazz Palminteri. And although the National Board of Review may have awarded the film Best Acting By An Ensemble and the then-smouldering Gabriel Byrne was – to 1995 audiences – the film’s leading man, it’s Spacey that walks away with the entire movie. Spacey would also net an Oscar for his troubles and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

4. “Se7en” (1995)
Perhaps the most profound decision made on “Se7en” was keeping Spacey’s name off the casting roster and all promotional materials for the film. As John Doe, the perpetrator and mastermind whose exploits have been the bane of Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman). Andrew Kevin Walker’s script brilliantly outsizes Spacey’s villainy by showing us the sheer dedication Doe has sunk into his pet project. When he finally makes an appearance, he does so in a genuinely jaw dropping scene – walking into the police station with blood all over his starched white dress shirt, hollering “DETECTIVE! You’re looking for me.” The third act of “Se7en” belongs to Spacey and he runs with it, severely downplaying the more maniacal elements that a lesser actor might have seized onto. Doe acknowledges his violence as an afterthought, the direct logical outcome of a world gone to shit. His final stroke of horrific genius is unforgettable and Spacey’s fevered pleadings for Pitt to “become vengeance” are timelessly chilling. Effectively a supporting role that grows to dominate and loom over the film, it’s a compliment to Kevin Spacey that John Doe stands out as so much more than a crazed baddie, but a misanthropic puppet-master whose plan is impenetrable and unstoppable.

5. “L.A. Confidential” (1997)
Adapting the dense, dark crime novel by James Ellroy should never have worked. The book is close to unfilmable (look at De Palma’s atrocious “The Black Dahlia” for a hint of how it could have turned out), the cast were near-unknowns — a faded Kim Basinger and Danny De Vito being the biggest names involved — and the behind-the-scenes talent didn’t suggest it would be worth a damn, being Brian Helgeland, writer of “Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” and Curtis Hanson, director of “The River Wild.” But sometimes, a special alchemy occurs, and “L.A. Confidential” turned out, against all expectations, to be one of the very best films of the nineties, as good a Hollywood crime picture of its type as any since “Chinatown.” And at its rotten center; Kevin Spacey, giving one of his very best performances. He’s at his most movie-star like (Hanson told him to channel Dean Martin) as Jack Vincennes, the detective more interested in courting stardom and feathering his nest than catching criminals. He starts the movie as all surface, a man with a hollow where his heart should be, but even Vincennes becomes aware of the corruption all around him, and his conscience is finally pricked when a young actor (played by “The Mentalist”) ends up dead. Spacey plays the growing uneasiness beautifully, topped off by his final, shocking scene; coming to his superior, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) with his suspicions, he gets a bullet in the heart for his troubles. Even for a man who was pivotal to most of the gut-wrenching twists of the mid 1990s, the actor’s look of shock, and relief, as the pieces come together as his life slips away (even as he sets a trap for Smith with two words — “Rollo Tomassi”), is one of the finest single moments of Spacey’s career.

6. “American Beauty” (1999)
1999 is often described as a landmark year for American cinema, and for good reason. It was the year that gave us “Being John Malkovich,” “The Iron Giant,” and “Magnolia.” But if there was an undercurrent to some of the most explosive works of that year, it was the through line of the office drone, fed up with his crummy existence, making great and often times extravagant deviations from the path life had set up for him (and, sadly, it was almost always a “him”). Everything from “The Matrix” to “Election” to “Fight Club” to “Office Space” offered this up as a core narrative tenant. But it was “American Beauty,” for whatever reason, that most identified with, with the film earning strong commercial and critical support, going on to win Best Picture. And, lets be honest, for all of Sam Mendes’ artfully choreographed direction and Alan Ball’s modernized philosophizing script, it was Kevin Spacey’s portrayal, of a man pushed too far and refusing to come back, that made the movie such a resonant, believable, and entertaining experience. All the moments that you really, truly remember from the film belong to him – his rekindled spirit as a drive-thru attendant (where he catches his wife mischievously cheating on him), the fist-pumping triumph in his line deliver of the words “I rule,” and the dreamy infatuation he has with his teenage daughter’s best friend. In a less gifted actor’s hands, the delicate balancing act of both Ball’s heightened script and Mendes’ occasionally operatic direction could have fallen apart. But with Spacey in the lead (in a performance that won him an Oscar, his second), he held it together and was largely responsible for the success it became. In the years since, “American Beauty” may have turned out to be the blandest alumnus of the class of ’99, but Spacey’s work still gives cause for celebration.

Alternates: Spacey’s also great as weaselly office manager Williamson in “Glengarry Glen Ross” and while Clint Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil” is no great shakes, Spacey’s central performance is undervalued. His very different vocal turns in “A Bug’s Life” and “Moon” are both strong, while Jay Roach’s “Recount” probably hosted his best screen performance of the last decade. — Matthew Newlin, Mark Zhuravsky, Sam Price, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor

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