Kevin Spacey Is Not a Very Good Actor
The other day I stumbled upon the movie Beyond the Sea while watching TV. This film was made in 2004 and it starred Kevin Spacey in a story based on the life of 1950s singer Bobby Darin. It's hard to imagine any studio executive getting excited about this endeavor, but I suppose that Spacey had sufficient clout at the time to strong-arm somebody into letting him proceed with this vanity project. I'm sure that Spacey thought that it would be the sort of role that transformed his career, and sadly for him, I think it did. In the movie, which tanked at the box office, not only was Spacey that lead star and the director, but he was also the co-writer and co-producer of the thing, going so far as to use his own voice for all the singing numbers.
I watched this movie for a couple of minutes and then I watched no more.
This got me to thinking.
Did this effort completely destroy his career?
Honestly, Kevin Spacey hadn't crossed my mind in ages. For a while there, about ten years ago, he was a going concern, but then he just sort of faded away from the public imagination.
In spite of his acclaimed turn in Glengarry Glenn Ross back in 1992, Spacey didn't hit my radar until 1995, when he appeared in The Usual Suspects. Playing Verbal Kint, who seemed as slimy, creepy and self-serving as Gollum, Spacey was a towering inferno of ACTING. He stole the show, and was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
In the same year he played the omniscient and arrogant killer in Se7en. Once again, like in The Usual Suspects, he played a character of unprepossessing form, from whom arose a figure of great power. Spacey infused his killer with an otherworldly tinge, as if he resided in a different sphere than the rest of the grubby mortals befouling the planet, and he brought with the character a frustrated acidity that seemed to come all too easily to the actor. He was grating, and I didn't like him, but he was playing a homicidal maniac, after all, and it worked, and so after these two roles Kevin Spacey was a star.
And then came American Beauty, the first film in which he was the undisputed star. Like a lot of people, I saw this 1999 movie in the theatre and I liked it. Hell, I even remember feeling "elevated" when I left. However, that feeling didn't stay with me long, and as I sat down to think about the movie, I began to hate it. It didn't stand up to any critical scrutiny, vacillating kind of wildly between broad, satiric comedy and overarching, Hollywood sentiment. All the performances were over-ripe, and Alan Ball, who went on to glory as the writer of "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood," had yet to find his mojo, penning a cornball ode to non-conformity and individualism that was as sophisticated as grade ten.
No matter, American Beauty won the Oscar for Best Picture of the year, establishing Kevin Spacey as a bona fide leading man. Presumably, people would now go to movies simply because he was in them. He was like Brad Pitt, only completely ordinary looking, and this meant that in every movie he appeared in, he had to ACT his ass off. This led to schlock like Pay It Forward and K-PAX, where once again, Spacey played true to form, hamming it up in the most extravagant and attention-grabbing manner in an effort to compensate for looking, well, pretty normal.
At his best, Spacey is most effective when he emerges from the background and rises up to play against expectation. It's not that he's unattractive, but when you look at him and see his weak chin and slightly mottled skin, you see a man who was never the best looking guy in the room -- just another self-conscious guy with a disappointing job and a basement full of resentment. His success as a movie presence was founded upon the audience's instinct to underestimate him, and when he confounded that and became a master criminal or a brassy negotiator, the audience rose with him, for it suggested that they, too, had an inner lion just waiting to roar.
But the truth is that this trick could only work a couple of times, and the more often it was employed, the more transparent and boring it became. With Spacey, you always knew that he was ACTING, you always knew that the feet were furiously paddling beneath the surface in order to keep him afloat, and there was an unappealing vanity to that. It always seemed like he was showing off, and the truth was that he really wasn't that great of an actor. He was just loud, and in a kind of intelligent seeming way, and it was hard to shake the feeling that emperor had no clothes.
There's an implicit weirdness in Spacey, and this gives him a kind of presence, but it's actually not an appealing one. Speaking in an I'm-smarter-than-you tone, he's sarcastic and patronizing, sounding like a marginalized teen in a coming-of-age movie. And you know, being unlikable really isn't the greatest spot from which to launch a successful career, especially if, again and again, you have to pull out all sorts of screaming acting magic to prove that you were just misunderstood, and were in fact, awesome.
Obviously, Spacey grew weary of this routine, and when he had the opportunity, he tried to transform himself into something more, into a fully evolved actor who could play Bobby Darin. He wanted to express himself and explore the full extent of his talent -- act, sing, dance -- but the public wanted nothing of this, and regardless of how intense he fulminated on screen, the public lost interest and quickly forgot about him.
Like I did.
And probably like you did, too.