One of my early assignments for Fort Worth Weekly was going to the Eastchase theater in the fall of 1999. The multiplex (then part of the United Artists chain, now an AMC theater) was holding an advance screening of American Beauty for high-school students, and I’d been tipped off that Kevin Spacey was going to be there. Sure enough, he was. He conducted a Q&A session after the film and had the audience eating out of his hand, breaking out his Christopher Walken impression that he’d done a few weeks earlier while hosting Saturday Night Live. He also decried the mentality he’d seen among aspiring actors that they were washed up if they hadn’t made it by age 25. He told fun stories about working with Annette Bening and discussed the scene he had with a topless Mena Suvari, saying he felt more comfortable doing the scene because she was 20 at the time.
I thought about that when the charges of reprehensible behavior came to light against him last fall, which showed that we should have been worried about the teenage boys around him. I couldn’t help but think about it again when I saw All the Money in the World on Christmas evening. That drama, of course, originally cast Spacey in the role of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, but when the child molestation charges surfaced, the producers hastily recast Christopher Plummer in the part and reshot all of Spacey’s scenes on the tightest of schedules. Now seems a good time to assess Spacey’s career, as we may not get another chance.
There are some who’d like to ignore his legacy as an actor or say that his acting no longer matters. However, those of us who care deeply about film don’t have that luxury. He was in too many memorable films, and he was too often great in them. Granted, his choices took a dip after that second Oscar, and he squandered the leading-man phase of his career on soft-boiled stuff like Pay It Forward, K-PAX, The Shipping News, and The Life of David Gale, not to mention his vanity Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea. Still, he was stealing scenes as early as 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, cagily underplaying a character who seems like a doormat until he shows his claws at the end. The Usual Suspects, Seven, and L.A. Confidential (where he acted out one of cinema’s all-time great death scenes) established him as one of the cool actors of the late 1990s, and he was most successful late in his career when he got back to his character-actor roots in Margin Call, Horrible Bosses, and Baby Driver.
Of course, a summary like the one I just gave is lopsided, because his qualities as an actor have been readily accessible, right up there on the screen. The damage he did to those young men and boys he preyed on all happened off-camera, and we haven’t had anything like a full accounting of that, though I’m sure we’ll be getting more information in the future. That must be our primary focus, but in the meantime, the way he came out of the closet was despicable. I kept thinking if there might be a worse way for a man to announce his homosexuality, and the only way I could think of was for him to say, “I’m gay” while the police were hauling the chopped-up remains of more than two male prostitutes out of his house. The actor never embraced the gay community until he needed to use them as a shield, and for that he richly earned the lasting scorn of the LGBT community. No amounts of accomplishment on the screen will ever mitigate what he did.
(By the way, if you’re wondering about All the Money in the World, it benefits from the recast, by sheer dint of the 87-year-old Plummer not needing old-age makeup to portray the 80-year-old Getty. If you didn’t know about the film’s production history, you’d never guess that the actor was shoehorned into the movie at the last minute. It’s a tribute to Plummer and Ridley Scott, and also to Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams, who were reshooting their scenes opposite Plummer under that same short notice. The movie itself is plagued by narrative issues that go well beyond the actor portraying Getty.)
We live in an America where a self-admitted serial sexual predator occupies the Oval Office, which means there’s probably a road back for Spacey. No agent, manager, or publicist has the playbook for a situation like his, though. Maybe he should run for public office in character as Frank Underwood. He knows how to give a speech, and the Republican Party is now in the business of funding credibly accused pedophiles. I will see Spacey in that Gore Vidal biopic whenever its distributor decides to release it, because it’s my job. I never watched House of Cards, so I don’t care that it’s over. If Spacey never gets hired again, well, there are other great actors in the world. As for the movies he did and the performances he gave, I say let them stand. Let’s watch them, as a monument to his depth and skill as an actor, yes, but also as a reminder of the rotten power structure in Hollywood that allowed men like him to get away with their criminal behavior for decades. With 2018 almost upon us, let’s resolve not to backslide from this long-overdue moment of outrage. Let’s resolve not to let a guy like him happen again.
Also in the Considering series:
Taraji P. Henson