Kevin Spacey knows our secrets

The enigmatic actor's roles embody manipulation and cunning.

Published September 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Answering the cheesy 1997 Esquire cover story "Kevin Spacey Has a Secret" in the current Playboy, Spacey declares that the rumor that he's gay "is not true. It's a lie." Would it matter even to the most hidebound among us if Spacey had said he were gay? Spacey is a fearless, mischievous performer, not a moldy, homespun icon. He's equally at home in a Eugene O'Neill play or on "Saturday Night Live," where he did convulsive imitations of Christopher Walken trying out for Han Solo and Jack Lemmon auditioning for Chewbacca. And he's made lewd ambiguity one of his big-screen trademarks, ever since he played Henry Miller's roommate in "Henry and June" (1990) with the nonstop leer of a polymorphously perverse Cheshire cat.

Expansive and ironic, Spacey is the emblematic actor of a paradoxical age. Eloquent and elemental, he represents all the men and women who face limitless sexual, emotional and professional options -- but find little wiggle-room in their careers and family life. His venal characters tend to be uncanny manipulators. His virtuous ones are soul survivors. Yet even when he takes on bourgeois roles, he veers away from the mainstream middle-class maleness of a conventional crowd-pleaser like Tom Hanks. When Spacey limns a suburban husband and father, as he does in the highly touted, pitifully voguish "American Beauty" (opening Sept. 17), the man is apt to have weird hang-ups and disquieting obsessions, such as wanting to make love to a comely friend of his high-school daughter.

Spacey has clusters of devoted fans. But he's not the object of sexual fantasy that Matt, Brad and Leo are in one age bracket and Newman, Redford and Connery are in another. Spacey embodies fantasists, not fantasies. A Spacey character lives up or plays down to a particular idea of himself, and when he charms other people, it's because he reflects their heightened visions of themselves. In Spacey's first co-starring role -- the homicidal scam artist in the ludicrous sex thriller "Consenting Adults" (1992) -- he spent half the movie persuading Kevin Kline that Kline was bold and swinging enough to swap wives with Spacey. Kline's character didn't realize that Spacey was seducing him (and conning him) as much as Spacey's voluptuous spouse was. But who could blame the sucker?

Spacey is the movie star as shape-changer (even if it means getting into shape, as it does in "American Beauty"): You can't tell what form he'll take from scene to scene, much less from movie to movie. Or even where and when he will turn up: He played the serial killer in "Seven" sans credit and didn't appear until the third act.

Spacey specializes in men who size up all the possibilities around them -- and inside them, too. "I doubt you've ever drawn a stupid breath," the police captain tells Spacey's spiffy detective in "L.A. Confidential." In the climactic scene of "The Usual Suspects," a Customs agent informs Spacey's palsied hood that a mate has exploited Spacey because he's "stupid" -- a howling irony, because he is anything but. ("As the character changed and developed," screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie said, "and Kevin Spacey came in and began to give him life, he became smarter.") Spacey's cunning, talkative guys typically know when to shut up. In "Looking for Richard," Al Pacino's cheerful documentary about interpreting Shakespeare's "Richard III," Spacey bides his time until the moment arrives for his Buckingham to take center stage. Then, with a comparison of Buckingham to Ollie North, he unleashes an analysis that leads Pacino to exclaim, "You are a very smart man."

It makes sense that Spacey has become a Web darling with multitudinous fan sites. His quicksilver changeability and control mirror the speed and flexibility of computer-age sensibilities. And so far, Spacey's brains haven't been a Hollywood burden. He's developed flabbergasting range, creating monsters that make you cry and heroes who make you cringe. He's transformed sheer avidity into a turn-on. He's also (as in "Seven") conjured turn-offs so massive they leave you queasy for days.

In 1988, TV writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell gave Spacey his breakthrough role as super-racketeer Mel Profitt on the undercover crime-fighting series "Wiseguy." By the time he appeared in "Wiseguy," Spacey had tried and given up stand-up comedy, dropped out of Juilliard and performed in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park; he says he learned every role in "Hurlyburly" as an understudy for Mike Nichols' stage production. Few paid heed until he fleshed out Profitt on "Wiseguy." It provided him with a chance to parade everything he'd learned. Mel was a braggart, a bully, a voluptuary and a scamp. Most of all he was a visionary with defective vision.

Watching the Profitt episodes again, I was amazed at their audacity and accomplishment -- and astonished that no one has rebroadcast them or reissued them commercially on videotape. Profitt is a world-class criminal on the order of James Bond's Blofeld. He's jumped from drug smuggling to arms sales, and is flush enough to bid for anything from a baseball team to a banana republic. But Profitt is most fascinating as a basket case study. He loves his partner and sister, Susan (Joan Severance), not fraternally but incestuously. As youngsters, the two of them killed their foster brother before he could snitch on them for smooching. As adults, their most intimate moments come when Susan injects a heroin-amphetamine mix between his toes. Mel likes to flex his naked, fetishized digits and murmur, "Only the toes knows."

These "Wiseguy" episodes get at the connection between decadence and pessimism. Mel isn't just a mammoth manic-depressive but a gangster king with a philosopher hero: Thomas Malthus, the British economist who argued in 1798 that population increases geometrically and the food supply arithmetically, with only war, plague and famine holding the two in check. The world is on a death spiral -- and so, we discover, is Mel. When Susan falls for the series' title character (played by Ken Wahl), an undercover agent for the Organized Crime Bureau, Mel begins his descent. He comes to the end of the line when a rival undercover agent uses Mel's bust of Malthus to smash a crystal that Mel believes contains his soul. "Cunnilingus and psychiatry" may have brought TV's current favorite crime family, "The Sopranos," to the brink of disaster, but voodoo, Malthus and incest plunge the Profitts into the abyss.

TV-watchers had never seen anything like Spacey's Profitt. Whether he was being an ogre or a charismatic prodigy, there was something odd about his boyish good looks. The face was round and babyish yet also prematurely jowly and creased; the hair was too shaped to seem natural, too thin to seem fake; the eyes glared like floodlights out of sleepy hollows. His flesh registered as a pliable mask, contorting this way and that. Spacey was as malleable in this series as Jim Carrey in "The Mask" -- and the saga of Susan and Mel could have been called "Smart and Smarter." One moment Mel was ripping into an uproarious imitation of Brando's Don Corleone, the next he was preaching like an existential Elmer Gantry. Spacey never cheated on the character's core emotions, no matter how complex or elusive. When Mel relaxed in his sister's arms, Spacey registered sick bliss and heart-piercing mortification. The ravages that Susan's "straying" worked on her brother's psyche made for a bizarrely poignant spectacle.

Unlike the late Ray Sharkey, who starred as a Mafia boss in the series' electrifying first arc, Spacey didn't receive the awards he deserved for "Wiseguy." But Cannell cast him again, this time in a creepy episode of the short-lived 1989 series "Unsub," which watched the FBI track serial killers. In under 52 minutes Spacey created a more rending bifurcated character than Jeremy Irons did in the frigid two hours of David Cronenberg's overrated art thing, "Dead Ringers." Director Philip Kaufman saw the "Unsub" episode and cast him in "Henry and June." British actor Richard E. Grant's collection of film diaries, "With Nails," contains one of the few printed records we have of Spacey at that time. Grant depicts Spacey on a day off from Kaufman's set in France, "on a rant because he didn't get any close-ups during his scene and has been in heated consultation with his agent and his manager. The irony is that he is playing a man who is ferociously frustrated with his artistic lot in life."

Spacey had already done Jamie Tyrone in Jonathan Miller's stage and TV production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," starring Jack Lemmon; he was ravenous for commensurate roles on the big screen. But aside from "Henry and June," all he got were pale offshoots of previous work: another villainous partnership with Joan Severance in a terrible Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder comic caper movie, "See No Evil, Hear No Evil," and another outing with Lemmon on a tearjerker called "Dad" (both 1989). Returning to the stage, he won a Tony for playing Uncle Louie in Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" -- but Richard Dreyfuss took the part for the movie.

Then came "Consenting Adults," a critical and financial flop that Spacey credits as his blast-off because he got to play a lead. With his hair dyed a shocking blond and his body (for once) in fighting trim, he's a suitably slippery hustler. But the movie is klutzy. Kline is supposed to be so hungry for Spacey's wife that he doesn't notice who really makes love to him in her bed. (Spacey engineers a switcheroo.) Even psychologically, Kline is too easy a lay.

"Glengarry Glen Ross" (later in 1992) should have been a step forward for Spacey. It was an all-star version of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about real-estate salesmen who put the screws on hapless marks in order to keep their ugly jobs. As the hollow-man office manager who is more dangerous than he looks, Spacey plants a daringly long fuse and ignites it with the smallest flicker. But the film hammers away so relentlessly at the plot that you feel it pounding at the back of your skull; few showed up to take the punishment.

Nor did moviegoers swarm to 1994's "The Ref," in which Spacey and Judy Davis play unhappy upper-middle-class marrieds. It was like a dry run for "American Beauty," with the sitcom underpinnings hopelessly exposed. After a vicious dynamite start, Davis and Spacey become little more than foils to Denis Leary as a well-meaning thief who jolts them back to their senses when he hides out in their suburban estate on Christmas Eve. No wonder Spacey tried to take matters into his own hand by co-producing the 1994 Hollywood exposi "Swimming With Sharks." Unfortunately, this black-hearted spoof of high-powered executives is not about sharks so much as a worm (Frank Whaley) working for a snake (Spacey). Spacey's snakiness is so much zestier than Whaley's worminess that the satire gets skewed.

Luckily, even before he renewed his momentum with the unbilled appearance in "Seven," Spacey told the makers of the 1993 Sundance grand prize winner, "Public Access," that he'd love to work with them. Director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie put together their next collaboration with him in mind. It became "The Usual Suspects" (1995), a supremely crafty entertainment and a career milestone for Spacey. This story of five felons who form a top-flight crew after they're tossed into a lineup lays its cards on the table, then reshuffles and switches decks without anybody noticing. It's equal parts gunplay and mind game: a perfect cocktail for Spacey.

Spacey's Verbal Kint is a con artist sporting a bum leg and hand and a comic-book bad guy's haircut. (Spacey shaved his shoe-bottoms and pasted together his fingers to maintain a crippled appearance; the director said he first guessed the film would work when he saw Spacey's revamped, V-like hairline.) Verbal is the weakest of the bunch, and the sole survivor of their attempt to horn in on a supposed $91 million drug deal between Hungarians and South Americans. The Customs agent who's investigating demands to grill Verbal even after the D.A. cuts him a cushy deal. Meanwhile, in a nearby hospital, the only Hungarian to leave the crime scene alive tells an FBI man that he looked into the eyes of Satan -- or at least a barbaric criminal genius known as Keyser Soze. As the twin interrogations close like pincers, what kicks off as a caper movie becomes demonically complicated, with Spacey's Verbal always at the center. Although "The Usual Suspects" never dives into the metaphysical deep end, the mythic character of Keyser Soze -- as delivered (in more ways than one) by Verbal Kint -- brings back the specter of encroaching evil that gave old master-criminal movies the gleam of adult fairy tales. The filmmakers key the movie off of Spacey's jabbering crook, who uses cascades of words as a smokescreen or a weapon. Spacey is brilliantly jittery in the role -- his mental yolk vibrates under not-quite-hardboiled skin. He earned his Oscar for it.

And he should have earned another one two years later for "L.A. Confidential," in which he played Jack Vincennes, a '50s prototype of the show-biz cop. Jack preens in the spotlight as the technical advisor to a "Dragnet"-like TV show called "Badge of Honor." He is both a glamour-hound and a nowhere man. He likes the sizzle of Hollywood and the spare cash floating around it; for a while he thinks nothing of conducting raids for tabloid cameras and collecting generous tips for his labors. But Jack knows in his bones that he joined the force to do some honest police work. The writer-director, Curtis Hanson, told Spacey to think "Dean Martin," and it's delightful to see him acting breezy and on top of the world. But Spacey keeps insinuating hints of self-doubt and insecurity, so when an unexpected murder slaps him out of complacency, you believe in his quest for justice. "Don't start trying to do the right thing," warns his boss. "You haven't had the practice." Jack's strange mix of vice and morality gives him a touch of poetry. He gets the film's biggest laugh (in a gag about Lana Turner), but also its most memorable moment: looking at his reflection in a saloon mirror before laying his blood money on the bar and ruefully walking away.

Aside from his voice work in "A Bug's Life," Spacey hasn't acted in a worthy movie since. The film version of David Rabe's Hollywood-is-hell play, "Hurlyburly," mostly made me curious about why Spacey goes blond when playing virtuoso cynics. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" buried him in humid torpor. "The Negotiator" took 45 minutes to get started and then failed to hand either Spacey or co-star Samuel L. Jackson the right tricks for a high-class battle of wits. (To be fair, it was no worse than Spacey's directorial debut -- another exercise in hostage melodrama called "Albino Alligator.") And "American Beauty" lays a glossy veneer on the same sour Middle America that low-budget indies have been excoriating for years. The stock figures of derisive fun include the go-getting real estate saleswoman and rabid homemaker (Annette Bening) who grows more frantic about career and "presentation" as her husband (Spacey) goes to seed; the homophobic former Marine next door with the cowed-to-the-point-of-catatonia spouse and the marijuana-dealing son (the film's conscience!). Of course, two smiling gay professionals are the jolliest couple on the block.

Yet Spacey does get a chance to act. He pulls off a reverse De Niro. His character's yen to be attractive to a high school girl compels him to shed pounds and work out. As an actor, Spacey didn't let his regimen exhaust his resources: He's funny when the man regains his youthful joie de vivre, and touching and upsetting in his ardor. If only Spacey were in a film where the lyricism weren't ersatz and the sensitivity not bogus. At a critical point in "American Beauty," the husband tries to persuade the malignant Marine that he isn't gay. Spacey told Playboy that the movie dramatized the hazards of false impressions. "If you presume something about another person, it leads you to make all kinds of assumptions. If your perception is wrong, it can lead to tragedy."

I hope this kind of message-mongering doesn't become a recurring motif. Spacey's talent is too large and his connection to the Zeitgeist too strong for him to get mired in irrelevant controversy. As long as he stays focused on his gift, I'll see everything he does -- whether he's playing a boring boomer in a mid-life crisis or a fiendish grasshopper in "A Bug's Life."

For Spacey's career can't be summed up in any slick magazine's game of Truth or Dare. What he stands for is Truth and Dare. Even when his performances are self-revealing, he hints at a deeper honesty and taunts you to find it. Reportedly, the movie he most loves is "Lawrence of Arabia." That's a wonderful, towering enigma. So is Spacey.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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