Best Life

BestLife2005coverThe Male Mind

Kevin Spacey Scares Himself 
(And he suggests you give it a try sometime, too.)

By Jesse Kornbluth
Photographs by Blake Little

In this brief and solitary interlude in your hectic and harried existence, we’d like you to pause for a moment to ask yourself two questions: “What have I done with the last 24 hours of my life?” and “If I had just 1 year left to live, would I have lived today any differently?”

Take it a step further: What if you knew your sell-by date was even 5 years in the future? Or 10? Would that inspire you to take risks, to charge into the unknown, to change what you were doing today, tomorrow, right now?

Would it?

If you were a young man named Walden Robert Cassotto – who learned at age 8 that rheumatic fever had condemned him to an early grave, maybe at 15, but certainly by 25 years of age – that death sentence would become your hall pass for life. You’d make a vow: You were going to be big. Important. A legend. And you’d rocket forward so fast that even if you did check out at 25, they’d always remember you – for you would become the great entertainer Bobby Darin.

If you were a young man named Kevin Spacey, with a freshly minted Oscar and all your wits, your health, and ambitions that were off the charts, you might also want to join the immortals. You’d spend every ounce of your talent, express yourself completely, leave nothing behind but your legend. To do that, you’d take the kind of risks only the fearless and the damned dare venture. In this way Kevin Spacey is spookily like Bobby Darin – and for that, he may pay a price.

So where and how did this symbiosis between the actor and the slightly moldy icon begin? After all, by 37, Bobby Darin was on his deathbed. By that age, Kevin Spacey hadn’t even peaked – he was 40 when he accepted the Best Actor award for American Beauty. But Spacey’s life was about to take a dramatic turn that would bring it into a painful parallel with Darin’s.

Darin, bedridden for much of his childhood, learned about life through music. The woman who raised him as her child, his grandmother, Polly, spent her days teaching him to sing, dance, and play piano. Spacey also learned from his mother, who played Darin’s music in their home the way a Baptist minister plays gospel. At the cusp of stardom, Darin lost Polly; at the height of stardom, Spacey was about to lose his mom.

BestLife1Two years ago, Spacey’s mother was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.  And although he could have used a hit film right then – he’d followed American  Beauty (world box-office gross: $356 million) with The Big Kahuna (gross: $3.7 million), and a couple more films that, while artistically ambitious, had failed to find an audience – Spacey decided instead to take a year off from acting to help care for his mother and to reconnect with her and with his sister. In the meantime, he launched triggerstreet.com, a site for aspiring filmmakers. And he continued pursuing relentlessly a dream he and his mother had shared for years – that he’d one day make a film about the life of Bobby Darin.

Fulfilling his mother’s hopes and realizing his own represent a large roll of the dice. Spacey has no Lethal Weapon franchise or Tom Clancy character to fall back on if his film, Beyond the Sea, sinks at the box office; at 45, he could find himself relegated to supporting – actor status. Spacey’s response? Raise the stakes. He didn’t just star in this $25 million film musical; he coauthored and directed it and recorded the soundtrack. And now he’s releasing a CD of him doing Darin’s songs and launching an eight-city tour, with a 19-piece orchestra backing him, in the hope of creating a Darin revival.

“There were nights in front of the rehearsal mirror when I did think, ‘I’ll never learn this, I don’t do this for a living, I must be out of my mind – I’m going to die,'” Spacey says, stopping to catch his breath on a hotel terrace in Los Angeles a month before the opening of his dream project.

But if Spacey can taste his own blood in his mouth, he believes the battering will be worth it. Like Darin – who gave up rock ‘n’ roll (think “Splish Splash”) to become a tuxedoed nightclub singer (think “Mack the Knife”), then a denim-clad folkie (think “If I Were a Carpenter”) – Spacey has decided that personal growth is as important as professional success.

“It’s like Bobby reinventing himself musically,” Spacey says, explaining the parallels he sees in their career arcs. Today, he is taking a rare break from working the cell phone and managing his film, his CD, his tour – not to mention London’s Old Vic theater, where he serves as artistic director. “It’s only in the last 4 or 5 years that I’ve come to understand this about my own career. I face what Bobby faced.”

What’s that? Lesson one, he explains, holding one finger aloft: “People like the early stuff,” whether it’s Bobby Darin singing “Splish Splash” or Kevin Spacey playing the sneering but hyperintelligent psycho. But here’s the rub, which Spacey punctuates with another finger: “There’s always a conflict between personal freedom and professional expectation.”

BestLife2It’s the kind of conflict many of us are faced with at various points throughout our careers. Bobby Darin was bull-headed – he abandoned his teen audience, then befuddled his nightclub fans by wearing denim and imitating Bob Dylan. In the film, Spacey has Sandra Dee, Darin’s wife, tell him, “People hear what they see.” Darin put the tux back on. Spacey says he too gets the point.

“Look, I try to be relatively smart,” Spacey says. “I do big-studio films as an actor for hire, and then I try to balance that with smaller projects and the Old Vic. I’ll continue to do that, but that has to be tempered with reality. With my reality.”

He pauses for a moment to let it congeal. “I have to be able to look at myself in the morning when I’m shaving,” Spacey says, “and not want to slit my own throat.”

In today’s Hollywood, the break-into-song musical has become a temptation akin to summiting Everest. Everyone pictures him – self raising his fist in triumph, but few consider the risks of playing with this antique genre in the post-MTV world. The list of greats whose reputations were nearly broken by modern-day musicals is long: Woody Allen nobly failed with Everyone Says I Love You. Martin Scorsese nearly died of frostbite at the box office with New York, New York. The odds were 100-to-1 against Spacey. And those first conversations about playing Darin were hardly auspicious. When he approached Steve Blauner, Darin’s former manager, about his plans, the first words out of Blauner’s mouth were, “You shouldn’t direct; you shouldn’t sing; and you’re too old to play him.”

But Spacey does bring one intangible advantage to the table: his refusal to be typed. By his design, he’s mysterious. “The less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you I am that character on screen,” he says. So we assume he’s like our favorite Spacey roles – worldly verging on cynical, more prone to a sneer than a smile. In fact, he’s a natural comedian and an amazing mimic; a moment of down- time finds him impersonating Bob Hope recalling a sexual encounter with Phyllis Diller, the next feigning drunk better than Dudley Moore.

That same skill allowed him to slide into Bobby Darin’s skin – in the film; he nails not only Darin’s walk and talk but his singing voice, as well. What about the age problem? As Blauner pointed out, Spacey has now lived more than half a decade longer than the subject of his film.

BestLife3In the movie, Spacey addresses that issue right up front. As the film begins, he’s in a nightclub, singing “Mack the Knife.” You can’t help but think, “This is Darin’s biggest song ever, the showstopper of his act – to start the movie with it leaves you nowhere to go but down.” Then you look closer, and you think, “What a lousy toupee – does he think he’s fooling us?”

Here is how crafty Kevin Spacey is. He cuts off “Mack the Knife” halfway through, revealing that we’re on a soundstage, not in a nightclub.

Almost immediately he’s confronted by a sharp-tongued kid – a preteen incarnation of Darin himself. “You’re too old to play me,” the kid says. And suddenly you’re more alert, leaning forward; you stop trying to outguess Spacey and begin to accept that this isn’t a musical biography like Ray or The Doors or anything you’ve  seen recently.

“My favorite movies are 8 1/2 and All That Jazz – movies with a film within the film,” Spacey says. “So I created a soundstage as a home base, a place I could go away from and come back to. Now I don’t have to be linear. I can warp time. I can deal with Bobby Darin’s big question: ‘What is my life?”‘

And in working through that question, Kevin Spacey is asking the same thing of himself.

~

Best Life
February 2005
Two different issues on the stands – One w/Kevin on the cover. One without.
Pages 52 – 56. Pictures on pages 5, 53, 54. Small photo of The Usual Suspects poster on page 55. Essential films list on page 55.

Where to buy: KEVIN SPACEY SCARES HIMSELF Pages 52-56.
Page 53 – JOHN VARVATOS suit ($1,395) and amethyst cotton shirt ($235) and brown tie ($110), available at John Varvatos boutiques. New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. 212-965-0700, johnvarvatos.com.

Page 54  – JOHN VARVATOS midnight sweater ($198), available at John Varvatos New York and Los Angeles.