Empire June 2004
Empire salutes the actor of our lifetime
The 1990’s, That dizzying decade in which Empire really began its ascent to movie magazine supremacy, was a relative oasis of new film talent. While the ’80s had, for the most part, confined itself to spitting out cookie-cutter stars to people the high-concept hoo-ha’s dreamt up by Hollywood’s assorted coke fiends, whoremongers and ‘creative executives’ – Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis being prime examples – by the ’90s a new breed of actor more interested in craft and quality than superstar sheen had begun to emerge.
At the younger end of the spectrum, Tobey Maguire, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Leo DiCaprio and the late River Phoenix began to inject a new energy into pop cinema. There were more mature discoveries as well. William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall and Steve Buscemi among a dozen or so others were all recruited by the thriving indie industry and contributed to the burgeoning renaissance. But one performer stood out as being able to alchemise both star appeal and acting chops into something dazzling and unique. And he went under the surprisingly prosaic monicker of Kevin.
Kevin Spacey had, in fact, been flying under the radar for a decade or more. His early film appearances were fleeting and mostly unremarkable. Devotees of DTV movies may have caught him as a disgraced televangelist in Fall From Grace, and he pulled cinema’s best ever cocaine face in Working Girl in 1988, but nobody seemed to notice. If anything spoke of future promise it was his turn in Glengarry Glen Ross.
What impressed anyone who was paying attention was that director James Foley trusted Spacey to strut among acting titans such as Al Pacino and Ed Harris. Dazzled as audiences were by the headline talent, few seemed to notice Spacey’s still, sinewy performance – albeit as a character who spends most of his time walking in and out of the back office like an upmarket Mike Baldwin – and the next couple of years saw a return to unremarkable films such as Consenting Adults and Iron Will.
But it was in Swimming With Sharks and The Usual Suspects that Spacey introduced himself as our kind of actor. Both were the kind of movies that this magazine had been created to celebrate: well made and intelligent, yet accessible and fun. Spacey brought a playfulness to the role of Buddy Ackerman; it was hard to tell who was having more fun – Spacey or his audience. Given the subject matter, it wasn’t surprising that Empire was an early adopter. But while it only took lines like, “I asked for Sweet ‘N Low, this is Equal. ..” to clue up the cognoscenti, it took The Usual Suspects to provide Spacey’s multiplex breakthrough.
Adjectives are, of course, bandied about in our business with
irresponsible abandon. But if there’s a modifier that we rarely use, it’s ‘incomparable’ – and it’s the one that distils Spacey’s appeal. George Clooney is Spencer Tracy for the new millenium; Tom Hanks has the everyman appeal of Jimmy Stewart; Pitt and Cruise are matinee idols from the Tony Curtis or Montgomery Clift mould. But Spacey remains unique, resolutely protean and relentlessly surprising. Consider: Hoffman could have done The Usual Suspects but not Swimming With Sharks; De Niro might have got away with Seven but not American Beauty; Joe Pesci is conceivable in Sharks, but in The Negotiator. ..well, you get the idea.
There were, however, signs of a wobble in the last couple of years. The Shipping News, though well made, ignited little interest. K -PAX was the kind of movie-mallow in which Robin Williarns would have wallowed before he embraced the dark side. Spacey’s reaction to intimations of career mortality showed the same perhaps intuitive judgment, so he returned to his first love -the theatre. But not forever. His long-cherished Bobby Darin project is in post-production, while Edison – co-starring Justin Timberlake -is currently filming. As we said, relentlessly surprising.
All of which makes it odd that when, in 2000, Empire contemplated giving Spacey his first cover, there were editorial misgivings about the idea. He was, after all, hardly hewn from your typical cover boy material. We knew we thought he was cool. We kind of thought you agreed. In the end, we needn’t have worried; the Spacey cover became one of the best sellers of that year. Proof perhaps that, then as now, our readers have exquisite taste.
Empire June 2004 Pages 112 and 113
Words: Adam Smith Portrait: Lorenzo Agius