More questions than answers to Kevin Spacey

Is he playing too many roles that take the same attitude?
By Stephen Whitty
Newhouse News Service

Big_Kahuna_paperNEW YORK, April 28 —  In his new movie “The Big Kahuna,” Kevin Spacey plays another one of his trademarked antiheroes, a furiously sarcastic salesman with an answer for everything. Endlessly entertaining and vaguely dangerous, he’s a fascinating character — fascinating precisely because he’s ultimately unknowable. It is a part Spacey plays brilliantly off-screen, too.

When the “The Big Kahuna” team arrived in New York recently to push their small film, Spacey — the star and co-producer, and the logical centerpiece of any campaign — was missing. Reticence isn’t out of character for many actors, particularly the private, prickly Spacey.

Although he’d been relatively accessible recently — and the increased visibility certainly helped him win that Best Actor Oscar for “American Beauty” — the 40-year-old performer usually avoids publicity. Some of that reticence may be because he’s been burned in the past, notably by a gossip-mongering Esquire article in 1997. Mostly, he says, it’s because fame gets in the way of his craft. If audiences don’t know who you are, goes his theory, they’ll accept you in any role; the less celebrity you carry with you, the less baggage you bring to the set. “Nobody knows who I am yet,” Spacey told People way back in 1991. “And I want to keep it that way.”

RAMPANT SPECULATION

It’s a theory practiced by performers from Sean Penn to Holly Hunter, yet in Spacey’s case the elusiveness has led to rampant speculation. At one time, it was said his last name was a misspelled tribute to Spencer Tracy. (It’s not; it’s his mother’s.) At another, it was sworn that he was gay — a rumor the bachelor first refused to respond to, then categorically denied, without much effect either way. (“Spacey Admits He’s Not Gay,” ran one headline.) Here, despite the wilder rumors, are some things we know about Kevin Spacey.

He was born Kevin Fowler in South Orange, N.J., on July 26, 1959; four years later, his parents, both white-collar professionals, moved the family to Southern California. Kevin, the youngest of three, grew into a chronic troublemaker; after an unfortunate stint in military school (he was expelled for throwing a tire at someone), a guidance counselor suggested he try acting, instead of acting out.

Although Spacey got his first big break on Broadway, most Americans met him on TV’s “Wiseguy,” as the insidious Mel Profitt. He soon began to get movie parts as slippery dissemblers, and won his first Oscar for 1995’s “The Usual Suspects,” as the aptly named “Verbal” Kint. His roles since then in “L.A. Confidential,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “American Beauty” have made it clear a new American movie star has arrived. The interesting question, though — the thing I would love to have asked him — is if becoming a movie star is making it harder for him to remain an actor.

DRIVING PRESENCE

Spacey’s films seem built around scenes of him shredding some hapless underling with razor-sharp sarcasm. Of course, it verges on apostasy to suggest Spacey is anything but one of the greatest American performers in films today. His amused presence drove the dark “American Beauty”; his skills have enlivened pictures as wide-ranging as the arty “Hurlyburly” and the rabble-rousing “A Time to Kill.” He’s deft and delicate and always real. Yet the parts are far less diverse than the movies they appear in.

In “Swimming With Sharks,” for example, Spacey’s a sarcastic executive with a killer instinct; in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” he’s a sardonic millionaire who may just be a killer. In “L.A. Confidential” he’s a slick detective who’s misplaced his moral compass; and in “Hurlyburly” he’s a sleek Hollywood player who’s deliberately thrown his away. In his last Broadway triumph he was the devastated salesman of “The Iceman Cometh”; in his most recent art-house effort, he’s the desperate glad-hander of “The Big Kahuna.”

To a dramatist, perhaps, all these roles are distinct and diverse. To an audience, undoubtedly, all of them are wonderfully entertaining (watching Spacey coolly, verbally eviscerate some minor character was one of the prime joys of ’90s movie-going). Yet to an actor of Spacey’s talents they must be tediously alike. Far too often, Spacey’s films seem built around scenes of him shredding some hapless underling with razor-sharp sarcasm; too many times they’ve turned into filmed talk radio, with the actor briefly descending from on high to smugly put everyone else securely back in their place.

CLASSICALLY TRAINED

The typecasting is understandable; as one of Hollywood’s rare, classically trained actors, Spacey handles complicated dialogue effortlessly. (And for an idea of how difficult it can be, imagine him switching roles with any equally talented, but more typically screen-oriented co-star, like Penn in “Hurlyburly,” or Russell Crowe in “L.A. Confidential”). Yet, in some ways, the endless talk seems to have become too easy for him. The sameness is beginning to show, too.

When I first saw Spacey on-screen, those furious verbal attacks burned in my memory. Yet now, what I remember most from his films are the rare, silent moments — those brief, breathless pauses when he dares to be at a loss for words. Like the way he excruciatingly unfolds himself at the end of “The Usual Suspects.” The way he sits on the bleachers and hungrily stares at the cheerleader in “American Beauty.” The way, at the moment of death in “L.A. Confidential,” his eyes go utterly, impossibly black. The way, when he’s at his very best, he never needs to say a thing.

Words come easily to Spacey in real life. He can be a hugely amusing talk-show performer (his dead-on impressions of Christopher Walken and William Hurt are hysterical). He has a decent singing voice, and the dinner-jacket days of “L.A. Confidential” seem to have left him with lounge-star longings (often mentioned for various Rat Pack updates, he’s said that HE wants to play Bobby Darin).

SOMETHING NEW

I hope he puts aside the projects that always seem to come to him first, the ones with the pages of attitude and arch dialogue and flip, hip edginess. But as a critic — as a fan — I hope he tries something else in the films to come. Something riskier. Something new. I hope he puts aside the projects that always seem to come to him first, the ones with the pages of attitude and arch dialogue and flip, hip edginess. I hope that for once, instead, he goes after the sort of projects that don’t have an obvious “Kevin Spacey part.”

Scripts about decent, simple, inarticulate guys. Scripts about guys who aren’t always the brightest bulb in the room, but still struggle, and manage to muddle through and maybe even occasionally come out on top. It wouldn’t be easy, of course. To begin with, he’d probably have to steal the scripts out of Tom Hanks’ mailbox. And then, of course, he’d also have to resign himself to stepping back a bit, into letting someone else get all the withering comebacks and killer exits. But it would be a challenge — and that’s precisely what a performer of Spacey’s caliber needs right now. Because before too long his popularity is going to do exactly what he used to fear his publicity would — and turn this elegant, elusive actor into just another star.

© 2000 Newhouse News Service