The Times Newspaper

The man in the irony mask
by Sean Macaulay

The Times Newspaper (UK)
February 28, 2002

Star of the week – Kevin Spacey

What would Kevin Spacey, the star of The Shipping News, do without sarcasm?
He says it is “just irony with style”, but it is also the essential ingredient of his appeal. Others can hail his versatility, his fastidious preparation for each role, his physical command of space, but there will always be something missing if he is playing straight drama.

He carved his niche playing sneeringly cunning psychos and his recent move into sadsack territory — dim-witted sadsack territory — is bold and brave and all that. So he can play sluggish dullards and shut off his twinkly menace. So it proves he has discipline. So it shows he can fit into ensemble pieces. But eventually you just wind up waiting for him to spring back to his full range.

It’s not a problem he’s unaware of. “How many times do you say to yourself about someone who you once thought was interesting, whatever happened to them?” Armed with a jowly disdain, Spacey carved a niche in all kinds of cat-and-mouse movies in the early 1990s. His specialty was playing cunning psychos. In Swimming with Sharks, he was the film executive from hell, belittling his assistant with breathtaking sadism. “You . . . Have . . . No . . . Brain . . .”

In Seven he was the most deviously inventive serial killer since Hannibal Lecter. “Detective. Detective. Detective! You’re looking for me.” He got his break as an unconventional leading man in Consenting Adults in 1992, playing the wife-swapping neighbour from hell. The director Alan “Klute” Pakula fought for him, a show of support he never forgot. “Up to that point I was kind of this obscure New York stage actor that the studios had never heard of.” With its manicured suburban setting and neurotic eruptions, Consenting Adults presciently pointed the way to American Beauty. But it is a straight thriller and Spacey is clearly the overconfident, manipulative villain.

What American Beauty offered him was a shift into everyman territory. The trademark sarcasm was still employed to humorous effect, but now it was underscored with a touch of warmth. The man you loved to fear a little could
now be loved a little, too.

In a way, the Best Actor Oscar that went with the role of Lester Burnham offered a full stop to his droll, snide incarnation. Now he could play more regular characters. Spacey, though, has picked gooey, earnest dramas in which he’s extinguished all signs of his old razzle-dazzle. He says of his psycho roles: “Bored. Let’s move on. Can do it with my eyes closed.”

But it is as if the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The virtuous drivel of Pay It Forward (scarred teacher, wounded heart, little kid plays Cupid) is exactly the kind of mush his other, smarter characters would despise. K-PAX is more of the same. He is the soi- disant alien who teaches his fellow patients how to . . . believe in themselves.

Spacey grew up something of a rebel. Expelled from military school in New Jersey, he tried his hand on the comedy circuit in Los Angeles, winding up at Juilliard studying theatre. He dropped out halfway through his degree and made inroads on Broadway before picking up film and television parts in the mid-1980s.

It is instructive to watch these early performances. Many of his quirks are in place, not least the sideways tilt of the head and baleful stare combination.

But the vaunting confidence is only just warming up. He is quick-witted and quirky — in the television series LA Law he played a loopy tycoon who enacts the Kentucky Derby while in his underwear — but he is some way off having a total command of his effects.

It didn’t take that long. Within a few years he was limping to an Oscar in The Usual Suspects. His prowess was most noticeable when he returned to the stage in The Iceman Cometh. The part of Hickey is a tour-de-force with a 25-minute monologue in the closing act. It requires leather lungs, volcanic outpourings and lightning quick changes of mood, all of which Spacey handled seamlessly. But what made him outshine his fellow cast members was his crackling presence. It is a vague thing to define — Voltage? Charisma? Good looks? Spacey does not have striking features in repose. He is not hugely tall. But on stage it is impossible to miss the physical command of space. What it came down to is the way he moved about the stage, the predatory energy he gave off.

Friends talk about the shift upwards he made ten years ago when he became comfortable with himself “as an artist”. He had so much ambition that it seems his early, less successful, years kept crippling him. “It was a nightmare. I never slept. I obsessed about my career non-stop: what I was doing wrong, how everybody was successful but me. You go into an audition with that kind of panic and you can forget it. There’s no deodorant for desperation.”

Other actors can pace around chewing their nails, but these days on set Spacey will sit still, listening to music, or playing to the gallery, cracking jokes, squeezing shoulders, nipping off to pose for pictures with fans. His mimicry is amazing. Johnny Carson, Christopher Walken, Burt Lancaster, Al Pacino, William Hurt. More than a few answerphones in Hollywood have messages with Spacey pretending to be someone else.

When it comes to his private life, though, the electric flow of entertainment dries up completely. He still folds his arms and insists that the less we know, the more convincing his performances will be. “I don’t wish to be fodder for the mill,” he says. “They make up things about me.” Such as what? That he took his mother to the Oscars? If he goes back to delivering a few more wickedly fun performances, he can take whomever he wants.

Thanks, Jaye.