Lost on a Spacey career path


March 1, 2003

Remember when you never had to feel sorry for a Kevin Spacey character? It’s about time the actor remembered. After enjoying at least seven thriving years in the 1990s, Kevin Spacey has begun to seem like a reclamation project. From his 1992 appearance as one of the sales-force cutthroats in the movie version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” through his Academy Award-winning role as an alienated family man in “American Beauty,” Mr. Spacey enjoyed an exceptional streak. He emerged as not only a distinctive, sharp-as-a-tack character actor, but also an unconventionally charismatic leading man. It wasn’t an unprecedented ascent. Rod Steiger and Gene Hackman had recorded similar breakthroughs in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. Mr. Spacey now seems to be mired in the sort of slump both those improbable stars had to weather after winning Academy Awards, Mr. Steiger for “In the Heat of the Night” in 1967 and Mr. Hackman for “The French Connection” in 1971.

Twenty years later, Mr. Hackman won a second Oscar, for “Unforgiven.” Mr. Spacey is way ahead of that pace, having been named best supporting actor in 1995 for “The Usual Suspects” before adding the best-actor prize a mere four years later.

There’s no reason to assume the five-movie slide that has Mr. Spacey looking a trifle lost at the moment — “The Big Kahuna,” “Pay It Forward,” “K-Pax,” “The Shipping News” and “The Life of David Gale,” which opened a week ago — will prove irreversible. The actor seems far too cagey and experienced to be caught without some comeback roles up his sleeve, including, perhaps, the biopic about pop singer Bobby Darin that he has been preparing for years.

Mr. Spacey’s slump may be symbolized by his cover-boy pose for the current issue of the slightly screwball fan periodical Movieline. Though elegantly garbed in an Armani tux, he looks as if he’s about to pass out while sprawled on a lower step of a staircase.

Evidently, he thought this posture would be appropriate for a cover story meant to publicize the release of “David Gale.” So it is, dopily enough, now that the movie is shaping up as another Spacey flop. However, the more appropriate collapse would be a facedown variation on the pavement outside a multiplex where customers would be stepping over the body on their way to buy tickets for “Daredevil” or “Old School.”

Back when he was still developing as an arresting movie presence, Mr. Spacey tended to play sarcastic and knowing types. In his resounding impact year, 1995, he added a predatory dimension to the wiseguy aspect. As a criminal mastermind posing as a distraught flunky, he seemed to control the unspooling of the tightly wound scenario of “The Usual Suspects.” He haunted “Seven” as a shadowy serial killer, making a belated appearance but leaving an indelible impression of diabolical malice and ruthlessness.

Mr. Spacey’s mastery of supreme sociopaths was enhanced by his obvious alertness and intelligence. You felt as if a brilliant mind had been perverted beyond redemption. Although Mr. Spacey lacked a heroic profile (or hairline), his role in “L.A. Confidential” as an opportunistic cop who could be persuaded to take a chance on doing the right thing — fatally, as it happened — staked a modest claim on heroic pathos.

Mr. Spacey seems to have run into conceptual trouble by turning his once menacing and then semisympathetic persona as a smart guy with a bad conscience into a victimized do-gooder begging for audience compassion.

“American Beauty,” winner of the 1999 Oscar for best picture, attempted to use Mr. Spacey as a kind of fugitive essence of moral ambiguity. He played a wretch capable of poignant reflection — but only after he’s dead and there are no ripe cheerleaders around to distract him. Looking back, one can detect there, in his “American Beauty” role as Lester Burnham, the beginnings of his slide. The film and its protagonist were both intended as homages to the wised up-opportunism of the legendary Billy Wilder’s anti-heroes. Mr. Spacey’s Burnham, however, feels entitled to audience sympathy for his middle-aged suburban malaise and to forgiveness for his acts of amoral revolt. In this, he couldn’t be less like a Wilder anti-hero. Those marginal men were too desperate for the spiritually self-pampering malaise of suburban yuppies. They also would never apologize or seek forgiveness for the moral expedients to which they resorted. Because they refused to grovel before the audience, they were able to earn its grudging respect.

The miasma of self-pity surrounding the actor’s screen persona thickened further with “Pay It Forward,” in which he played a facially disfigured teacher whose traumas eventually tumble out in a heap, while he grows fond of a precocious student, Haley Joel Osment, and the boy’s hard-luck mom, Helen Hunt. Some members of the press considered “Forward” the self-evident Oscar front-runner of 2000. Hadn’t Miss Hunt and Mr. Spacey recently won Academy Awards? Didn’t matter. “Pay It Forward” was a cloying affliction and failed to unite the country in inspirational weeping and reaffirmation.

The next three miscalculations were cast-off roles Mr. Spacey sincerely coveted. The would-be saintly psychotic of “K-Pax” once had been reserved for Will Smith. The role of a downtrodden and abandoned family man in “The Shipping News” had been in the possession of, first, John Travolta and then Billy Bob Thornton. David Gale, the title character in Mr. Spacey’s current film, is a campus zealot who conspires to arrange his own bogus martyrdom, a demented ruse for discrediting capital punishment. It’s a polemical booby trap that George Clooney and Nicolas Cage decided to dodge.

In retrospect, Mr. Spacey’s remarks at the “K-Pax” press junket help illuminate the career shift that is proving a mutual embarrassment to performer and audience. Talking in general terms about his career, circa 2001, he explained; “It’s always a case of struggling to do something you’ve never done before. You need to convince people you’re capable of it. Six years ago, I was playing very cynical, ironic, quick-witted, visceral kinds of characters. That was a really fascinating period, but I got to where I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to move somewhere else, but no one would have thought of me for something like ‘The Shipping News.’ I couldn’t have knocked on the door. So I spent a number of years shifting the kind of parts that I play, moving into areas that were more challenging for me. If you’re interested in moving forward, you have to walk toward it.”

For his last several pictures, the actor has indeed been moving forward — on his knees, unfortunately, pleading for a sentimental solicitude that can’t be justified by either the roles or his sincerely groping and misguided performances. Mr. Spacey began taking “little, tiny, incremental steps” in the direction he was seeking in the aftermath of the 1995 Academy Awards. “There was a particularly strong, sharp image about the kind of actor I was,” he recalled, “when ‘The Usual Suspects’ and ‘Seven’ came out. But I didn’t want to play your evil nemesis again. A lot of roles were being offered to me, many of them bad versions of ‘Seven.’ I found ‘L.A. Confidential,’ and that was the first step. On the surface, a guy who’s glib and overconfident and corrupt. Under the surface, there’s something more disturbing. Also something potentially decent and redemptive. “Then ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ was a second step. Another morally ambiguous kind of character.

By the time Sam Mendes offered me ‘American Beauty,’ he saw what I was up to … The choices you’re able to make are subject to chance in some respects. Not every role comes your way, and sometimes you have prior commitments that preclude a promising offer. There are changes in you or the business or the world that affect the opportunities you’ll get and the choices you’ll make.”

Kevin Spacey has hit one of those defective choice patches that is almost an occupational hazard of even the most brilliant acting careers. According to the Movieline story, he was planning a yearlong hiatus from the movies after “David Gale,” which was shot in the fall of 2001. By that calculation, we may not have another Kevin Spacey fiasco to kick around this year. I could live with that, especially if a new and vigilantly improved Kevin Spacey reappears for the balance of the decade. Something like the earlier wiseguy, perhaps, but wised-up about his unfitness for vehicles that overrate half-baked or bedraggled pathos.