Saturday, June 28, 2008

Who Sent Kevin Spacey Out to Lunch?

When I sat down last week to watch Glengarry Glen Ross for the first time, I already knew that it took brass balls to sell real estate. What I didn’t know was that David Mamet’s 1992 film adaptation of his own stage play required an iron will. Mamet is known for his proclivity for excessive dialogue, but Glengarry Glen Ross is so chatty it’s paralyzing. In one scene Character A will speak nonstop for five minutes, and in the next scene he’ll sit there silent as a rock as Character B takes his turn sucking the air out of the room. It’s a format that might work on stage, where our eyes tend to be drawn to the person speaking, but it doesn’t translate well to film, where it’s hard to ignore a stiff in the corner who is sitting there and doing nothing.

One of the few players in Glengarry Glen Ross who routinely has actual conversations with the characters around him – rather than trading soliloquies – is the boss of the office John Williamson, a major figure in the lives of the salesmen struggling to keep their jobs but a relatively minor personality in the story. He’s played by Kevin Spacey in what is a rather blank, gum-chewing performance. Spacey was a virtual unknown when Glengarry came out, and it would be three more years before he entered mainstream consciousness with his Oscar-winning turn in The Usual Suspects. I always feel for people who didn’t get around to seeing Suspects until years later, because Verbal Kint is an entirely different character when seen as a star’s role than when taken as a comparatively insignificant supporting part; Spacey’s relative anonymity was a key to the movie’s mystery.

Then came Seven, yet another film in which Spacey’s performance is responsible for the effectiveness of a carefully calculated conclusion. Most of us now probably remember John Doe kneeling in the grass, his fate in the hands of Brad Pitt’s anguished Detective Mills, but the gift of Spacey’s performance is his rage-filled rant from the back of the squad car that assures us that this otherwise cool customer is as vicious as his murder scenes imply. (“Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny?”) As with his turn in Suspects, Spacey’s John Doe was best experienced within the context of Seven’s release, because to see the film for the first time now is perhaps to wonder what Lester Burnham is getting so upset about.

Which brings us to this: Whatever happened to Kevin Spacey? Two years after Seven was L.A. Confidential, and two years after that came his second Oscar for his performance in American Beauty. And then the bottom fell out. Pay It Forward went down as easily as ipecac, and with the same result. K-PAX was trashed. The Shipping News wasn’t newsworthy. The Life Of David Gale was putrid in myriad ways. And Beyond The Sea showcased Spacey’s singing but at the cost of coming off like nothing more than a vehicle to showcase Spacey’s singing; it felt self-indulgent. I personally enjoyed his Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, but that part did nothing to silence Spacey’s critics who seem to find him over the top, generally odious and smug.

Now Spacey finds himself doing TV movies, having recently starred in Recount. This while Nicolas Cage still gets starring vehicles. And Mel Gibson, too, despite being the subject of unpleasant headlines away from the set. Heck, Alec Baldwin – Mr. Brass Balls himself – has revitalized his career while managing to be more odious and smug than ever. Is Spacey merely experiencing a run of bad luck? A dry spell? Has his time in the spotlight simply come and gone, the way it did for Kevin Costner and to some degree even Tom Hanks (though Hanks is so beloved that I’m sure he can still draw a crowd given the right material). Or is there something else at work here? Do people have a grudge against Spacey? If so, why? And since when?

Of late it’s become cool to knock American Beauty as one of the “worst” Best Picture winners. If the film was so reviled at the time, I didn’t notice. American Beauty, you might remember, succeeded at the box office based on positive word of mouth: originally released in only a few cities, then a few more, then a few more, until finally the entire country could see it, satisfying a growing demand. I’ll leave arguments about whether American Beauty should have won the Oscar, and even whether Spacey should have, for another day. That doesn’t interest me right now. What does is trying to figure out how Spacey could so effectively slip into the shoes of Verbal Kint, John Doe, Jack Vincennes and Lester Burnham – four men who have nothing in common – and then seemingly find no shoe his size for almost the next 10 years.

And so I ask Cooler readers: Anybody have any theories on this? Are there similar examples? Does Spacey just need his Vincent Vega, or is it too late for that? How do you explain an actor who has two Academy Awards to his name but now seems to struggle to find work?


Craig said...

Spacey's last theatrical release, 21, was actually a surprise hit of sorts ($80 mil, not bad). He wasn't technically the "star" of the picture, but in playing the veteran character actor overseeing an ensemble of young pinups, it was a shrewd career move, his shrewdest in years following an odd assortment of vanity projects, Oscar bait pictures, would-be blockbusters, and comedy cameos, some of which you listed. Spacey's filmography suggests that at some point after American Beauty he tired of the cynical characters that made him, and he sought to branch out a bit. His choices weren't the greatest, but I understand the impulse. Cynicism is what he excels at, however, so perhaps his turn in 21 marks a return to that kind of character. (I wouldn't put too much stock in his appearance in Recount; there appear to be quite a few still-employable actors who chose to make that picture.)

Lots of great actors have gone through dry spells: Jack Nicholson between Cuckoo's Nest and Reds; Al Pacino throughout the entire 80s until Sea of Love. I wouldn't put Spacey at their level, but he's talented and by all indicators still well-liked. My hunch is he'll be back.

Richard Bellamy said...

Spacey's role is "21" was a good one - though he ends up playing the same sort of character these days. He essentially played the same sort of character in last year's "Fred Claus" - in which he plays a cynical cost accountant determined to shut down Santa Claus. Perhaps he should be more judicious about the roles he picks and wait around for something different.

But waiting for something different is not something actors can depend upon these days - when writers seem to be dishing out more and more of the same thing - a recent example being "Wanted" which shamelessly rips off "The Matrix" and "Fight Club," to name only two films.

Denzel Washington always seems to end up playing a cop. Morgan Freeman's talents are wasted in supporting roles as a cop or the wise mentor. A big factor in this year's poor line-up of films is that there aren't that many original stories out there. Spacey ends up doing the same old routine because films these days seem populated by the same old characters.

Mark said...

I think Craig's on to something with "21" (which I didn't see) being a shrewd career move for Spacey. As you note, Jason, much of Spacey's early success was in supporting or supporting-seeming roles in which he was a happy surprise. Even "L.A. Confidential" was enough of an ensemble piece that it didn't feel like a Spacey vehicle. That suited him well, I think.

I liked "American Beauty" and his performance in it, but I remember thinking there was one scene when he seemed to be focusing on stardom rather than acting. That was the scene, late in the movie, when he's seen without a shirt, doing bench presses. It made sense within the story, but still didn't feel Spacey-like to me. I felt him scratching the Hollywood itch and wanting him to be famous. Later disasters, espcially "Beyond the Sea," along with various talk-show appearances I caught, cemented that impression for me.

I do think he's a good actor, and I won't be surprised if he is re-discovered as a leading man with good material. But he's smart not to rush it.

Thanks, Jason, for another intriguing post.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you have forgotten that he has a regular and demanding job as Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre in London. It leaves him little time for starring roles or long supporting ones. He had only 6 weeks available to shoot Superman Returns, and the other roles were sandwiched in between his stage appearances. He was in 21 and Recount also because he was one of the producers. When he was making the rounds of TV interviews for Recount, he stated he had a few more years at the Old Vic. He has been quite successful in revitalizing the Theatre.

Fox said...

Hey Jason-

My theory is that Spacey's jig is up. He's not a very good actor, in my view, and since his one note has been played to death I think nobody cares anymore.

I admit, I'm a little biased here b/c Spacey is one of my least favorite actors. I will fully disclose that - like Cate Blanchett - I JUST DON'T GET IT.

From *Swimming With Sharks* on, Spacey seems to appeal to people when he's playing the cynic, the cheat, the guy who thinks he's the smartest man in the room.

Maybe it's his everyman face that gave him popularity. I don't know... I'm just glad he's being humbled, finally.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for all the comments. Good thoughts. And this is the perfect time to jump in: through just five comments we’ve got Anon and Fox at the extreme ends of the spectrum and Craig, Hokahey and Mark somewhere in between. Interesting. Anon makes a good point that Spacey has a serious time commitment on his hands. Still, let’s look a “21” for a second: that was hardly a major film, regardless of whether Spacey performed well in it or whether it was a wise career choice. My point is that Spacey seems to have drifted off the map. My assumption is that if he got handed another starring role, he’d make the time for it. Though, as people seem to point out here, Spacey seems perhaps better fit to steal a few scenes than to carry a movie anyway.

Will he be back? Craig makes the great point that a lot of actors revitalize their careers after a lull. But let’s look at Kevin Costner again: From 1987 with “The Untouchables” to 1997’s disastrous “The Postman,” the dude was in everything, and was the star of almost all of it. Some of the films were small (“The War”), some of them were big misses (“Waterworld”) but then look at these films: “Bull Durham,” “Field Of Dreams,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Robin Hood,” “JFK,” “The Bodyguard,” “A Perfect World,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Tin Cup.” That’s actually quite a bit of variety for an actor with pretty limited range. For a while, this guy was beloved. Now it’s as if no one takes him seriously. I sense the same thing with Spacey, who received more acclaim for his acting but who never held Hollywood in his grasp like Costner did for a time.

Anyway, Costner still stars in movies (recently “The Guardian” and “Mr. Brooks”), so maybe he’s just waiting for a good movie to come along. But at this moment it’s just hard for me to imagine people getting excited about Costner again, and I feel the same about Spacey. Comebacks happen: as I implied above, John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” But they’re rare.

Thanks for the thoughts. Others feel free to join in.

Craig said...

I would posit the hardly-controversial argument that Spacey has more range than Costner. And while he's had his share of vanity projects, Beyond the Sea wasn't derided nearly to the extent that both Waterworld and The Postman were.

Still, it's an interesting question, whether it's better to be an object of ridicule or to fall out of the discussion altogether. I have to give Costner props for sticking his neck out for projects he believes in and for having more resourcefulness than one might have thought. The Upside of Anger provided a good supporting role for him recently. Coincidentally, his next starring vehicle, Swing Vote, will be election-related. We'll see how that plays.

Jason Wilde said...

I actually know the answer to this, at least sort of. My friend Lindsey, who's now a physical therapist in Chicago, was a film producer in LA and sat in on a meeting with Kevin Spacey in advance of Beyond the Sea. She passed on it -- and, I'm happy to say, was vindcated later because it SUCKED when it was made by another studio -- but Spacey made an incredibly negative impression on her. Egomaniacal and arrogant (and that's saying something, since just about every actor is arrogant and big egoed), it's not at all surprising that his career has taken the turn it has given how full of himself he became. Bad choices, disappointing performances ... Perhaps if he'd learned to "Pay It Forward" it wouldn't be tailspinning. As for the posts about 21, which I didn't see either, perhaps taking that supporting role is a sign he's realized the error of his ways.

~ Wilde

Fox said...

Jason, I agree with you that Costner is limited, but I think his on screen presence is much more inviting than Spacey's. (Have any of Spacey's characters ever been likable??)

Also, I think Craig is onto something when he mentions the choices Costner makes. Costner seems to be aware of his limited abilities and uses that well, where Spacey isn't and falls on his face a lot.

Costner, to me, seems more of a populist, where Spacey seems more of an elitist snoot (remember my admission that I am anti-Spacey guy while reading this. :) ).

Heck, Costner even made the serial killer in Mr. Brooks somewhat seductive and sympathetic.

On a side note: I think Open Range is a pretty brilliant film. The Postman is a mess and poor overall, but I do admire its ambition. Haven't seen Waterworld, and Dances With Wolves isn't fresh enough in my mind to have a solid opinion.

Johnny Bacardi said...

I don't think the problem is with Spacey as as actor so much as it is with the films he's choosing to get involved with; nearly all of them have been bland, treacly affairs. I think he needs to find someone else to read the scripts he's given.

An example is his turn as Luthor in that terrible Superman flick. It didn't help that he chose to imitate Gene Hackman in the part, rather than put something of himself in the part, but really, he didn't have a choice- the scriptwriters wrote the part as if Hackman was still playing the character.

One Spacey perf that I liked that I didn't see mentioned was in The Negotiator; he hit most of the right notes in his part, I thought.