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?