Born: Kevin Spacey Fowler, 26 July 1959, South Orange, New Jersey. Education: Attended Los Angeles Valley College; studied drama at Juilliard School, 1979–81. Career: Appeared on TV series Wiseguy , 1988. Awards: Tony Award for best featured actor in a drama, for Lost in Yonkers , 1991; Academy Award and National Board of Review Award for best supporting actor, The Usual Suspects , 1996; Boston Society of Film Critics Award for best supporting actor, 1997, and London Critics Circle Award for supporting actor of the year, 1998, both for L.A. Confidential ; Academy Award and British Academy Award, for best actor in a leading role, London Critics Circle Award, for actor of the year, and Screen Actors Guild Award, for outstanding performance by a cast in a theatrical motion
Heartburn (Nichols) (as Subway Thief)
Wiseguy (Holcomb, Marshall—for TV) (as Mel Profitt); Long Day's Journey Into Night (Miller—for TV) (as James "Jamie" Tyrone, Jr.)
Rocket Gibraltar (Petrie) (as Dwayne Hanson); Working Girl (Nichols) (as Bob Speck); The Murder of Mary Phagan (Hale—for TV) (as Wes Brent)
Dad (Goldberg) (as Mario); See No Evil, Hear No Evil (Hiller) (as Kirgo)
A Show of Force (Barreto) (as Frank Curtin); When You Remember Me (Winer—for TV) (as Wade); Henry & June (Kaufman) (as Richard Osborn); Fall from Grace (Arthur—for TV) (as Jim Bakker)
Darrow (Coles—for TV) (as Clarence Darrow)
Consenting Adults (Pakula) (as Eddy Otis); Glengarry Glen Ross (Foley) (as John Williamson)
Doomsday Gun (Young—for TV) (as Jim Price); Iron Will (Haid) (as Harry Kingsley); The Ref ( Hostile Hostages ) (Demme) (as Lloyd Chasseur); Swimming with Sharks ( The Boss ) ( The Buddy Factor ) (Huang) (as Buddy Ackerman) (+ pr)
Se7en ( Seven ) (Fincher) (as John Doe); The Usual Suspects (Singer) (as Verbal Kint); Outbreak (Petersen) (as Casey Schuler)
A Time to Kill (Schumacher) (as Rufus Buckley); Looking for Richard (Pacino) (as Buckingham/Himself)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Eastwood) (as Jim Williams); L.A. Confidential (Hanson) (as Jack Vincennes)
A Bug's Life (Lasseter, Stanton) (as voice of Hopper); Hurlyburly (Drazan) (as Mickey); The Negotiator (Gray) (as Lt. Chris Sabian); Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Katz—for TV) (as Narrator)
American Beauty (Mendes) (as Lester Burnham); Forever Hollywood (Glassman, McCarthy) (as Himself); Hitchcock: Shadow of a Genius ( Dial H Hitchcock: The Genius Behind the Showman , Dial H for Hitchcock ) (Haimes—for TV) (as Narrator); Saturday Night Live: 25th Anniversary (McCarthy—for TV) (as Himself); The Big Kahuna (Swanbeck) (as Larry Mann) (+ pr)
Ordinary Decent Criminal (O'Sullivan) (as Michael Lynch); Pay It Forward (Leder)
Albino Alligator (d)
Interview in Écran Fantastique (Paris), no. 143, July-August 1995.
Interview in Télérama (Paris), no. 2387, 11 October 1995.
Interview in Time Out (London), no. 1337, 3 April 1996.
Lyttle, John, "John Lyttle on Cinema," in The Independent , 31 May 1994.
Hunter, Allan, "Who IS Kevin Spacey," in The Scotsman , 19 July 1997.
Epstein, Jan, "Demon Dogs: L.A. Confidential ," in Cinema Papers (Fitzroy), no. 121, November 1997.
Wolf, Matt, "The Unusual Suspect," in Asian Age , 11 August 1998.
Eimer, David, "Spacey Exploration," in Time Out (London), 27 October 1999.
"The Name of the Rose," in Film Review , February 2000.
* * *
"Exciting and dangerous though he is," wrote critic John Lyttle in 1994, "Kevin Spacey will never be a front rank film star: there's something a mite too mean in that pig-cum-pug face and beefy body." A cautionary object-lesson in "never say never," certainly; but the steady rise in Spacey's status since that judgement attests the actor's impressive skill in expanding his range, effecting a turnaround in his screen persona that still leaves room for the deep-dyed scuzzbag roles that first made his name. Not since Lee Marvin, perhaps, has a born heavy so persuasively remoulded himself into star material.
With hindsight the potential seems self-evident, right from his screen debut in Mike Nichols' Heartburn when, orange-haired and saturnine, he coolly mugs Meryl Streep's entire therapy group and briefly galvanises an otherwise vapid movie. In Glengarry Glen Ross , a showpiece of ensemble acting, Spacey's self-serving office manager astutely holds his own with actors of the calibre of Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino. But his breakthrough year didn't come until 1995, when three films in quick succession— The Usual Suspects , Seven , and Swimming with Sharks —transformed him from a cult actor treasured by connoisseurs to a major star in the making. He played bad guys in all three films, but in such utterly different registers that any lingering thoughts of typecasting were banished.
With his dark eyes and heavy, sullen jowls Spacey scarcely fitted the Hollywood norm for male leads. "I keep seeing the same people," he observed of his fellow-actors, "and I don't look like them. I have to go at it a different way." His way of going at it involved discarding the stock elements in any role, no matter how cursory or underwritten, in favour of a layered, nuanced performance that suggested complexities swirling beneath the surface, facets yet to be exposed. "If you look at a person through only one lens, then you miss truth," he once remarked. "People can be many things at many times." He was referring specifically to The Usual Suspects (and not just to his own part in it), but the principle applies to most of the roles he's played.
As the parts have grown larger and more substantial with his improving status, this technique has allowed Spacey to find moments when a character reveals hidden elements, not only to us but to himself. Such a flash of self-revelation comes at a key moment in L.A. Confidential when smug "celebrity cop" Jack Vincennes suddenly discovers, to his own dismay, that he has a conscience. Up to this point Spacey has given a preening, dancing performance, as though Vincennes were acknowledging unheard applause on each entry. (He apparently studied several of Dean Martin's films while preparing for the role.) Then all at once, as this unwonted aspect of himself makes itself known, a stillness grips him and a look of inner-directed bemusement fills his eyes: what is this and how did it get here?
Even as producer-from-hell Buddy Ackerman in Swimming with Sharks , the least complex of his three 1995 bad guys, Spacey adds layers and ambiguities for us to explore: Buddy's a monster, no question, but we also sense the man putting on his monster act, standing back and savouring his own sadistic riffs. (Does this make him more hateful, or less?) In The Usual Suspects , his tour de force of verbal and physical deviousness lurks at the very heart of the labyrinth. Now slumped in maudlin self-abasement, now taking off on another fluent, meandering yarn, his flickering eyes restlessly sizing up the odds, Spacey gives a performance of such masterly indirection that the crucial question (is he or isn't he Keyzer Soze?) remains impossible to resolve, even on multiple viewings.
Between his two Oscars—Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects , Best Actor for American Beauty —Spacey deliberately set out "to move away from the roles that I first got noticed for. . . . A rather dark impression had been made, because I was playing characters that were quite manipulative and villainous and seemed to be about ten steps ahead of everyone else. That was really great territory to explore, but I started to see that the offers I was getting for other movies were the same roles in lamer films."
By way of transition, he tried out a varied spread of good-bad roles. Besides L.A. Confidential there was his gay Southern socialite in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , a model of silky underplaying let down by Eastwood's lethargic direction; and his teaming with Samuel L. Jackson in the police thriller The Negotiator —"I wanted to see if I could do a big commercial action movie that I could live with myself in the morning about." He also collected rave notices in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh on the London stage, and made his directorial debut with Albino Alligator , a psychological heist-gone-wrong drama. His direction was fluent and assured, if a touch under-ambitious.
As Lester Burnham, the shop-soiled protagonist of American Beauty , Spacey was at last given room to show what he could do. For him, it was a link back to his theatre work, where rather than being cast as heavies, "I played men more like Lester—having an internal turmoil with themselves." Lifting the role, as ever, well clear of easy caricature, Spacey takes the stock figure of the unhappily-married, midlife-crisis suburban male and imbues him with warmth, urgency, and a self-deprecating hangdog charm. A man who tries to recapture his lost youth out of lust for a 16-year-old schoolgirl could so easily have appeared unsavoury or contemptible; Spacey, without making any crass bids for sympathy, holds us with him right to the film's final, unlooked-for moment of redemption. Kevin Spacey's status as a major movie star is now secure. What he does with it should be well worth watching.