Monday, August 6, 2012

The Curious Case of Kevin Spacey

Bryan Singer’s timeless mystery film “The Usual Suspects” has been on HBO quite a bit over the past month. For those unaware, “The Usual Suspects” redefined the mystery genre in the 1990s and was voted as the #10 greatest mystery film of all-time by the American Film Institute. Kevin Spacey ultimately won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role his the MS-stricken felon Verbal Kint, which began one of the most impressive five-year runs that any actor has had in recent memory.*

*Although Spacey won the Oscar in a stacked race that year (Other nominees include Brad Pitt in “Twelve Monkeys” and Ed Harris in “Apollo 13”) Benecio del Toro absolutely stole the film as the mush-mouthed Fenster. Watch this clip and you will see why.

Starting in 1995 with “The Usual Suspects” and ending with his second Oscar for “American Beauty,” Kevin Spacey appeared in ten films. Four of those films, “The Usual Suspects,” “American Beauty,” “L.A.Confidential,” and “Se7en” rank in the top 100 of all-time according to the Internet Movie Database and a fifth, “A Bug’s Life” spent time grossed over $150 million in the United States.

Other actors have had similar runs of success. Tom Hanks had an eight year stretch that included two Oscars and two more nominations while appearing in films such as “Forrest Gump,” “Philadelphia,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “The Green Mile.” Robert DeNiro from the late 1970s through the early-to-mid 1980s could not be touched. Outside of those two, however, such a prodigious stretch in cinema is rare for an actor. Even rarer, however, is that almost immediately after winning the Oscar for “American Beauty,” Spacey’s stock plummeted.

Every great actor falls off eventually. Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino become shells of their former selves and appear to just collect paychecks at this point. Tom Hanks, not unlike Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez may have lost a step or two. Johnny Depp seems to have decided that his career peaked with Jack Sparrow, so he basically plays that character in every movie he’s been in since.  Paul Newman retired because he could no longer perform at a level that he found acceptable. With all of those actors, though, the decline was slow and noticeable. Kevin Spacey, though, went from the Oscar podium to straight-to-DVD purgatory almost immediately.

Even more oddly than the precipitous decline and what makes the case of Kevin Spacey so strangely unique, however, is the fact that he still gives passable performances at his worst and great performances at best. He continues to be among the top-billed actor in the movies in which he appears. In fact, Kevin Spacey is in the midst of a small career resurgence. Starting in 2009, he appeared as one of the main characters in “The Men who Stare at Goats” and, more recently, he stole the show in “Horrible Bosses.” He followed those movies by giving arguably his strongest performance since “American Beauty” in the 2011 film “Margin Call.” Spacey clearly still has the same acting ability that got him to the awards podium twice in a five-year stretch.

The career arc of Kevin Spacey simply makes no sense. He basically went from a bit actor in TV shows before having the year of a lifetime in 1995 by landing the breakout role of Verbal Kint, which he followed up with the haunting role of John Doe in “Se7en.” His movies made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. He received constant praise for performances and, just like that, he’s gone.


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