By most Hollywood preconceptions , Kevin Spacey should not be an A-list actor. He’s 5’11”, slender, and looks like your best friend’s dad. He is extraordinarily close-mouthed about his personal life, leading many to speculate he is gay – a charge he and previous girlfriends have denied. But what Kevin Spacey lacks in brawn and traditional sex appeal, he more than compensates for by being simply one of the best actors working today. With his attention to detail, on-screen sincerity, and ability to truly deceive, he has established himself in an art form that is normally quite cruel to the everyman. Here are his top three shining roles, the proof that he is indeed worthy of his A-list status.
American Beauty, 1999
This film touches on many sexual taboos that include homosexuality and lusting for a barely-legal young woman. Portraying depressed, middle-aged suburbanite Lester Burnham, Spacey handles these scenes easily and realistically. As Lester is enamored with his daughter’s best friend Angela, played by Mena Suvari, there are several sexually-charged scenes wherein a man of lesser talent would have embarrassed himself.
At the time of filming, Suvari was roughly half Spacey’s age, yet there was none of the awkwardness one often sees in a May-December on-screen pairing. Spacey also handles a same-sex kiss with fellow actor Chris Cooper with surprising panache. His hand gestures, postures, and eye contact are spot-on. While Spacey may not be traditionally sexy, he convinces the movie-goer that he is indeed sexual. That is a wonderful skill Spacey has cultivated, and is only one dart in his arsenal of talent.
Spacey won over fourteen awards for his role in American Beauty, including an Academy Award and two SAG awards. I couldn’t agree more. His work in this film is outstanding.
Being among an all-star cast including Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey could have very easily been pushed aside by bigger names and forgotten. Spacey was not involved with the promotion of the film, is not credited in the opening sequence, and appears only after half of the movie is over. None of that matters, either. Spacey is astonishing in this film as crazed serial-killer John Doe.
In this film, Spacey appears gaunt due to some weight loss and the shearing off of his signature everyman brown hair. His eyes glitter with malice and dart around. He alternates between eerily-calm and factual to biting sarcasm seamlessly. Spacey captures crazy and goes all-out in this film. When Doe surrenders to police, covered in blood, his wails are haunting. His heartless narrations of his grisly crimes are as fascinating as they are repulsive.
Spacey won an MTV Movie Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best supporting Actor for this film. The only reason I can possibly imagine why this performance was otherwise over-looked is because is was released the same year as Spacey’s best performance so far, which is the next film on the list.
The Usual Suspects, 1995
This film is simply a masterpiece. The entire work hinges on Spacey’s ability to deceive. Playing Verbal Kint, a small-time criminal with cerebral palsy giving a long, convoluted, and untrue statement to the police, Spacey steals every scene. Using glue to hold his hand into a crippled position and filing his shoes to perfect a shuffling gait, it is easy to believe Spacey does indeed have CP. Spacey convinces the viewer that he is not only crippled, but a wimp and a coward. It is only at the end of the film we learn he is not suffering from any ailment and is in fact Kaiser Soze, the phantom villain the cops were after all along.
This film has vast cuts of time where it is just Spacey narrating or talking to another cop in a small office. His tone and facial expressions are wonderful, running the gamut from fear to annoyance to despair and back again. Once you know the twist ending, it’s worth a second viewing (or a third) to go back and catch all of the small details Spacey planted into his interpretation of the role.
The Usual Suspects netted Spacey another Academy Award as well as over ten other awards and accolades, as well as multiple nominations. This is arguably his best work, and worth several viewings to catch all of the nuances.
In these three films, Spacey shows us the wide variety of his acting skills. Everything from disgruntled cubicle-dweller, to deranged killer, to underground crime boss in disguise, Spacey is comfortable and sincere in all of his roles. He is an everyman, a superb actor, and worthy of his A-listing.