Monday, October 24, 2011

KEVIN SPACEY: MORAL AMBIGUITY AT ITS SLEEKEST

"Whether a character does good or bad things doesn't interest me," Kevin Spacey insists "it's whether there are ambiguities." He is good at tackling ambiguities and turning them into something arresting on screen. But he is definitely better when these moral ambiguities tilt towards negative. ‘Kevin Spacey has made an art of portraying a gallery of morally ambiguous characters ranging from the mildly shady to the all-out murderous’ says his introduction on Internet Movie Database. There is no doubt about his versatility. He is good in almost any role and can adapt very fast to the changing requirement of his role. He can portray vulnerability and redemption (Father of Invention, K-Pax) confused bravado (American beauty) and deep cynicism (Shrink), however, his natural home as a screen actor is malevolent pathology. In other roles he is superb, even Oscar worthy, but his magnetism is at its unparalleled best when he is gallivanting in the dark territory with his amoral smirk. For all his Father of Invention type roles we can go for a Michael Douglas in Wall Street 2 or even in Solitary Man. His cynicism can any day be topped by a Jeff Bridges (remember how he fishes out his goggles from the garbage in Crazy Heart). However, when he his portraying some deep pathology with restrained but unmistakable glee or treading the ambiguities of a guilt-free charlatan he is beyond compare. Murderous malevolence is the most becoming of this superb actor.
Every great actor is good at playing almost everything but his or her greatness lies in few selected zones where he is in full sync with his brilliant core. Al Pacino’s restless showmanship, menace or his exasperation, Di Niro’s pin-pointed rage, Michael Douglas’ lovable rogue, Brando’s rebellious surliness come to mind. They are good or even great in other situations also but here they are at home, hitting the sweet spot of their limitless talent. This is applicable to Kevin Spacey also. An actor of ‘chameleon like versatility’ Spacey has excelled in many difficult characters but one feels like going to his rogue gallery the most. His John Doe in Seven, his Verbal Klint/Keyser Soze in Usual Suspect, morally ambiguous cop in LA Confidential and middle aged desperado in American Beauty are his definitive performances. Rest of his repertoire is great but should not be allowed to pollute the above selection where he is in the league of his own.
Spacey embodies intelligence in his eyes and voice. Glee with which he amalgamates sleekness and naked brutality is pure star quality. He is often a scene stealer with “quick tongued sarcasm and casually sardonic” dismissal of the minions. "Seven" is a film that is heavy on detail of its construction. It is dependent on the impact that is created by the killer who is brought onscreen with only half an hour to go. “Instead of being simply the quarry in a chase, he is revealed as a twisted but articulate antagonist.” Importance of the character can be gauged by the fact that the actor playing the killer (Spacey) is not identified by name in the ads or opening credits. This was an onerous built-up for a, then, lesser known Spacey provided that the film had sublime Morgan Freeman and hard-hitting Brad Pitt. The role was tailor-made to plug into the font of his appeal and core of his innate brilliance. Result was pure electricity on screen. John Doe’s smirks, restraint, glee, intelligence of eyes and voice and quick tongued sarcasm and casually sardonic all came together to weave a defining portrait.
Kevin Spacey has all the right to be outraged by this branding or straitjacketing. He has done wide ranging work in films and has done it well. Furthermore, this 1959 born star decided to take up a full time position of Artistic Director at Old Vic in 2003 and in all likelihood he is committed to the theatre till 2015 in that position. Seriously, an American Superstar at the helm of Old Vic-that G-spot of the theatrical universe, a custodian of the legacy of Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Maggie Smith. When he went there, the old glory was fading. It was without its own company and a unifying vision. To be sure, Spacey was panned and initial lows were rattling. The opening production of an unknown Dutch play, Cloaca, and new Arthur Miller play, Resurrection Blues gave enough fodder to the critics to butcher the new Artistic Director. However, tide was turned when his appearances on stage in The Philadelphia Story and as Shakespeare's Richard II improved the theatre's fortunes. In Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten in 2006 “Kevin Spacey's theatre delivered an hour that was worth crossing the country for: a duet between Spacey and Eve Best unmatched for intensity elsewhere in the London theatre.” He brought famous names to Old Vic such as Altman (did not work out well) and Sam Mendes, His director in American Beauty (hailed as masterstroke). In Richard III he is getting rave reviews. He is emerging as leading voice of funding for artistic efforts particularly theatre. He is encouraging young talents. He is propagating Theatre among youth. Some seats are reserved as cheap tickets for the students in Old Vic. He taught Contemporary theatre at Oxford. No wonder he is slightly peeved by being slotted as portrayer of bad characters only.
He is squeezing in films through his busy theatre schedule but indifference of choice is telling. Horrible Bosses, Father of Invention, Shrink or Casino Jack may have their moments and Spacey never gives a below par performance but they were average movies and bad vehicle for his talent. He has kept his foot in the Hollywood opening while making it big in the world of theatre but he really needs something big in films. In fact, when asked, is there really nothing left in the cinema that excites him? He is on record "Well, I keep waiting for Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese to call me..." That will be something. Till that time his appeal is distilled in the malevolent smirk of a sociopath.

"Sam Rogers, played by a splendidly world-weary Kevin Spacey. Sam oversees the sales force that has been peddling the bad securities, and he must now carry the bad news upstairs, through several more layers of company hierarchy. NYT review of his latest outing is at http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/movies/margin-call-with-zachary-quinto-review.html

-Dhiraj Singh

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