In the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood was just getting out of the studio contract system, and there emerged a new type of movie star – freewheeling, classy and sophisticated film titans who could sing, act, dance and segue between all genres. Sadly, with independent cinema and blockbusters arriving not long after, we lost many of those type of classical Hollywood actors to typecasting and genre actors. However, one of few actors working today who best represents the classier “Old Hollywood” style is without a doubt, Kevin Spacey.
Not to make any other of today’s actors feel like their talents are wasted, Spacey is just a different kind of performer. He exhibits a showmanship and versatility that is normally suited to the stage, a place where no one is surprised to learn he honed his craft. He has this rare ability to make everything he performs in worthwhile – let’s be honest, Spacey has starred in some duds of films. He doesn’t have a perfect track record, but he does elevate even the most dull material to something quite entertaining.
Like many of his talented contemporaries, Spacey is able to play nearly any part, but has carved himself out a niche that he is most comfortable in – much like Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, Spacey is particularly apt at playing wise but sinister characters that are not always entirely evil, but are also never to be trusted, and at their cores are slimy and very often just slightly malevolent. He may often be typecast as these kinds of nasty, bitter characters, but Spacey finds a versatility in them, sliding up and down the scales from slightly nasty to pure evil, adjusting the smugness and apathy to suit the roles perfectly. He is the perfect Shakespearean muse – villainous, but in different degrees.
In one of the most difficult tasks I’ve had to do, here are the five essential films you should view that star the great Kevin Spacey
- American Beauty. Any young actor looking for a masterclass in performing shouldn’t ever skip on American Beauty. The eventual Best Picture winner is engraved in cinema history as a cynical satire on suburban life. However, I think that most of the credit for the film’s success has to go to Spacey’s brilliant performance as Lester Burnham. He commits to the role more than most actors would care to even attempt. It remains one of the greatest film performances ever.
- The Big Kahuna. One of the most underrated movies of all time, and one of Spacey’s finest. A cynical character development about three salesmen (Spacey, Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli), and their experiences during one afternoon in a hotel room preparing for a conference. Spacey is so comfortable here, playing the righteous, yet intelligent, jerk. A ninety-minute character study with two other actors isn’t the worst decision an actor can make to developing their craft, and I just wish Spacey would return to these independent projects more often. ‘
- The Usual Suspects. This, I believe, was the first time the world stood up and took notice of this young character actor named Kevin Spacey. Playing the devious and malevolent “cripple” Verbal Kint, he is deceptive and sly, giving a deliciously evil performance as one of the most endearing villains in film history. Even though the film was an ensemble piece, it was undoubtedly Spacey’s film, as he overshadowed his co-stars.
- Swimming with Sharks. Hollywood satire, when done right, is brilliant. We have such a misguided perception that Hollywood and the film industry is perfect and pleasant and a dream job, so its a breath of fresh air when a smart satire comes along that blows away those silly thoughts. One of the more biting ones is Swimming with Sharks, that shows Kevin Spacey at the peak of his nasty, entitled bastard period. His performance as the evil Buddy Ackerman set the groundwork for him to become a big star, and assured him that he can do whatever roles he wishes, but he will always have job security playing the cruel, tyrannical boss (a role he recently reprised to an extent in the hilarious Horrible Bosses).
- House of Cards. Remember when I said Spacey is really good at playing tyrants? Well, nothing comes close to that description as much as his performance in House of Cards. Playing the ruthless Frank Underwood, who deceptively climbs the ladder of power, Spacey proves that he is not just a film guy, but also can be embraced as a performer on different mediums.
Spacey is one of those few actors who hasn’t really dwindled in popularity – he has never been the top of the A-List, but since his star-making turns in the early 1990s, his career has been at a comfortable level right up there with all the greatest actors. Having starred in some good films, some bad films and some mediocre films, Spacey has always been consistently excellent and shown off his considerable talents in everything he stars in. Here’s to many more years of the brilliant performer Kevin Spacey.