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8 May 2024

Inside the mind of Kevin Spacey

Beyond the allegations, Channel 4’s Spacey Unmasked is a brave attempt to explain the actor’s apparent self-loathing.

By Rachel Cooke

In July 2023, Kevin Spacey stood outside a south London court and thanked the jury that had just acquitted him of nine charges of sexual assault. A year before, another jury, this one in the US, had acquitted him of the civil charges of sexual battery brought against him by the actor Anthony Rapp. As the Oscar-winning star addressed the press in the unlikely environs of Southwark – didn’t he remind you in that moment just a little of his character in House of Cards? – I remember thinking that a line had now surely been drawn. This story had gone the same way as Spacey’s career. It was over.

But I was wrong. Like some twisted inversion of a hit Broadway show, this one is set to run and run. In Spacey Unmasked on Channel 4, ten men describe their alleged experiences at the hands of the actor over five decades (only one of them has spoken out before) and each interview is like a short story, the minor details often as compelling and as horrifying as their central claims. If the fact that his accusers belong to the theatre and the movies means they’re confident storytellers, good at building suspense and delivering black jokes – occasionally, they may strike you as melodramatic – they’re also plausible. You could not make some of this stuff up, or at least so I felt as I watched. Spacey’s lawyers insist the allegations are “false and unverified”, and “largely historic”, while the actor, in an interview with the former GB News presenter Dan Wootton, has said that he “cannot and will not… apologise to anyone who’s made stuff up about me or exaggerated stories about me”.

Some of the experiences described will be horribly familiar to most women. If an unwanted hand on a backside is grim, it’s also, for us, pretty ordinary. But a lot of what is alleged here goes far beyond harassment, and I am uncomfortable writing about it. Spacey appears in the films as a kind of human stealth bomber. Promises are made (come to a party at Bruce Willis’s!), but never kept. On offer instead is an evening à deux, its instigator (allegedly) wearing only a bathrobe. There is (again, allegedly) frottage, and sudden, aggressive masturbation. His trademark is to whisper afterwards: “Don’t worry about it, you’re fine.” The most serious allegation is made by a young actor who performed at the Old Vic in London when Spacey ran it between 2003 and 2015. It is an assault, and it is performed, somehow, on a red carpet outside the Savoy.

All this is good, dogged work on the part of the producers. But what I admire most about these documentaries – and this is difficult, and perhaps controversial – is the effort that has been made not to excuse but in some way to explain Spacey’s apparent self-loathing; the internalised homophobia that for years kept him closeted, and on one occasion (allegedly) had him doing mean, camp, stereotyped impressions of two gay men who were innocently having a drink in a Hollywood bar. Spacey’s brother, Randy, is also interviewed, and he talks of their “creepy” childhood, and of the Nazi father who raped him (he says this did not happen to Kevin). He is an extraordinary presence: Rod Stewart hair, suits fit for a cowboy Liberace, a face and manner vaguely redolent of certain British entertainers of the 1970s. When he reminisces, the atmosphere thickens, its particles made of pure sadness. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Randy tells us that his “costumes” (the crazy suits) are his mask, adopted after he left home in New Jersey in 1975, leaving the younger Kevin to his fate. And at the Juilliard School in New York, where Spacey trained as an actor, it was “mask class” he enjoyed most. Knowing this, it’s hardly surprising to hear Spacey’s accusers speak repeatedly of his disassociation, his dead eyes, his coldness; I imagine the freeze set in a long time ago, a Siberian chill that homophobic Hollywood would have done nothing to ease. And thanks to this, my rising sadness for him, though of course not commensurate with my sympathy for those he allegedly abused, was (and is) palpable – a feeling I think it was brave of Channel 4 and its film-makers to risk inducing at a time when ambivalence and complication are so much on the run.

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Spacey Unmasked
Channel 4

[See also: Disney’s Shardlake review: Tediously anachronistic Tudor drama]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll