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  1. The Weekend Report
29 July 2023

Kevin Spacey’s last stand

In his films, he acted like he had a secret. But in court facing criminal charges relating to his sex life, the star was required to be sincere.

By Tanya Gold

For a month in Court 1, Southwark, facing nine criminal charges relating to his sex life, Kevin Spacey was required to be sincere. It was like watching a vivisection. He took no pleasure in it, I think, but he is hard-working and muscular, and he approached it like a job. Before he gave testimony on 13 July, I watched him stand in a glass box between the judge’s bench and the public gallery and stretch. He rolled his head from side to side. He swung his arms. His hair was unkempt, and he looked aged. When I passed him in a corridor, chaperoned by the court manager, he was invisible until he loomed; until he wanted – no, allowed – me to see him. The box was unlocked by a male court official. To thank him, Spacey did a finger gun in his direction, like his character Jack Vincennes in LA Confidential, the cop who wanted to be a TV star and lost his soul trying. (“Why did you become a cop?” “I don’t remember.”) The court officer loved it: Spacey played a cameo in his life. On Wednesday 26 July he was found not guilty of all the charges.

From 2003 Spacey was the artistic director of the Old Vic. He is self-consciously a man of The Theatre, an invention within an invention, like Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. But he is most famous for film noir. The Usual Suspects, which made him famous on its release in 1995, is a direct quote from Casablanca – they are all the useless villains – and American Beauty (1999), his most plausible attempt at sincerity – at tenderness – was, like the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, narrated by a corpse (played by Spacey). Film noir is the art-form of deception, and he had a gallery of tricksters – Hollywood Jack in LA Confidential, Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, House of Cards’s Frank Underwood, Se7en’s John Doe. He inhabited them with all the hunger of desire: they are suave (except Doe, who is blood-spattered) and certain of themselves. He made a different man with his talent.

In court he was called Mr Spacey Fowler – the Spacey name is a conceit, and Fowler suits him better: there is something canny and striving in it, even if the real Spacey (unsure Spacey) is far more interesting to me than the unreal Spacey. This added to the cognitive dissonance of the trial. The case was multiple things: a series of factual questions to which the answer was no; a paradigm of how we treat actors (is he real?); a study in how emotional isolation can be monetised and calcified yet hurt you all the same; an episode of LA Law on location in London; Schadenfreude.

His testimony, given to his barrister, Patrick Gibbs KC – who looks like a tall, pale bird – was like a weird newspaper interview. Spacey wanted to establish himself as a normal human being instead of, say, Lex Luther or (he also sings) the lounge lizard who just croons, “What do you want me to be?” When Spacey spoke, he projected his voice like a bell, which was initially shocking – lawyers tend to mumble – but shouldn’t be: his clarity was an act of professional pride. The pale bird asked gentle questions: what did Spacey’s late father, Thomas, do? He wrote technical manuals, Spacey said slowly, but he wanted to be a novelist. Spacey’s older brother Randy says their father was a porn-addicted neo-Nazi who raped him, but Spacey, the favourite child of their mother, Kathleen, was spared.

He took his spectacles on and off and half-smiled. “I took drama and wood shop [at school].” When did you start acting? “My mother would say when I came.” He once said that he changed schools 14 times by the age of ten, and his accent is Nowhere, USA. 

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[See also: Is this the end of newspapers?]

His first film role was in Heartburn (1986). He played a thief who robbed Meryl Streep and left with the words: “I’m really sorry about your ring, lady.” This was our introduction to his ambivalence: his uncertainty on whether to be hated or loved. He was a comic even before he was an actor, with a comic’s nature: inciting laughter for control. The comic loves risk. There’s nothing as risky as a mic stand, except perhaps Spacey’s romantic life: “I have been very open about the fact that at times I was promiscuous,” he told the court.

One encounter, he said, “was gentle, and it was touching, and in my mind romantic. It was not what he [the accuser] has described.” He imbued his memories with tenderness. To me they sound like the novelist Erica Jong’s “zipless fucks” in Fear of Flying, a book about the boredom of intimacy: seamless sexual encounters; dreams without guilt; reaching out from solitude because anything else is too frightening.

In interviews, Spacey prefers to talk about actors, who he describes as gods, not equals: or maybe parents. When he was young, he met the director Jonathan Miller by stealing an invitation to an event from a sleeping woman’s handbag: Miller cast him in Long Day’s Journey into Night. On another occasion he waited by Katharine Hepburn’s car with flowers, and they began to correspond. He tells this story on talk shows, mimicking Hepburn’s voice. He makes himself the butt of the joke, a low-status comic. “He is a stalker,” he says as Hepburn. “He just won’t leave me alone. He writes me letters, he goes on and on about himself. I just say: ‘Good for you.’” He befriended Jack Lemmon and mimics him too: “I wish to hell he would stop calling me and leave me the fuck alone.” I saw Spacey at the Old Vic in 2005 with a gaggle of autograph hunters. I thought he looked at them with hatred: perhaps he saw himself in them.

He adopted Lemmon, who he had the pleasure of destroying in Glengarry Glen Ross, and called him a sort of “Pop”. They interviewed each other in 2000. It opened like this.

Jack Lemmon: OK. How long before everybody catches on and you’re through?

Kevin Spacey: By the law of averages, probably April 3rd.

Lemmon: April 3rd?

Spacey: Yeah, just before tax day.

Lemmon: That’s pretty good.

Spacey: It’s been a nice run.

On the stand, too, Spacey frequently dropped names. Richard Harris, whose son lent him a flat; Joan Collins, who he met in rehearsals (that she rehearses is a small scoop – I thought she just walked on as herself); John Gielgud, who is dead. He talked a lot about Judi Dench: he said that he bought her a ping-pong table, taught her to play, and consoled her when her husband died in 2001. He would never do anything to embarrass Dench: “I love her.”

I would argue that Spacey is a better actor than Dench, and all his theatre ghosts. Does he know that? He goes further than she – than anyone with such a long career – will. In 2000, he said on the US talk show Inside the Actors Studio: “You have to be willing to risk that they think it is you. You have to be willing to believe it enough that they think it’s you. Being an actor sometimes requires that you ask yourself questions that you would rather not know the answers to.”

He is capable of vulnerability on screen. There is pitiful Osborn in Henry & June, whose art is stolen from him; Quoyle in The Shipping News, undone by a cruel and self-destructive wife; Lester Burnham in American Beauty. But the only time I have seen him transparent was when he won his first Academy Award, for The Usual Suspects in 1996. It was the simple happiness of a child. There was an echo of that simplicity in his face when he left the courthouse: relief.

He could be transparent, but you had to be an expert to know it. Twenty years ago, the film critic David Thomson wrote, “His resolve to be mainstream, a nice guy or a romantic lead, is by now as obstinate as it is fatuous. It’s like asking Lassie to be treacherous.” He ends his piece: “Kevin himself is the biggest experiment.”

On 14 July he was cross-examined by Christine Agnew KC. He looked tired, as if he had not slept. Agnew approached him like Hermione Granger interviewing a Death Eater. He was tougher and more actorly with her: he took voices from his cupboard. A crotch grab, he drawled, “is generally not a first move. I’m an affectionate person.” He stroked his hands. “Every encounter I have had is unique, the person is unique, it is always different.”

Agnew pressed him. “I like to think that people like me because they like me, and not because of who I am,” he says. “I don’t know what made them do what they did.” She asked him if he was lonely. He looked at her and said, simply, “Of course.” He described the scene of one accusation: young men called him “the K-dog”, he said. “I thought that was charming and funny.”

She asked, “Did you then reach out to people sexually?” “Welcome to life,” he says, as if Agnew could not know cynicism. Is he excited by risk-taking? “I find being intimate with other human beings remarkable and beautiful.” Then he made his closing speech: “I have fallen in love. I have been loved.” But: “I found it harder to trust people because of who I was.”

He wore his hate face for a while: the one he gave to autograph hunters, and Superman. “Absolute bollocks,” he said at one point: a Britishism done in a British accent. “You couldn’t be more wrong. You’re just making stuff up now.” Then he said “Kiss kiss” and smiled. (Bang Bang.) Film noir is addictive.

“You know nothing about me,” he told Agnew. He returned to the glass box and clutched his hands together. I think of Thomson’s ancient sketch: Spacey’s “most intriguing performance… is of a man 50 years old who has a 20-year-old’s gravity.” I remember an interview for Inside the Actor’s Studio in which he was asked: what turns you on? “Watching my dogs play,” he said. He blinked four times. What turns you off? “Presumption.” He blinked once.

In his films, Spacey has always acted like a man with a secret. That’s been the gift, and the jeopardy: his and ours. He gave us Vincennes’s tenderness, Kint’s will to power, Underwood’s wink of complicity. The secret was: he has no secret. Just common loneliness. His innocence is more exposing than guilt would have been.

[See also: Freud save America]

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