Kevin Spacey: Separating the artist from the art

The summer of 1994 brought the death of two people in Los Angeles, California. I had never heard of either of these people before, but the aftermath brought the names of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman to the ears of most of America. Whether you have an opinion as to whether Nicole’s ex-husband, O.J., committed both murders, what can be agreed on is the very limited entertainment career of Simpson was over from that time on.

Worse for some, including me, is that the three movies he made that had any sort of repeat viewing value, The Naked Gun Trilogy, now sits in a sort of limbo on the shelf. I have not watched the series more than once since 1994, even through I transferred the collection from video cassette to DVD sometime in the early 2000’s.

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As I watched them all, the very enjoyable supporting performance of O.J. as the ironically named Detective Nordberg stood out like a sore thumb. He did some yeoman’s work there, seemingly taking an endless amount of bumps and bruises with a smile on his face. He’s always the loser, until the last film when he catches the baby and in his exuberance nearly spikes it on the ground in celebration.

I was never a huge fan of O.J. and I didn’t really consider him much of an actor, but those films I enjoyed. Not any more.

For Kevin Spacey, the library of films and his acting in them is much more extensive and talented. Again, regardless of your opinion of who he is and whether he did any of the things for which he is accused, the allegations and his own actions since they have surfaced have to have some sort of effect. Ridley Scott just made the decision to completely eradicate him from the upcoming film All the Money in the World in favor of Christopher Plummer.

The move is unprecedented in its complexity and ambition. He’s doing all of the reshoots and still plans to have the film released at its original December 22 date. Some see this as virtue signalling. Knowing that the film is being released in Awards season, however, points to another reason. This film would have no chance to get any sort of recognition in current form.

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Destined to become a trivia question

For another 2017 contender starring Spacey, there will be no such opportunity at revising history. Baby Driver is one of the best films of the year. And up until the moment these allegations began to surface, it was my favorite film this year. It was great for many reasons besides Spacey, but it was also great because of him. It will likely and somewhat unfairly sink into obscurity now.

The film as it stands works with the our present image of the artist that is Kevin Spacey. His character, Doc, is the leader of an ever changing group of thieves. The one constant is a young man, Baby, who is completely under his control. The story is about Baby’s discovery of life outside of Doc’s never-ending series of heists and onto his own life with someone he loves by his side.

That these robberies benefit Doc more than anyone and that Doc is a puppet master only benefits the experience of film for the viewer. We know Baby is a victim, just as we know Doc is really his abuser, as much, if not more than the other antagonists in the film. Kevin Spacey as a puppet master and a manipulator?  Who’d imagine…now more than ever.

The point is, few people will want to.

If one looks back on the career of Kevin Spacey, most of his films are good. Nearly all of his performances are great. I personally own copies of at least 8 of the films of which he’s been a major part.

Now begins life after Spacey’s been revealed for who he is at his worst.

For the films in which he plays a bad or somewhat unprincipled guy, one might be able to get through them. The films made where he’s a shining star, like Pay It Forward, The Negotiator, The Shipping News…well its not like anyone had talked about those films lately anyway.

The real test for Hollywood is what does one do with American Beauty? This is literally a film in which its Oscar Winning star is lustful of an underage teenager (Suvari) while literally being hunted down by a homosexual (spoiler alert). This film’s aggressive handling of social mores is not an easy watch to begin with. Even I got rid of it by 2005, after getting married and having two daughters. Does the Academy continue to recognize this film or does it fade into obscurity.

Likewise The Usual Suspects. Spacey’s performance was good enough to get a supporting Oscar, but how is it viewable now? I hadn’t watched it since the 90’s, but I always kind of knew it was there, for when I wanted to watch it in the future.

L.A. Confidential is a crucial film in many ways. Although Spacey isn’t technically one of the leads, his Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes is a crucial supporting character and is possibly my favorite Spacey performance. His character is perfectly played. The smooth operator who has a chance to be real life hero. He is undone in site of the finish line, never to see true reward. This story is not his to be told, though, and the way it unfolds is a remarkable example of film making. Indeed, we’d never see Curtis Hanson come close to this height again.

For each of these films there are excellent performers beyond Spacey. Watching Crowe beat down a spouse abuser and threatening to “slap a kiddie raper” charge on him is an ironic start for the rising of his star, when the next scene features Spacey. Fortunately for the likes of Crowe, Guy Pearce, Annette Bening, and Robin Wright, they already have established careers before Spacey’s misdeeds came to light.

The people who took part in those films and the show House of Cards extend beyond established stars. Hundreds of people made their living off of these shows and films. What will happen to their future royalties?

What will happen to those who helped to create Spacey’s more recent work, including the unreleased Gore? This will have an affect, and that is unfair.

Just like everyone who worked on the classic trio of Leslie Nielsen films, who surely lost out numerous sales on home video when O.J. went through trial after trial asserting his innocence.

All of these works of art had people who depended on the works profits as some sort of living. They were deprived of this by actions they took no part in and most certainly did not condone.

Human nature takes its toll, however. We can’t control how we react to the image of two people viciously slaughtered while watching great comedies. Nor can we push the image of an older man taking advantage of younger actors while we try our best to work through any of myriad films or television shows of a prolific career.

For my part, L.A. Confidential loses none of its power. It’s such a rich and coldly cynical story, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the vastness of its presentation of the deep undercurrent of sickness of Hollywood, California post WWII. That Spacey leads a dual life as police detective and star only serves to underscore how little anything has changed in the years since the story that is portrayed.

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The undercurrent of the undercurrent

If the Naked Gun films weighed on my morality in my 20’s, being almost 50 gives me pause in wondering how I will ultimately react to the work of Kevin Spacey.

I will not ever stop watching the films of David Fincher, even if I skip his work on House of Cards. The Usual Suspects, with its Director Singer also under a cloud of suspicion – might sit on the shelf a while longer. GlenGarry Glen Ross doesn’t  get as much viewing as it does referencing for most.

American Beauty, for all of it’s analysis if the deviance of modern America, is likely pretty much done. There was already too much going on in that film for comfortable evening viewing, much less a Sunday afternoon.

Horrible Bosses and its second film were never considered to be long lasting fare. It was for money, not for posterity. Superman Returns is all but forgotten at this point. If you liked A Bug’s Life, you are amazing, because most people can’t even remember that is the movie they released after the first Toy Story.

This brings us back to Baby Driver. It’s not a movie that deserves to be overlooked, though I am pretty sure it will be kicked to the awards curb. As it stands, I still think this film is one of the most incredibly well directed films of my lifetime. Kevin Spacey being abusive only makes it’s creation more apt and just as amazing.

Don’t let this man’s life outside of his art diminish the work others created in his presence.

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Baby Driver (****1/2) – Now This is Movie Making

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Baby Driver – 2017

Written and Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring  Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx

Every once in a while you see a film and it opens up a spot in your psyche. This spot is forever inhabited with images from the film and becomes part of what makes you whole. Baby Driver, while not a perfect film, is now part of the tapestry of my movie soul.

The premise and many aspects of the film are deceptively simple. Imagine a young guy who needs the right song to drive a car fast and without regard to the danger he and others are in. And he does it better than everyone else. And its his job. It’s every teenager’s dream.

The getaway driver, nicknamed Baby (Elgort) has a tragic past. His mother and father died in the front seat while arguing. He was in the back seat, listening to his iPod. Now he has tinnitus and in order to drown out the ringing, he plays music in his ears at all times. He can read lips, and he can sign. He takes care of his elderly foster-father, Joseph (Jones), who is deaf and in a wheel chair. He puts his tiny stacks of 100’s that he earns from each heist away for another day. He’s doing alright.

His boss, Doc, teams his driver with different robbers at all times. He mixes and matches to keep them from getting too close, or even used to one another. He always uses the same driver, though. Baby is his good luck charm.

Then Baby meets Debora (James), a young waitress at the local diner that he’s eaten at for many, many years. When Debora responds to Baby’s affections, things just couldn’t be better. That’s the way the first act has to end, for a tragedy to be complete.

The mix of crooks Baby needs to associate with gives him an interesting mix of issues. Some manageable, some not. Some obvious, others not so much.

The details within every frame of the story are to an extent where it should be impossible not to know what is coming, but the skill Wright has as a writer keeps us in suspense almost to the end. The scene building is unlike anything I have experienced since seeing Goodfellas for the first time.

The casting is top of the line. Finally someone figured out how to use Jon Hamm in a cinematic setting. His work in this film is extraordinary in its subtle hints and range. I don’t think he should ever work with anyone else, if he wants to have a movie career.

Similarly, this is the best work Jamie Foxx has ever done. Including the Oscar nominated stuff. The skill he exhibits in dominating each scene he is in is exquisitely horrific. One spends each moment dreading what decision he might make next and how it will affect the lives of people on and off-screen. Not sure if this will interrupt his scheduled work for any more sequels to average films, but one can hope.

No one plays heartless boss like Spacey, and this role may be a walk in the park for him, but it doesn’t mean that his performance doesn’t work perfectly. After all, Goodfellas wasn’t exactly a stretch for DeNiro, but where would that film have been without him.

A key role in the film is that of Jones’ father figure, Joseph. There is a kindness in his eyes that says more than 1000 words could. And when you see the chemistry between he and Elgort, one can’t help but feel a love for both of them. I have not seen Jones enough in film, but lets hope this ushers in a wave of appearances.

Lily James has all of the makings of a star and this performance hits every note that is needed for the young, life affirming love interest. She has the face, form, heart and accent of which dreams are made. One look at her smile and we perfectly understand Baby’s motivations.

For Ansel Elgort, this is the kind of performance of which careers are made. His command of every scene, even when he’s not the dominant force, is astounding. We always know where he is and how he feels. We don’t necessarily know what his plans. His presence has not been felt this profoundly on celluloid to this point. He is so subtle and earnest, one can’t help but want to know Baby more.

Edgar Wright is as frustrating as he is talented. Shaun of the Dead is one of the best films I have ever seen, and despite all the good will in the world, the other 2/3 of the Cornetto trilogy just didn’t live up to the standard he set. Scott Pilgrim is remarkable, if a little flawed.  Ant-Man is fantastic, but where he ends and his replacement Peyton Reed begins is a question.

The work he does here shows his skill is increasing and it feels like its time for him to take on more substantial work. So far, it looks like he is his best provider.

What is amazing is in a film with 2 good and 1 great car chase scene, the best choreographed scene occurs on foot. It is here that the direction and remarkable soundtrack are at their peak. It’s all magic.

The film only lets down in the last few scenes with the antagonists. One shot of Halloween masks early in the film provides for a laugh, but later on the irony is thick when the bad guy just won’t die. It’s silly enough to take you out of the moment. But it certainly isn’t enough to take away from the thrill of the other 90% of the movie.

See this if you want to add to your list of great cinematic memories.

(****1/2 out of *****)