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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Margin Call: It wasn’t brains that got me here, I assure you that

Margin Call – 2011

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Penn Badgley, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi

What can one say when a movie starts off by laying off 86% of a floor and that is seen as a minor issue compared to what tragedy is about to ensue?  Margin Call is an example of a Hollywood film trying to exorcise the demons of the country as if it has no connection to the folks with the pitchforks.  It’s kind of a We Are The World for those who suffer from the excesses of the 1%, made by people who are not part of the 99%.  The only problem is that not one of the people affected by the greed so acutely exhibited in this story will profit one bit from viewing a facsimile of how it happened.  Quinto and his 2 friends at Behind the Door pictures made this movie, seemingly as a labor of love.  They, in turn, are supported by Roadside Attractions, who are supported by LionsGate Entertainment.  Keep going up the chain, and you find out real quick how “Independent” films that star this many names are.

There is a lot of gnashing of teeth in this film.  This is to imply that there are little people in these films who are asked to do things against their conscience to prop up others who aren’t so nice.  The people I notice while watching the films are the cleaning crew, who get to empty the trash, turn in the recycle bins and dust off the desktops, keyboards and monitors no matter who is renting the building.

One such occasion is in an elevator ride, between Demi Moore and Simon Baker’s characters.  They start discussing what’s going on, give a custodial staff woman a cursory look, as she is between them, and then begin to speak in an incredibly dense code.  She gets off of the floor, and the look on her face is representative of the kind of people who are truly effected by this film.  Her work will remain the same, but her benefits will shrink, as will her hours.  The upper crust, supported by the taxes she, you and I pay, will always be protected by the people she elects, based on the message of HOPE.

“The party’s over as of this morning,” says Kevin Spacey’s character, the morning of the big dump.  I won’t wast words explaining it to you, but if you understand anything about credit default swaps, trading on assets that exceed your real holdings, and general greed, you will get the point of the film.

The main message of the film: there are good men, portrayed by Quinto, Badgley, Bettany and Spacey, who have to do bad things to better people in order to keep the baddest people (Irons, Baker, Moore) rich.  Spacey solemnly nurses a sick dog during the early part of the film.  You don’t have to wonder what will happen.

Films like this one don’t register with me.  Maybe it’s because I pay my bills routinely, and insure myself from the prospect of an untimely death so my wife and kids will not have to foot the bill of my necessary debt to the people portrayed in this movie.  Seeing a film like this doesn’t change any of this for me.  I will still pay my bills, and taxes that will support their bad decisions and helicopter rides into work.  I don’t care to know the names of any of the characters.  It does not assuage my burden in the slightest to think of any of these characters as real people.  If I did that, I learn nothing from life.

“It wasn’t brains that got me here, I assure you that,” says Irons character, midway through the film.  This is, of course, to imply that he is fully aware that it is his lack of conscience, and willingness to throw innocent people under a mountain of the debt created by his bad decisions that got and keeps him there.

That said, the film is well acted and presented in a concise, logical way.  Spacey is really good at what he does, and the rest of them almost as good.  Still, like a lap dance given to a guy with a few $20’s and a lot of $1’s, doesn’t give one any real satisfaction of having connected with another human, there is just no enjoyment in investing good money to watch how all the rest of it will continue to go bad.

(*** out of *****)

Horrible Bosses is not nearly as bad as it’s title

Horrible Bosses – 2011

Directed by Seth Gordon

Starring Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland

Written by Michael Markowitz, John Frances Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

In the ever perfectly fitting placement of poor Hollywood screenwriting, three high school friends find themselves stuck between a rock and a bad economy.  Horrible Bosses plays like 9 to 5 meets Strangers on a Train circa Judd Apatow.  The resulting film is an unorthodox collection of sketches, some that work, some that don’t, which doesn’t amount to much, but is funny nonetheless.

Nick (Bateman), Dale (Day) and Kurt (Sudekeis) have all found themselves in an untenable situation at their places of work.  Nick works for Dave (Spacey), who is insanely jealous of his wife and generally enjoys the misery he puts his employees into.  Dale, a dental assistant, is being accosted continually by his sex-starved dentist boss, Dr. Julia (Aniston) and it looks to get in the way of his pending marriage to his longtime girlfriend.  Bobby (Farrell) is the louse, drug addled son of Kurt’s boss, who passes away soon after credits roll, but not too soon to hear that he was in line to get the job.  He doesn’t, of course.  Bobby steps in.

This set up is about the worst aspect of the film.  The exposition goes out of its way to show that the friends have ostensibly no way out, as if to make what comes next more excusable.  It would have been easier to say the economy sucked and leave it at that.  That part of the film infirmly established, we move on to the next phase of the plot: how to get rid of their problems.  Enter “M.F.” Jones (Foxx), a hit man who misleads the guys into giving him $5000 for becoming their murder consultant.  His advice, each of the friends should kill the other’s “problems,” but before they start, they should do surveillance to help, of course, make them all look like accidents.

At this, the film takes off like a jalopy, clanking and puking out filth throughout the journey, but getting somewhere in the process.

“It’s like we stepped inside the mind of an asshole.”

Kurt spouts the line as they break into the house of his boss, Bobby.  It’s a simple phrase, but it’s enjoyable and apt.  The script from here on is dotted with these types of lines.  Some of them my wife liked, some I did.  Either way, one can safely expect to get a chuckle or three about every half hour.  There is a pleasant aspect to the randomness of the humor throughout Horrible Bosses.  It fits together well at times, other times it clanks, and at other times goes absolutely nowhere.  Editing may have helped, especially when one watches the end credit scenes and sees some that would have improved the overall story and are funnier than most of what was left in.

As for acting, Sedeikis, Day and Bateman have a certain amount of chemistry.  Each of them have their great lines and none of them are overly sympathetic, either.  This could be a breakthrough for Day, who until now has acquired the reputation he has on the cable show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  As for the bosses, Aniston and Farrell made the biggest change from their normal routine as Spacey did the guy he’s worked to a tee by now.  Again, their effectiveness is dependent on the writing and editing.

Obviously, more works on this film than doesn’t work.  It is the kind of film that could get better or worse with repeated viewings.  If it sounds like I haven’t made up my mind…I am pretty sure the fact I think I will be watching it again should say enough.

(*** out of *****)