He might look a like a geography teacher but Sir Kevin of Spacey has laid down his fair share of memorable performances. He first showed up on my radar in his tour de force turn in Swimming With Sharks and I’ve followed his career closely ever since. It’s not been all smiles and sunshine but his back catalogue displays more than enough four or five star films to warrant high praise, no matter what you happen to think of his current stint as Artistic Director at The Old Vic (as it happens I’ve seen him on stage in one production there, National Anthems, that was simply outstanding).
Here are ten of his flicks that I think deserve special mention, whether for the film itself, his performance or, ideally, both..
10: A Time To Kill (1996)
Many John Grisham books are so ripe for movie adaptation that it’s a mystery why so many have underwhelmed. This is the best of the lot for me with even Matthew McConaughey delivering a plausible performance. Filmed when Sandra Bullock actually had some semblance of a career left it’s Samuel Jackson’s father under trial that best stands out but Spacey adds considerable weight to the role of prosecuting DA Rufus Buckley, providing formidable seasoned opposition to the young, inexperienced defense team. It’s a film with a hell of a pace in the second half and represents one of Joel Schumacher’s better works.
9: Beyond The Sea (2004)
A film that did very little business at the box office, this biopic of cool cat Bobby Darin explores his relationship with his first wife Sandra Dee (played by Kate Bosworth). There have undoubtedly been more insightful biopics but this has bags of charm and Spacey’s performance, including his own singing voice, is a joy. Some have claimed this to be little more than a vanity project on Spacey’s behalf at the time of release but for me this is an above average evocation of a star and era that deserves a look.
8: L.A. Confidential (1997)
Somewhat overrated in my opinion, and overlong, the film does mark acting high points for many of those involved. Basinger delivers a career-defining performance, Guy Pearce makes his stint in Neighbours seem like some tripped out dream and Russell Crowe announces himself loud and proud to the world. In contrast, Spacey gives a subtle turn among all the shouting and hullabaloo around him but he more than holds his own.
7: The Negotiator (1998)
Why isn’t this film talked about more? The acting smackdown of Sam Jackson and Spacey is worth far more attention than it received. Throw in the always brilliant JT Walsh and a lighter turn from Paul Giamatti and you’re golden. It’s packed with action and both leads are given plenty of meaty dialogue to bounce off each other. Jackson wins top billing but Spacey’s Chris Sabien more than plays his part.
6: Superman Returns (2006)
Could anyone else really have played Lex Luthor? The only shame was that he didn’t get enough screentime, Singer instead opting to centre on the relationship between Supes and Kate Bosworth’s Ms Lane. Spacey plays Luthor relatively straight, which only adds to his menace and while the film was labelled a bit dull by those expecting more action it’s fared better as time has passed.
5: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
The only reason this isn’t higher up is because it’s such an ensemble piece that it could almost be labelled as anyone’s film but to see this movie is to watch a thing of simple genius. I’ve only caught up with it recently but David Mamet’s screenplay of the life of hard knocks within an estate agency really is as good as people tell you. Alec Baldwin’s speech is rightly the one against which all others in the film should be held up to but the script is full of fantastic lines for nearly all of the key characters. Spacey’s office manager John Williamson doesn’t lose out (“Will you go to lunch. Go to lunch. WILL YOU GO TO LUNCH!”) Not a film for those who like their language clean.
4: The Usual Suspects (1995)
Is it as good the second, third or fourth time round? Not exactly. Stephen Baldwin’s crazed performance grates (little wonder the DVD interviews display an alarming amount of contempt between him and Kevin Pollack), Pete Postlethwaite’s barely conceived discomfort in his role makes it tough to watch whenever he’s on screen and it’s not as tight as you remember but one thing is for certain: this film wouldn’t be the same without Kevin Spacey. Verbal Kint is such a well crafted character that you could argue it’s a gift for an actor to be given that role but I’d wager lesser actors could not have taken it to the heights that Spacey does. His, Gabriel Byrne and Chazz Palminteri are the three reasons the film remains rewatchable for me once the cat has been let out of the bag.
3: American Beauty (1999)
Ok, so the bag in the wind bit is a bit wince-inducing but Lester Burnham remains one of modern cinemas more memorable characters. From pleasuring himself in the shower to decorating the living room with the family meal, his mid-life crisis is expertly told by Sam Mendes. Of course things get much, much worse as the film goes on and Burnham’s depression with the life he inhabits takes hold. Visually, the film has many stand-out moments and the cast match up to the film’s dramatic scope and excellent one-liners (“You think you’re the only one that’s frustrated”. “I’m not? Well then come on baby, I’m ready!”). A great film with two great central performances from Spacey and Annette Benning.
2: Se7en (1995)
For David Fincher’s brilliant serial killer thriller to truly be effective the payoff had to match the slow burn lead up. The final act of Se7en is as good as it is because Spacey’s John Doe is genuinely chilling. Played with just the right level of menace without being over the top his appearance in the film marks a turning point from which none of the principal characters will return unscathed and delivers one of the best movie endings of the last 20 years. That his performance occupies a fraction of Pitt’s and Freeman’s and still walks away as by far the most memorable speaks volumes for both the part and the actor. Freeman and Spacey would team up again on straight-to-video Justin Timberlake vehicle Edison Force. It doesn’t look very good.
1: Swimming With Sharks (1994)
Look up Kevin Spacey on IMDB and it’s a picture of his role as Buddy Ackerman that is used as his profile photo. The film’s themes of discontentment in the workplace and office bullying have been revisited many times before and since (most recently in The Devil Wears Prada) but few match up to this. Frank Whaley is also excellent as downtrodden studio assistant Guy but there is little arguing that this is a film that’s all about Buddy (hence it’s alternative title The Buddy Factor). Spacey is memorising and quotable lines aplenty litter the film (“You. Have. No. Brain.” “Say this one time with me. Would you like that in a Pump, or a Loafer? Now, memorise it because starting tomorrow the only job you’re going to be able to get is selling SHOES!”) and it’s one of my all-time favourites that gets watched at least five or six times every year. Solid gold.