The Netflix series House Of Cards is the biggest hit that its star, Kevin Spacey, has had in many years. When it was released in February of last year, HOC—a political melodrama in which Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a U.S. congressman, who, after being screwed out the job of secretary of state, resorts to murder and lesser forms of skullduggery to rappel up the chain of command—was taken for a game-changer: A made-for-streaming online series with the kind of name talent and production values associated with shows on high-end, premium cable networks. Other, better series have since premiered online—including Netflix’s own Orange Is The New Black—but the release of HOC’s 13-episode second season has been received at least as gratefully, not just in the entertainment media, but in the political punditocracy. It’s been a hard, cold winter, and people need something to binge-watch, and to write about.
The role of Frank Underwood is a roots move, Spacey’s equivalent Bruce Springsteen recording a solo album in his bathroom between stadium tours and symphonic albums for the purpose of shoring up authenticity cred. It’s Spacey getting back to what works. His road to stardom began in 1988 when the unknown 28-year-old Spacey became a cult legend on the basis of the seven episodes of Wiseguy in which he played Mel Profitt, a recklessly unstable, genius-level psychopath who had built up a multibillion-dollar empire with his sister Susan (Joan Severance). The two had a much-too-close relationship and called their “legitimate” business “S. & M. Profitt.” Critics like James Wolcott had likened Spacey’s performance on Wiseguy—in which, Wolcott wrote, he “did stuff I’ve never seen anyone do on TV before”—to Laurence Olivier in Richard III, for the way he seduced the audience into rooting for an insinuating monster. Anyone who remembers Mel Profitt and misses the Spacey who played him could have only one thought looking forward to the first season of House Of Cards: “Yummy!”
But it’s those longtime fans who may be especially disappointed in Spacey as Underwood. Like Olivier’s Richard—and like Francis Urquhart, the British politician played by Ian Richardson in the original BBC miniseries House Of Cards—Frank often turns to the camera to soliloquize and share his strategies, and the pitch-dark view of the world behind them, with the audience. In Spacey’s House Of Cards, these little lectures are helpful if you’re trying to keep track of what’s supposed to be going on, but Spacey doesn’t use them to come on to the audience or win anyone over. In terms of fleshing out his character and forging a direct relationship with the viewer, he might as well be reading his stage directions out loud. He’s pasty looking and dead-eyed, and if he’s reminiscent of any speech from Shakespeare, it’s not from Richard III, but Puck’s line, “What fools these mortals be,” spoken in a spirit of weary resignation. He’s barely recognizable as the actor who took a brief, recurrent role on a network crime drama and turned it into a non-stop fireworks display, and not just because that was 26 years ago. Underwood is different from the kinds of bad guys Kevin Spacey used to play, because he takes no pleasure in being the smartest guy in the story; he comes across as smug and self-satisfied, but also a little irritated at how easy most people are to fool. But how much of that is the character, and how much of it is the actor himself?
When Spacey was in his prime, he came across as being ablaze with ambition and finding sheer joy in performing. (And maybe, also, as someone with just a bit of a chip on his shoulder; in the wake of his triumph on Wiseguy, he was quoted saying, “I don’t look like the guys who get jobs in movies.”) As Mel Profitt, he livened up his already lively dialogue by slipping in tongue-flicking impressions of Brando as the Godfather and Satanic televangelists. He stood in garbage by the side of a country road, reciting his life story, compulsively turning tragedy into stand-up comedy (“We were spit out here by the state. Because I could read, they got me a job as a janitor in the grammar school, so I could use the library. If I’d been flatulent, they would’ve found me a job as a disc jockey.”), with an expression on his face that dared you to laugh. He launched himself, like a cruise missile, into impromptu lectures on Mel’s hero, the 18th-century demographic economist Thomas Malthus.
Then things would turn serious, and the vaudeville act would come to an abrupt stop. Receiving bad news, Mel might howl like a wounded animal; having regained his composure after a little self-medication time, he would almost whisper a promise to his head goon, Roger Lococco (William Russ), that if things went sideways, “I’ll take your skin off in strips,” and Lococco, who looked as if he were capable of snapping his boss’ neck with a single twitch, would convincingly shudder. Lococco marveled that, for all his brilliance, the superstitious Profitt “prays to hat racks,” and many a young actor would have found the contradictions in Mel’s character too daunting. But Spacey looked as if he’d figured something out: Namely, that lawless characters provided the best opportunities for an actor with his staggering degree of imagination and daring. “I was interested in playing a character that was going to evolve and change, from episode to episode, scene to scene,” he told Amos Poe in an interview that appeared in BOMB magazine, “so that you couldn’t figure him out at all.”)
Wiseguy didn’t turn Spacey into a movie star, but it put him solidly on the map. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to bring energy and detail to a thankless, underwritten supporting role, such as Ted Danson’s brother-in-law in Dad (1989) and Henry Miller’s buddy who goes nuts in Henry & June (1990), which, in Hollywood, can be a self-defeating way to stand out: It may make directors think, “That guy would be great in this thankless, underwritten supporting role in my next movie!” He won a Tony for his performance in Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers on Broadway, only to lose the role to Richard Dreyfuss when the movie version was made in 1993. Something had to give, and in 1995, Spacey hit the trifecta. He appeared in three movies released within months of each other, in three different roles that fully showcased his genius for playing mean bastards, and worse: A sadistic, ranting Hollywood executive in Swimming With Sharks (which he co-produced); Se7en, as the serial killer “John Doe”; and the big one, The Usual Suspects, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
These are all, technically speaking, supporting roles. The central character of Swimming With Sharks is Spacey’s long-suffering assistant, Frank Whaley, and although The Usual Suspects comes on like an ensemble piece, the audience is meant to perceive Gabriel Byrne’s character—who stands out by virtue of his brooding good looks, and the fact that he’s the only character with an on-screen romantic partner—as the “star,” even before the movie briefly tricks them into thinking that Byrne was actually the criminal mastermind, Keyser Soze. John Doe in Se7en is practically a cameo, and Spacey managed to compensate for his lack of screen time by insisting that his name not appear in the opening credits or any of the advertising, a time-tested way of signaling to audience that there’s something special about this relatively brief appearance by an actor they’re sort of familiar with. (Spacey’s official rationale was that he wanted the identity of the killer to come as a complete surprise. Spacey fans knew that the surprise was coming, because the TV commercials included the sound of his unmistakable voice, talking to Brad Pitt on a telephone.)
But Spacey dominates the first two; he wipes Frank Whaley off the screen even during the half of the movie where he’s tied to a chair. And his character is the dominating, controlling force in each of these movies. In The Usual Suspects, he’s actually making the movie up as he goes along, to confuse the police detective (Chazz Palminteri) who doesn’t suspect, until it’s too late, that this withered-looking simp he’s listening to might be Keyser Soze himself. He dies at the end of Se7en, but even in death, he’s triumphant, having proven that he can get inside the head of the young male lead—Brad Pitt, anointed earlier that year by People magazine as the sexiest man alive—and pull his strings, compelling him to complete his masterpiece for him. These movies all testify to the Spacey character’s potency as an actor, which makes him the secret ruler of the world. (Spacey to Amos Poe, in response to a question about whether he only sees the material that his agents want him to see: “I don’t give anybody editorial privilege.”) Throw in the fact that Gabriel Byrne reportedly thought that he really was Keyser Soze until he saw the finished film, and Spacey’s career looks more and more like a big joke played on the actors who look like the guys who get jobs in movies.
After 1995, Spacey was in demand for bigger roles in bigger movies. In retrospect, it’s easy to see Jack Vincennes, the showboating narcotics detective in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, as his big transitional role. Once again, the billing plays with the audience’s expectations: For once, Spacey is top-billed, but his character checks out little more than halfway through the movie. (His male co-stars, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, made it to the closing credits but were both fresh off the boat from Australia.) More importantly, though, Jack Vincennes is a more conventional kind of bad-boy movie hero than the characters Spacey had played before, a funny, lovable rascal who delights the audience with his cynical put-downs and naughty behavior—such as leading a raid on a private home for the publicity and then smirking to himself as he pockets some of the dope—and then becomes genuinely heroic as he rediscovers his lost ideals. (The movie’s innovative touch is that rediscovering his lost ideals gets him killed.) Spacey followed that up with American Beauty, a “ripping the lid off the dark side of suburban life” special from director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball. It’s a more mendacious kind of redeemed-bastard picture than L.A. Confidential—Spacey’s character’s heroic story arc is to start acting like a snarky teenager, his big redeeming act is to decide not to have sex with a teenage girl. But audiences loved seeing Spacey blackmail his boss and blow shit at his strident wife. He won another Oscar for it, this time for Best Actor.
Is there anyone in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards who reacted as badly to winning one of the big prizes as Spacey? Not since Kevin Costner decided that he was Clint Eastwood has a big star so badly misjudged his own talent and appeal. Free to select his own leading-man vehicles, Spacey decided that he needed to appear in the most maudlin, turgid movies available, playing shy, lonely characters. Any character exhibiting physical disfigurement got an automatic callback. A year after snarking and leering his way through American Beauty, there he was in Pay It Forward, setting Haley Joel Osment for martyrdom and wooing Helen Hunt with his burn-damaged torso. He starred in the movie version of E. Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, as the mopey outcast Quoyle, whose problems only begin with that name. In K-PAX, he was a magical visitor from another world among mental patients.
The last straw was The Life Of David Gale, in which he played an opponent of the death penalty who frames himself for murder in order to prove that innocent people can end up on death row. While it is true that there is nothing about that movie that is not inexplicable and horrifying, the single most inexplicable and horrifying thing about it may be the fact that Spacey’s character is named “David Gale.” The actor David Gale, who died in 1991, played the mad scientist in the 1985 midnight classic Re-Animator, a movie that Spacey did a stoned riff on in American Beauty. (“Did you ever see that movie where the body is walking around with its own head, and then the head goes down on that babe!?”) It’s the kind of thing that can make a viewer feel a deep personal connection with a character and the actor playing him. To see Spacey stomp on that connection by profaning the real David Gale’s name by dragging him into this pernicious sack of shit is deeply dispiriting, and the likelihood that neither Spacey nor anyone else who worked on the death-penalty movie even made the connection just makes it that much worse.
Spacey is not the kind of artist who is sunk so deep into his own private world that he doesn’t know or care how he’s going over with the public at large, and after these movies, and his dream-project Bobby Darin biopic Beyond The Sea—a movie whose conceptual problems we wouldn’t have the time for here even if we were trapped in an Arctic biodome—he made an effort to recalibrate, hoping to at least meet the audiences and critics who, as he told Entertainment Weekly, “just like me evil for some reason,” halfway. He reunited with his Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer to play Lex Luthor in Superman Returns. He went snotty in The Men Who Stare At Goats, played Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack, and was one of the title characters in Horrible Bosses. Most of these movies performed below expectations, and watching Spacey in them back to back is a lesson in diminishing returns.
The comedy Horrible Bosses takes Spacey back to the general terrain of Swimming With Sharks, but to compare the two performances is to compare a master class demonstration of stylized comedic nastiness to an experience akin to listening to a mean neighbor yelling over the fence that he’s going to poison your dog. Spacey isn’t really even expected to act in it; he’s there as a piece of stunt casting, in the same way that Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell are as the other horrible bosses, or the way that Robert De Niro is stunt-cast in the Meet The Parents movies. The difference is that De Niro is cast as a grumpy dad because it’s supposed to be funny that the star of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull could ever be seen as such a thing. Spacey is cast as a boss from hell because it seems funny that he ever could have tried to be seen as anything else.
So now, with House Of Cards, Spacey has come full circle. He’s not terrible. The show itself isn’t terrible, but it’s not a lot of fun. It’s dry and deadpan and turgid, which may be a selling point for some people—it may make it easy to take it as giving them the real dirt on Washington, a city where, in this show, a famous politician who’s about to be named vice president has no trouble slipping away from his security detail long enough to dispose of a loose end from last season by shoving someone in front of a train. (In between productions of the show’s two seasons, Spacey, whose continuing dedication to live theater is nothing if not admirable, slipped in a production of Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes. In what may well be the most painful irony of his career, critics patted him on the head for having done okay in the role, for a “Hollywood actor,” full of “sarcasm and campiness” and “wise-guy Americanisms.”) He works very hard on the show. You can see him working hard, where in the past, you could see how much he was enjoying his work. Maybe it’s not too much to hope for that he might look like that again, some day. All he needs is a role that people want to see him in, that doesn’t require him to return to things he’s clearly sick of doing.