Six Great Kevin Spacey Performances

In honor of the recent release of “Baby Driver”, the CineNation writers picked some of their favorite Kevin Spacey performances.

Jul 1, 2017 · 10 min read

One of the big standouts of this weekend’s Baby Driver is Kevin Spacey. For over the past twenty years, Kevin Spacey has given us numerous great performances. He has dominated the stage, the small screen, and the big screen. Spacey has been nominated for nine Primetime Emmys, won one Tony, and he is on the short-list of actors and actresses that have won at least two Oscars. In honor of the greatness of Kevin Spacey, the writers of CineNation picked some of their favorite Spacey performances that they think everyone should see.

Lester Burnham in “American Beauty”

By Alaina Boukedes

Probably one of Spacey’s most iconic movie roles, Lester Burnham from American Beauty is to begin with, a perverse role. Burnham is topically a normal suburban dad, but as the movie progresses we see him have a midlife crisis that starts with him fantasizing about one of his daughter’s friends. The sign of Spacey’s great performance is that at certain points of the film the audience empathizes with Burham. He’s in a dead marriage and feels trapped in his life, so when Burham decides to quit his job, bulk up and attempt to woo this high schooler, we root for him in a weird way.

What’s fantastic about Spacey’s acting in this film is his subtlety. He is the king of cold, extended stares that convey more than dialogue could, which works perfectly for his character. He’s a bit unhinged, but rather than express that in text it’s all in the eyes. Spacey nails that; it’s one look at his wife, one look at the customer in the drive through to express his emotions. Another thing in Spacey’s subtlety is his delivery of lines. This character could easily be hysterical the entire film, but Spacey’s calm demeanor gives an eerie quality to his acting. We are terrified when he emotes something, and he chooses wisely when to yell or cry. It has a higher impact. There’s a reason he won the Oscar in 2000 for this role, because he doesn’t play a trope. He plays a person going through an identity crisis.

John Doe in “SE7EN”

By David Raygoza

The serial killer in David Fincher’s Se7en (being the mid-90s, this is the title’s appropriate grunge-era styling) is too cunning to be seen. In service of an omniscience so indisputably meticulous, quick and judgmental, each crime strikes onto the city with the instant fury of a lightning bolt. The city’s nameless, both a stand-in for your local haunts and PoMo-minded omission, an aimless kingdom. Its own kind of spoiler, Kevin Spacey purportedly asked his name be excluded from the opening credits to keep the killer’s identity ephemeral until the third act reveal. As the role develops, the killer’s library card is ID’d by an FBI database, monikered, but still nameless, simply, ‘John Doe.’ Just another body.

As expected from a Kevin Spacey performance, the first time we hear his voice on the phone we understand this man is articulate, practically didactic in rhythm. Before we’ve gotten a good look at his face, due in part to the opening credit’s inside-the-lair peek, John Doe’s personality looms over the city, and the picture. More self-centered than Norman Bates, fit to the city, untethered to family, the psychopathic swagger Spacey commits to film has no concern for the reel change, time has spun Act Three already, so it was written.

Se7en seems concerned with two things outright, bodies and text. The opening glimpses of Doe’s composition books, macro-shot sliced fingertips, Mills and Somerset’s excursions into Dante, that old law, scripture, hanging over the city this fateful week like a guillotine. When Doe offers himself to the police, the blood on his hands has yet to dry. Spacey is styled as the pristine blank canvas for white-terrorism writ large, brought to a city with drama and flair, more sinful than the victims, worthy of our wrath. But what’s the worth of wrath? John Doe’s religious spitefulness does a tango with the existential doubts of both detectives, in the perverted facsimile of a moral play. Kevin Spacey’s sense for Doe’s delusion and ritual wears his psychology is on his sleeve, in his posture and elocution, always superior, sinister, devoid of compassion, bark and bite By the (Good) Book. For Doe, there’s one interpretation. Terror.

Verbal Kint in “The Usual Suspects”

Anna Catley

*Spoilers. So many spoilers.*

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” A line straight from The Usual Suspects, and a line spoken by our man of the hour, Kevin Spacey. But who was Kevin Spacey when he spoke that line? Was he the mild-mannered Verbal Kint who couldn’t hurt a fly, least of all with his limp and his withered hand? Or was he the infamous criminal mastermind and soulless killer, Keyser Soze?

Spoiler alert. It’s both. Because Kevin Spacey is an acting genius.

Unless you slept through 1999, you’ll know that Brad Pitt was actually Edward Norton, and that Bruce Willis was actually…well, dead. And in 1995, there was Verbal Kint and Keyser Soze, and they were both Kevin Spacey. Kevin Spacey had an insane duty to pull off in The Usual Suspects…that of completely tricking the audience without them clueing in. As Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Spacey gets to wink and nudge at the viewer, inviting them to enjoy in his heinous, wonderful world of deceit and lies. As Verbal Kint (or is it Keyser Soze?), Spacey must play the victim, the dope who just wants to be a part of the gang if they’ll let him. We see that he’s smart, and persuasive, but we don’t really know who he is until the final few moments when in one of the most well-executed plot twists in cinematic history, his limp straightens out, and his hand relaxes, and we know we’ve been duped. Spacey plays the manipulation game so artfully, and so slyly, that we can’t help but relish in being tricked by him so wholly and horribly for almost two hours. Spacey manages to convince you to be sympathetic towards Verbal Kint, to trust in him, because as the narrator, he’s the only one in the story you CAN trust. Only Spacey could pull off this greatest trick so well.

Dan LeVine

Kevin Spacey is a great actor. He’s captivating. This guy is on another level. When he enters a scene, it makes you go “Oh s***! Kevin Spacey is here. Things are going to get real.” He’s the kind of person with whom you wish you could be friends but are also terrified of running into in real life. (No? Just me?)

American Beauty, House of Cards and The Usual Suspects will all stand the test of time — all due to his groundbreaking performances. The latter is my favorite Spacey flick. I’m going to keep this brief, as Anna essentially said it all.

Cut to college. I’m watching The Usual Suspects for the first time. It was an entertaining movie, but as the movie began to wrap up, I was so very confused. I had hoped they would reveal Soze at the end, but now I wasn’t so sure. How could they? He would have to be someone we’re meeting for the first time. After all, the “Suspects” had all been ruled out.

But in the last moments, the truth was finally revealed…

It has been many years since I’ve watched The Usual Suspects and I don’t remember many scenes from the film. The suspects in the jail cell. A shootout at a boat. Kevin Spacey in an interrogation room. But I will never EVER forget that final image — one of the greatest twists ever shown on the silver screen.

Frank Underwood in “House of Cards”

By Will Clayton

Kevin Spacey is a fun actor to watch. His performances are always interesting and engaging. Even if the project he is working on is not necessarily great, Spacey is always fun. I would argue that the most fun Spacey roles to watch are when he plays a real bastard. Spacey is great as a villain, but of all his memorable villainous performances, is there no greater bastard than Frank Underwood from House of Cards? In fact, Frank Underwood’s bastardry is the only real attraction in House of Cards that keeps viewers returning.

HoC is ostensibly a melodrama that highlights and exposes the darker side of politics and the manipulation of the system by evil and conniving operators like Underwood. That is certainly the case for the first season of the show. However, the novelty quickly wears off because the show has nothing new or interesting to say about politics, evil, or the quest for power that plenty of other programs, movies, books, have done. Nor is the show particularly biting or subversive in the vein of Veep or The Thick of It. Instead, it becomes a pure performance piece; watching Spacey and Robin Wright play American versions of Richard III and Lady Macbeth. This is fun theater, even if the material is uninteresting. House of Cards has managed to pull me back in for several hours with each new season just to watch Frank and Claire Underwood do dastardly things. When I think Kevin Spacey, I think Francis Underwood.

Jim Williams in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”

By Alex Bauer

In high school, I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and I was hooked on Savannah, Georgia. Written by John Berendt, the book details Berendt’s life in Savannah as he researches for an article. Filled with colorful characters and a dreamy setting, Savannah reads as if its paradise.

Then I found out there was a movie.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, the 1997 film follows a fictional writer’s (John Cusack) time in Savannah, befriending one of its most popular citizens: Jim Williams — played by Kevin Spacey. Without a doubt, Williams is Spacey’s best performance. The legendary actor has had phenomenal performances throughout his decorated career, but nothing touches Jim Williams. Spacey is Williams. Upon my first couple viewings, it felt as if I was watching the actual Jim Williams walk and talk on screen (an impossibility seeing that Williams died in 1990). The illusion is weakened by Spacey’s House of Cards performance, which are eerily similar. However, that does not lessen the power and skill Spacey displays in Midnight.

Spacey oozes with flair and excess, as his character is the talk of the town. Hosting lavish parties and restoring beautiful mansions, Williams does it all. When things begin going wrong, Spacey is able to continue to have the same gentleman-esque qualities that he is known to have, but there is a hint of worry and panic in his demeanor. Spacey balances these conflicting emotions and mental states beautifully. Every time he is on screen, Spacey steals the movie — which is a good thing. The film’s power comes from the cast of characters one meets while watching; Spacey is the most memorable of all.

Jack Vincennes in “L.A. Confidential”

By Brandon Sparks

L.A. Confidential is pretty close to being a perfect film. The film has a beautiful look to it and phenomenal writing. But, the best thing about this film is the acting that we get to see from the great ensemble cast. I love everyone in the cast, but Spacey is the big standout to me. This was post-SE7EN and Usual Suspects, so Spacey’s role feels like a major turn for him as an actor.

Vincennes is a flashy character who you think is the dirtiest of the three main cops (Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce play the two others). He doesn’t like being a cop, but he likes the perks that come with it. The major perk being that he gets to be the consultant on a hit television show. Vincennes loves the Hollywood lifestyle in Los Angeles, and it seems like his dream would be to quit the police force and become an actor. Spacey plays the role more like a Hollywood movie star than a police officer. But, then all of a sudden there is a shift in his character and only someone of Spacey’s caliber can make it work. He grows a conscience when someone dies because of his actions. This is when Vincennes finally decides to actually be a cop. He decides to right the wrong he caused. There is a beautiful scene when Vincennes’ looks himself in the mirror and he sees what he has become. Spacey plays the realization in such a subtle, but powerful way.

Spacey steals almost every scene he is in. He glides on to the screen with ease and it feels like he was lifted straight from the period. Spacey also has some of the best comedic moments throughout the film. He is able to balance the comedic and dramatic moments in such an effortless way that it almost look easy. In the end, he ends up playing arguably the most tragic character of the entire film, and a big reason for that is because of how great Spacey is as an actor.

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CineNation is a multi-media conversation connecting lovers of television and film from around the world