Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
Not since Laurence Olivier has a man been so singularly emblematic to the profession of acting, in its purest form, as Kevin Spacey. No method tricks, no allowance for celebrity to cast a shadow over his performances, Mr. Spacey is a capital-A actor. A Julliard graduate who cut his teeth performing Shakespeare and Chekov, he is equally equipped with unflappable cool, Carsonesque wit, and abundant charm. He’s the Clintons’ go-to entertainment surrogate and The Tonight Show’s resident thespian. He’ll even teach you his craft through Master Class.
A Tony, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and two-time Academy Award winner, Spacey has knocked out classic performances in every medium he’s approached and is currently doing some of his best work in television on the Netflix original drama House of Cards as the duplicitous Frank Underwood.
Best known for playing villains (Se7en, Superman Returns), dissatisfied domestic men (The Ref, American Beauty), and increasingly horrible bosses (Swimming with Sharks, Horrible Bosses), Spacey has had a late-career renaissance of late playing corrupt politicians in Cards, Casino Jack, and his latest, Elvis & Nixon — opening this week — as Tricky Dick himself.
A private man, we may never learn about his mysterious past and what makes him tick, but the fun in watching Kevin Spacey is in trying to figure out just who his multi-layered characters really are. Never one-dimensional, and incessantly committed (even if to one of his numerous impressions), the actor is a marvel to watch. To this point, here are his 10 best roles on film.
10. Jim Williams
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Nearly two decades before donning a deep Southern accent and duplicitous charm as Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Kevin Spacey was playing a spiritual cousin to our favorite fictional president as Jim Williams, the charismatic and baroque murder suspect in Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Debonair, devious, and sporting a mustache worthy of a Civil War reenactor, Williams lands as a Southern gothic mix of Hannibal Lecter and The Birdcage.
While the cat-and-mouse chase between Spacey and a game John Cusack isn’t as riveting as the enigmatic actor’s other whodunnits, there is no question that Jim Williams is one of the most colorful and magnetic personalities in Eastwood’s canon. Had the film been a greater success, you could imagine a prequel where we discover just how he procured the “dagger that Prince Yussopov used to murder Rasputin. He sliced off his cock and balls with it.” I’d pay to see that.
Essential Spaceyism: With a line that could have just as easily been uttered by Underwood, “He needed what I gave him, and I needed what he gave me.”
09. Buddy Ackerman
Swimming With Sharks (1994)
Two adult comedies released in 1994 saw Kevin Spacey tied to chairs by a hostile captor: the Denis Leary vehicle The Ref and the dark Hollywood satire Swimming with Sharks. The former is an amusing take on marital woes, predicting Spacey’s career-defining turn in American Beauty, and the latter a predecessor to the many “awful leader” roles that shaped his career. Sharks is Spacey’s first marquee role, as a sadistic Hollywood producer who makes Ari Gold look like Mister Rogers.
Guy (Frank Whaley) is introduced to his boss and immediately told he has no brain. He’s berated, abused and humiliated to the brink of insanity. Watch Spacey chew scenery, throwing countless folders and tantrums and misbehaving, and you’d be forgiven for having a violent fantasy about him. All the more, he does it with a smile, that incorrigible prick! Always in motion and out for blood, Buddy is perhaps the most terrifying onscreen shark since Jaws.
Essential Spaceyism: “Say this one time with me: ‘Would you like that in a pump or a loafer?’ … Good. Now memorize it, because starting tomorrow, the only job that you’re going to be able to get is selling SHOES.”
A Bug’s Life (1998)
Fresh off the success of the revolutionary Toy Story, Pixar followed up with the underrated A Bug’s Life. Though unfortunate timing — and parallel thinking — with the release of Dreamworks’ Antz caused some confusion in the marketplace, time has been much kinder to Pixar’s second outing. Owing equal debts to Aesop and Seven Samurai, this computer-animated film creates a world where insects, worms, beetles, and flies are not pests, but adorable buddies pitted against the abominable grasshoppers, led by Spacey’s appropriately-named Hopper.
Hopper belongs in the ranks of fearsome Disney villains alongside The Lion King’s Scar and Cruella De Vil; he’s a ruthless leader with an acerbic wit and indelible charm. In a speech worthy of our current political climate, Hooper roars: “Let this be a lesson to all you ants! Ideas are very dangerous things! You are mindless, soil-shoving losers put on this Earth to serve us!” Spacey’s range is palpable through voice alone, and it’s a shame he’s done so little voice-over work since, with only Moon and the upcoming Nine Lives accompanying the film on his resume.
Essential Spaceyism: After pulling a lever and burying one of his minions with seeds: “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up! Those puny, little ants outnumber us a hundred to one, and if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life! It’s not about food. It’s about keeping those ants in line. That’s why we’re going back! Does anybody else wanna stay?”
The Shipping News (2001)
Though it’s at times a tedious film, Lasse Hallström’s 2001 drama The Shipping News, based on the novel by Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx, is a cozy, atmospheric drama that makes fine use of its leads in Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and Judi Dench. Spacey plays Quoyle, a rotund, hapless widower searching for meaning in the unforgiving Newfoundland cold.
Playing a damaged man without the makeup of Pay It Forward, Quoyle may be the actor’s most sympathetic (or just plain pathetic) character onscreen. The often callous Spacey shows a vulnerability previously unseen in his oeuvre, speaking in a mumbled tone and afraid to smile. It’s a testament to his range that he can carry a film under such gray skies and a unipolar disposition. There is often great beauty in sadness, and Quoyle, with his permanent frown and enduring spirit, is a touching reminder of that.
Essential Spaceyism: “There’s still so many things I don’t know. If a piece of knotted string can unleash the wind, and if a drowned man can awaken, then I believe a broken man can heal. Headline — deadly storm takes house, leaves excellent view.”
Perhaps unfairly remembered as another post-Oscar-win bomb, 2001’s K-Pax is both a charming sci-fi mystery and a problematic depiction of mental illness anchored by the unusual chemistry between former Starman Jeff Bridges and Spacey as a possible alien. Prot, a man admitted to a psychiatric ward claiming to be an extra-terrestrial, is a role that an actor like Spacey can really sink his teeth into — much like the infamous unpeeled banana he bites into during a therapy session with Bridges’ Dr. Powell.
Space oddities aside, Prot is a charming mix between R.P. McMurphy and Rain Man, with a twinge of sadness layered underneath his Bono shades. Only an actor as convincing as Spacey could make the possibility that this character is either a sad, traumatized man or otherworldly being equally plausible.
Essential Spaceyism: Prot, frankly relating to children what their dog “told” him: “She says she doesn’t like it when you hide her favorite tennis shoe, and she doesn’t hear so well on her left side, so don’t sneak up on her anymore.”
05. John Williamson
Glenngarry Glen Ross (1992)
Kevin Spacey idolized Jack Lemmon, and no late-night television appearance by the actor is complete without his pitch-perfect impersonation of the iconic Some Like It Hot star. To have starred alongside him in James Foley’s 1992 adaptation of David Mamet’s explosive, Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross was Spacey’s confirmation that he had made it. To have stood tall, as a relative unknown, among powerhouse icons in Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin and a career-best Alec Baldwin was Spacey telling the world he belonged.
As a meddling, no-nonsense middle manager, John Williamson is perhaps the cruelest of cruel men stuck in a hot, messy real-estate office and is the key-holder to the fates of the desperate salesmen over whom he presides (“The leads are coming!”). The callous sycophant Spacey portrays is so unlikable that he makes the foul-mouthed and deceptive men working under him sympathetic. At least Baldwin’s Blake promises coffee, steak knives, or the coveted Cadillac El Dorado for success; Williamson’s only promise is misery with every minute spent behind toiling in your office chair.
Essential Spaceyism: “Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch. WILL you GO to LUNCH?”
04. Jack Vincennes
L.A. Confidential (1997)
In 2006, Kevin Spacey wrote, directed, and starred as legendary singer Bobby Darin in his passion project, the uneven Beyond the Sea. Despite it being a fine showcase for Spacey’s considerable talents as a triple threat, the relatively squeaky-clean Darin is not an archetype that suits his strengths, to say nothing of the egregious oddity of the then 44-year-old star playing a man who died at 37. He’d have been much better off playing a scamp like Dean Martin, one of the inspirations for Spacey’s dazzling performance as Jack Vincennes in Curtis Hanson’s 1997 noir drama L.A. Confidential.
Vincennes isn’t as concerned with truth or justice as he is the New American Way: fame, fortune, and a cold drink. Though his expertise is essential to the straight-laced Exley (Guy Pearce) and roughneck Bud White (Russell Crowe, in a breakout performance) in solving the Nite Owl murders, it’s clear that Vincennes’ mind is just as occupied with the fictional crimes on Badge of Honor, the TV drama on which he works as a consultant. It’s a smaller role than his top billing suggests, but Spacey is a master of making the most of his time with every sly smile and curt turn of phrase. It’s a shame he wasn’t around to trade lines with the actors of L.A. Confidential’s time, as this performance proves he’s cut from the same cloth as Bogey, Gene Kelly, and The King of Cool himself.
Essential Spaceyism: “Oh, lookee here: the great jerkoff case of 1953.”
(Editor’s note: SPOILERS in the below clip, but come on, this is a classic. Go watch it.)
03. John Doe
It’s rare that an actor gets to play two iconic villain roles in one year, but Spacey did it in 1995 with The Usual Suspects and Se7en. All the more impressive is the fame foregone by not allowing the film’s secrets — and thus the true nature of his character’s evils — to be spoiled. Legend holds that Mr. John Doe himself insisted, against producers’ wishes, to leave his name off the film’s billing so as to keep the killer’s identity a mystery until his horrifying, bloody reveal at the start of Se7en’s third act.
And what a reveal it was. David Fincher’s breakthrough thriller creates a monster so psychotic and depraved that until Spacey appears, we picture the devil himself. Unlike other villains (see next entry), John Doe is obsessed with killing and killing alone. He has no name, wears a plain white shirt, and speaks in a laconic monotone. He is smarter than the two detectives chasing him (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, also in top form), and his calm, clinical approach to such horrors is more frightening than any of the dead “sinners’” remains.
Essential Spaceyism: “I visited your home this morning after you’d left. I tried to play husband. I tried to taste the life of a simple man. It didn’t work out, so I took a souvenir … her pretty head.”
02. Verbal Kint
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The devil is in the details. Verbal Kint is a subtle but powerful performance built on nervous tics, posturing, and an unyielding evil simmering beneath the surface. A loquacious and charismatic storyteller, Kint’s words weave the web of mystery and intrigue that left police hypnotized and audiences mesmerized in Spacey’s Best Supporting Actor-winning performance. That this film itself is remembered so fondly is a direct consequence of Spacey’s performance; yes, the twist is memorable, but its delivery is weighed solely on the strength of its storyteller.
Kint, or (20-year-old SPOILER!) Keyser Soze, may be the devil. He may be a pencil-neck geek with a sharp tongue. The truth, as the film suggests, isn’t as important as the legend we remember. In a lineup of badass criminals played by the imposing Benicio Del Toro, a peak Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, and Kevin Pollack, it’s the limping, sour-faced Spacey who emerges as the most frightening.
Essential Spaceyism: “After that my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that … he is gone.”
01. Lester Burnham
American Beauty (1999)
How appropriate is it that the performance that garnered Spacey his first Best Actor Oscar sees him jerking off in the shower within minutes of introducing us to his protagonist, Lester Burnham? With an act equal parts intimate, defiant, humiliating, and hedonistic, those short, standing tugs encapsulate all we need to know about American Beauty’s flawed protagonist and the fearless actor portraying him.
Time has not been kind to American Beauty’s often maudlin and preachy script, but Spacey’s lead performance is timeless and uplifts what could have been another Bonfire of the Vanities into a Best Picture winner. Tethered by an astounding Annette Benning as his wife Carolyn, Spacey’s Lester begins the film as a bored, disaffected husband, father, and employee approaching a mid-life crisis so profound that it would make Johnny Depp blush. A moment of clarity (and lust!) unravels Lester’s pathos and returns to him his lost sense of desire. Spacey’s work here, discovering a man discovering himself through fantasy, drugs, sex, rebellion, and the best reason to work in fast food ever (“I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility”) is the ultimate portrayal of the IDGAF attitude that so many wish they had.
Essential Spaceyism: After throwing a plate of asparagus against the wall: “Don’t interrupt me, honey! Oh, yeah, and one more thing, from now on we’re going to have alternate dinner music because frankly — and I don’t think I’m alone here … I’m tired of this Lawrence Welk shit!”