Many of the biggest names in film broke into the industry from elsewhere. Some actors, like Will Smith and Bruce Willis, got their start on television. Others, like Meryl Streep and Hugh Jackman, come from the stage, starring in Broadway plays or musicals. Others still, like Drew Barrymore and Natalie Portman, have been on screen practically their entire lives.
So when you consider an actor like Kevin Spacey, he’s somewhat of an anomaly. Yes, he’s starred in films for years and, yes, he got his start on stage. But for much of his career, Spacey wasn’t the headliner. He was the guy on the left, the family friend or the crooked official or the strange deviant. Even after he made it big, starring in films like Se7en and L.A. Confidential, he would still make the occasional film as just one of the cops. Or the efficiency expert. Or the voice of the robot. We recognize Spacey when we see him on screen, but we forget how varied his roles have been.
His latest film, Nine Lives, casts the actor not as a human being at all, but a man trapped in the body of a cat to learn some kind of lesson about the importance of family. Based on initial reviews, this latest Disney film is unlikely to score Spacey another Academy Award—but it does present a good opportunity to review his body of film work. We mean everything, 45 films in total.
There are a few rules. We left out anything that Spacey directed or produced but did not actually star in. Same with documentaries, such as Al Pacino’s Looking For Richard, which analyzes Shakespeare’s Richard III (and features Spacey performing assorted scenes). We also left out the handful of short films made as part of a promotional competition with Jameson Irish Whiskey because the idea is too close to just being a commercial. Finally, focusing on film also (sadly) means no TV movies or series, like his acclaimed turn in House of Cards.
With that in mind, here are Paste’s picks for the greatest Kevin Spacey performances, ranked worst to best.
45. Father of Invention
Director: Trent Cooper
Inventor and infomercial king Robert Axle’s latest product is a doozy: an “ab clicker” machine that lets you change TV channels while doing crunches. Trouble is, it also slices off fingers, which results in Axle (Spacey) getting sent to prison. When he emerges as a parolee eight years later, he’s on a newfound mission to reconnect with the people in his life, beginning with his wife and daughter, relationships he couldn’t maintain while at the top of his game as a modern day snake oil salesman. Coming in here at the bottom of the list, Spacey isn’t awful in Father of Invention, but by 2010, we’ve seen it all before: Spacey as a charming megalomaniac, Spacey as a slippery salesman crafting a tale, Spacey as a down-and-out loner. He hits a variety of notes, but all of them ring hollow. And just like watching an infomercial, we tune out.
Director: Gary David Goldberg
You know the story: A businessman, who often neglects family for career, has to suddenly take care of his terminally ill father, which forces the two to reconcile. Along the way, the businessman learns how to become a better father himself. This melodrama (and others like it) dominated the box office through the late ’80s and early ’90s. Spacey has a minor supporting role in this as Mario, the soft-spoken son-in-law. He’s not bad in the role, but he doesn’t really do much.
Director: Mike Nichols
Spacey began his Hollywood career here, accomplishing no less than holding Meryl Streep at gunpoint. As a thug riding the subway (strangely, Sylvester Stallone started his film career in much the same way, as a thug in Woody Allen’s 1971 project, Bananas), Spacey’s character first offers his seat on the subway to Streep’s character, then he follows her off the train to a group therapy session, where he robs everybody at gunpoint. It’s a quick scene that’s almost comical, between his own awkward entrance and shooting a picture off the wall that another therapy attendee remarks as having “always hated” anyway. It takes a moment for Streep’s character to get her wedding ring off her finger, an ironic bit in a film about a woman who eventually leaves her cheating husband.
Director: David J. Burke
In Edison, the fictional “murder capital” of America, the cops of the city’s First Response Assault & Tactics division (forming the cringeworthy acronym F.R.A.T.) think they’re above the law. But when a novice reporter starts snooping around, so on and so forth and et cetera. You can figure out the rest. The only real mystery is how they looped the likes of Morgan Freeman and Spacey (who plays some kind of D.A. investigator) to appear in this truly awful movie.
41. A Show of Force
Director: Bruno Barreto
The story is serious, inspired by the real investigation of the murder and subsequent cover-up of two Puerto Rican nationalists in 1978. But the director, Bruno Barreto, best known for Brazilian screwball comedies, was not. Spacey plays a sneering, corrupt FBI agent. We almost expect to see him twirl a mustache in villainy.
40. Henry & June
Director: Philip Kaufman
In this loose biographical drama about Henry Miller, his wife June and their lover Anaïs Nin, Spacey has a brief yet memorable role as Henry’s oddball paranoid roommate Richard Osborn, the man who would introduce Henry and Anaïs.
39. Horrible Bosses 2
Director: Sean Anders
In Spacey’s only sequel, he returns as David Harken, a former “horrible boss” now in prison for his actions in the first film. He’s still the same old asshole, but this time he’s approached by the main characters to offer advice on what to do for their new predicament: dealing with a financial investor who left them stuck with a $500,000 loan. Horrible Bosses 2 was panned as a rehash of the same jokes and shtick as part one (swapping murder for kidnapping), and the same goes for Spacey as Harken.
38. Iron Will
Director: Charles Haid
Will anyone help finance an eager young man, looking to win a dog-sled race to save the family farm? Kevin Spacey will! He’s a verbose journalist in this live-action Disney family film about a courageous youngster who overcomes obstacles and tough challenges to beat an unusual sport and save the day, the plot of nearly a dozen Disney family films.
37. Rocket Gibraltar
Director: Daniel Petrie
In this saccharine family drama about an aging grandfather (Burt Lancaster) and his final wishes for a “Viking funeral,” Spacey plays a snarky family friend who checks out the girls, does vocal impressions and pontificates on life. There’s one in every family.
36. See No Evil, Hear No Evil
Director: Arthur Hiller
One’s blind, one’s deaf. And when these two unwittingly acquire a microchip worth millions, they become the target of all sorts of nefarious goons and criminals looking to recover the MacGuffin. Spacey plays one of these goons, sporting dark, round sunglasses, a small mustache and neatly combed hair. Normally, the comedy duo of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder create an unmatched combination. But here, the film falls flat, so unwilling or uninterested is Pryor or Wilder, or Spacey, to play anything more than stiff characterizations.
35. Consenting Adults
Director: Alan J. Pakula
The Parkers are a boring suburban couple when Eddy and Kay Otis move in next door. The new neighbors are fun and exciting, especially Eddy (Spacey), who encourages Richard Parker (Kevin Kline) to live more dangerously. But soon he’s encouraging Parker that they should wife-swap—in the middle of the night, no less; “Would they know the difference?” he asks hideously—and when Parker goes for it, all hell breaks loose. As it turns out, Eddy is completely nuts. This yuppie thriller might be worth seeing only for Spacey, deranged and pervasive, and for an ending that features a commando-style raid like something out of Home Alone except with Spacey wielding an Uzi.
34. Fred Claus
Director: David Dobkin
As Clyde Archibald Northcutt, an efficiency expert sent to audit the North Pole, Spacey isn’t winning any sympathy points here as the guy threatening to shut down Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. But he does provide this so-so holiday film with its needed antagonist—as well as an excuse to teach Santa the moral of the movie, that no child is born bad (not even ones who grow up to be business auditors).
33. Telstar: The Joe Meek Story
Director: Nick Moran
Named for the multimillion-selling record and the first to reach the top of the U.S. Billboard Top 100, Telstar tells the story of British record producer Joe Meek, his success, struggles, homosexuality and eventual suicide. A memorable, mustachioed (and blonde) Spacey plays Major Wilfred Banks, Meek’s stiff upper-lipped financier and supporter.
32. Ordinary Decent Criminal
Director: Thaddeus O’Sullivan
As notorious Dublin thief Michael Lynch (loosely based on Martin Cahill, a real Irish crime boss), Spacey happily plans heists, spends time with family and cultivates a whimsical and iconic public image. It’s fun to see his showmanship and hear him try on an Irish accent, but nothing in the film is believable. The problem with Ordinary Decent Criminal is that it’s ordinary. Decent’s a stretch.
Director: Dayyan Eng
Didn’t see this one coming. Inseparable, which pairs Spacey with Hong Kong heartthrob Daniel Wu, represents the first entirely Chinese-funded film to headline a Hollywood actor. And what a strange film it is, about a suicidal man gaining newfound confidence and a grip on life from a mysterious American expatriate (Spacey). But is he really just a CIA operative? Or a hallucination? And is casting Spacey in general an attempt to reach Western audiences, or is it meant to lend Hollywood credibility for audiences in China? Who knows—and frankly, who cares? The peculiarity here is to be taken in stride. The sight of Spacey fighting crime in a costume that looks like Batman is worth the price of admission alone.
Director: Anthony Drazan
Hurlyburly is the film adaptation of the critically acclaimed play about the dysfunctional, intersecting lives of mid-level Hollywood players in the 1980s. Between the drugs and long conversations that go deep into the night, they try to make sense of their empty lives. At the center of it is Eddie (Sean Penn), an emotional casting agent addicted to cocaine, and Mickey (Spacey), his dry and sardonic roommate. Musing on life, Mickey’s sarcastic quips serve as the perfect foil for the hurt romantic Eddie, who searches for life’s meaning. Along with their friends and fellow drug users, the characters of Hurlyburly talk but go nowhere, trapped in a kind of purgatory high in the Hollywood Hills.
29. Working Girl
Director: Mike Nichols
In Working Girl, Bob Speck (Spacey) represents the physical embodiment of every sleazy white-collar creep whom Tess (Melanie Griffith) must put up with in 1980s-era Manhattan. Spacey’s only on screen for two minutes but it’s enough time for him to snort cocaine in a limo, chug Dom Perignon, and make a pass at Tess—a move that has her pouring out his champagne all over his suit and coat. You go, girl.
Director: Robert Luketic
Five MIT math whizzes travel to Vegas to count blackjack cards and score big. The house always wins, but luckily they’re led by professor Mickey Rosa, a nonlinear equations professor and card shark. Spacey plays Rosa as slick and a little smarmy, who runs his classroom like the opening monologue of a late-night television show host and who quickly becomes vengeful when the card-counting group invariably falls apart.
27. The United States of Leland
Director: Matthew Ryan Hoge
“Aren’t you an actor?” a woman asks Spacey’s character in The United States of Leland. His reply: “I was in Stanley Kubrick’s musical, the one about the alcoholic pirates. I played Captain Morgan.” It’s kind of an asshole answer, which sums up Spacey’s character, the father of the eponymous Leland (Ryan Gosling), a shy teenager who kills an autistic boy “because of the sadness.” Save for a few good exchanges between Spacey and Don Cheadle, there’s not much else to care about in this muddled film about a murder and the writers trying to profit off of it.
Director: Jonas Pate
As a high-profile therapist-to-the-stars, Henry Carter has to listen, diagnose and help improve the lives of assorted Hollywood burnouts. But Carter’s no specimen himself, emotionally distraught after his wife’s recent suicide, detached and high on pot for most of the film. And of course, while he’s great at diagnosing troubles in others, he’s oblivious to his own struggles. In many ways, we’ve already seen much of Shrink in Hurlyburly, another film with Spacey bearing witness to Hollywood players doing drugs. The film boasts a solid cast—Robert Loggia, Jack Huston, Robin Williams, Akeelah and the Bee’s Keke Palmer—but its flaw is that while we can sympathize with the addictions and compulsions of the rich and famous, we can’t empathize with very many of them. For most of the movie, we share only one common ground with that of its characters: apathy.
25. The Life of David Gale
Director: Alan Parker
In a film that’s supposed to make a statement about capital punishment, former professor David Gale finds himself on death row—in Texas, of course—after evidence points to his rape and murder of a close friend. But when a journalist (played by Kate Winslet) notices that not all the facts of the crime add up, she launches her own investigation that—spoiler alert—reveals the death was staged by the victim in order to discredit the death penalty. Spacey is fine as Gale, but it’s the film’s ultimate execution, no pun intended, of its message that fails. The movie is filled with “gotcha” moments and cheap tricks that undermine its impact on the audience.
24. The Men Who Stare at Goats
Director: Grant Heslov
New Age-thinking, the Gulf War, and goats. Spacey portrays the villain here, an original character created for the film adaptation of the book about the U.S. Army’s exploration of potential military uses of New Age ideas and the paranormal. Whereas Special Forces operator Lyn (George Clooney) looks for ways to use these elements for good, Larry (Spacey) seeks only to explore ways to weaponize the unknown in this strange war parody that feels like a hybrid of films made by Alexander Payne and the Coen Brothers.
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
On a mission to prevent the spread of an Ebola-like plague throughout California, Lt. Col. Casey Schuler (Spacey) is part of Col. Sam Daniels’ (Dustin Hoffman) team of scientists working to develop a cure by tracking down the original monkey (Betsy, the same capuchin from the TV show Friends). Casey is ultimately helpless when his suit tears in a virus-exposed lab, another casualty of the lethal disease. Spacey brought home two Best Supporting Actor awards for his performance here, from the Society of Los Angeles and Texas Film Critics.
Director: Duncan Jones
Aboard an automated facility on the moon, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is at the end of a three-year assignment to look after the station. His only companion is GERTY, an artificially intelligent robot (voiced by Spacey, “pictured” above at left) built like a cross between an office printer and a dentist’s X-ray machine. Sam is eager to get back to Earth when, suddenly, another Sam appears in the station. Is it a doppelgänger? Is he imagining it? Much of Moon calls to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey (really, what science fiction film doesn’t?), from the white-upon-white color palette to the monotone GERTY. But it’s not about how Spacey’s robot speaks, it’s what he’s saying: the truth about Sam’s origins, who he is, and the company he works for. There’s a subtle empathy in his responses, word choice and phrasing—which goes well beyond just the sad face emoticons that appear on GERTY’s screen while he speaks.
21. Elvis & Nixon
Director: Liza Johnson
Amid his current popularity as Frank Underwood, TV’s favorite despicable politician in Netflix’s House of Cards, Spacey took time this year to play another president in Elvis & Nixon, an odd, stilted comedy about the real-life meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon in 1970. A meeting that led to a photograph of the two shaking hands, the single most requested photo from the U.S. National Archives. A master impressionist in real life anyway, Spacey hits all the right notes as the stout, gruff Nixon, playing a version of the president in the same way that Michael Shannon plays a version of Elvis. It’s more about the idea of these historical figures (and it has to be anyway, since no one knows what the two of them discussed behind the closed doors of the Oval Office), but it works because for both of these figures at this point in their careers, Elvis and Nixon were seemingly more myth than men. Spacey and Shannon do not disappoint.
20. Casino Jack
Director: George Hickenlooper
Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist guilty of defrauding Indian tribes tens of millions of dollars to lobby for their casinos, is brought to life in this film about his career and the scandal. Spacey plays Abramoff, who lived lavishly but did spend much of the money he stole for decent causes, such as schools and charities. It’s a ballsy movie that dares to straight-out name names of the people involved (instead of implying that certain characters are based on real politicians, as you sometimes see), and while Abramoff may be despicable in real life, Spacey’s performance isn’t unsympathetic.
19. A Bug’s Life
Director: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
After the success of the first entirely computer-generated feature-length film, Toy Story (hard now to believe there was a time when that was an unusual concept), Pixar created A Bug’s Life, a story inspired by Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper and The Magnificent Seven. “I enjoyed too the use of animation to visualize a world that could not be seen in live action and could not be created with special effects. Animation contains enormous promise for a new kind of storytelling,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review for A Bug’s Life when it debuted in 1998. Here, Spacey plays Hopper, the tyrannical leader of a gang of aggressive grasshoppers that demand food from the ants each season. Eloquent and calculating, Spacey voices a bug you don’t want to tangle with.
18. The Big Kahuna
Director: John Swanbeck
In the hospitality suite of a Wichita hotel, two industrial lubricant salesmen (Spacey and Danny DeVito) await the arrival of Dick Fuller, a man referred to as “the Big Kahuna” and CEO of a major company with which they’re looking to land an account. They’re joined by Bob, an eager, earnest greenhorn from the company’s research department and a devout Baptist. When Bob becomes the only member of the team to actually meet with the Big Kahuna, he speaks to him about religion, and not sales at all. But for the senior salesmen, Spacey’s character especially, sales is God. The Big Kahuna is neither a movie about religion nor lubricants, it’s about systems of belief. We view the world through whatever lens we subscribe to—and the differences from one to the next are slighter than we think.
17. Margin Call
Director: J.C. Chandor
Margin Call takes place over a 36-hour period in the days before the 2008 financial collapse, at a fictional large Wall Street investment bank. When a head of the company’s risk management team discovers data that accurately predicts the coming economic disaster, the bank’s top leaders (played by Spacey, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons and Simon Baker) assemble to decide on a plan of action and make the margin call: Dump the firm’s toxic assets before people realize their worthlessness. Spacey uncharacteristically plays the moral center here, objecting against the company betraying their customers and clients. The film shrewdly smartly doesn’t get mired in tech or financial jargon, but rather lets characters like Spacey’s shine—one in a handful of voices that represent all of the banking industry (as far as the audience is concerned) before one of the biggest recessions in American history.
16. Horrible Bosses
Director: Seth Gordon
As one of the titular “horrible bosses,” Spacey plays the sadistic and egotistical David Harken, who’s toyed with middle manager Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) by suggesting his promotion for months, only to give it to himself. Echoing his performance in Swimming with Sharks, another movie where Spacey plays an out-of-control boss who treats an employee like garbage, David’s words and actions are almost too outrageous and ridiculous to be believable. But they’re perfect for Spacey, a master at portraying characters who are smart, deceitful, ruthless and over-the-top.
15. The Shipping News
Director: Lasse Hallström
Spacey makes a sharp departure from his usual roles as Quoyle, a timid ink setter for the local newspaper whose cheating, promiscuous wife dies in a car accident, leaving him as a single father for their 6-year-old daughter. Normally the smartest character in any movie he’s in (or at least the most devious), Spacey floats along here as a meek, quiet man who always gets sucked into things—first his marriage, then a move to Newfoundland in Canada at the behest of his visiting aunt (Judi Dench), where he meets a colorful cast of characters, including a nature-minded new love interest (Julianne Moore). The town, like the film, is a little too quaint to be realistic, but seeing Spacey as nice and almost painfully normal is surprisingly fascinating.
14. A Time to Kill
Director: Joel Schumacher
When a 10-year-old black girl is raped and nearly murdered by two white supremacists in rural Mississippi, her father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), shoots and kills both men outside the courthouse after attorney Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) admits the rapists may possibly walk free. Jake agrees to defend Carl Lee against the district attorney (Spacey) in a case that has now garnered national media attention, attracting assorted lawyers, activists, the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan to the scene. A Time to Kill marks one of the best adaptations of John Grisham’s novels to film, and Spacey is a big figure here as the slick Southern lawyer representing the state of Mississippi—a state where the odds are stacked against a black man to begin with.
13. Superman Returns
Director: Bryan Singer
Spacey was the only actor that director Bryan Singer considered for the part of Lex Luthor, after having worked together on Singer’s earlier film, The Usual Suspects, and the screenplay was written specifically with Spacey in mind. Much of Superman Returns feels lifted from Richard Donner’s 1978 original—the casting of Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth as echoes of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, a nefarious plot by Lex Luthor involving real estate, even whole lines of dialogue—including Spacey’s performance as Lex, channeling Gene Hackman’s comic arrogance but with more malice and bitterness. But he does it so well, it’s fun to watch him revel in the role as Superman’s iconic villain.
12. Pay It Forward
Director: Mimi Leder
Social studies teacher Eugene Simonet gives his seventh-grade class an assignment: Devise a plan that will change the world for the better, and put it into action. But he doesn’t expect 11-year-old Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) to actually come up with something, or for Trevor’s plan to include getting Eugene romantically involved with his mother Arlene (Helen Hunt), both of which occur. Spacey excels here as the wounded Eugene, an emotionally and literally scarred victim of abuse at the hands of his own drunken father. It’s a scene he fears will play out again once Trevor’s own estranged alcoholic dad reappears after a long absence, claiming sobriety. As a movie, Pay It Forward feels cluttered, too often cutting across multiple periods of time as Trevor’s plan plays out in various scenes with a medley of strangers. Still, Spacey, along with Hunt and Osment, brings a depth and complexity to a character that might’ve been a cardboard cliché in the hands of lesser talent.
11. The Negotiator
Director: F. Gary Gray
When top hostage negotiator Lieutenant Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) gets framed by members of his own police unit and takes hostages of his own in desperation, there’s only one other negotiator in Chicago he can trust to call. Jackson’s character has never even met Spacey’s Lt. Chris Sabian, but he knows his trademark: negotiating for as long as possible and using force as a last resort. And for nearly two-and-a-half hours, that’s exactly what we get, a fairly formulaic action thriller redeemed by the on-screen chemistry between Jackson and Spacey. Their back-and-forth dialogue is the heart of the film. Roman relies on help to continue an investigation he can’t conduct alone, and Sabian, seeking a peaceful resolution, obliges as the only police officer on the scene without his finger on the trigger.
10. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Director: Clint Eastwood
With a pre-House of Cards Southern drawl, a dry sense of humor and that epic porn ’stache, Spacey brings antiques collector Jim Williams to life in Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the John Berendt novel, finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. He’s the center of attention in lushly landscaped and populated Savannah, Ga. after he shoots and kills his violent homosexual lover, leading to a highly publicized series of murder trials. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil can’t be considered among the top 10 or even 20 best book-to-film adaptations, but Spacey as Williams is spot-on, a dead ringer for the man himself.
9. Glengarry Glenn Ross
Director: James Foley
In this film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, Spacey portrays by-the-book office manager John Williamson, responsible for managing four real estate salesmen played by veteran actors Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris and Al Pacino. Threatened with losing his job, Shelley (Lemmon), an aging salesman who was once successful but is now in a career slump, begs Spacey’s character for some of the top names and phone numbers of people who might buy real estate, but Williamson won’t give them to him. The entire office reeks of despair as the salesmen try to sell garbage real estate to uninterested parties. Even top seller Ricky Roma (Pacino) sees a major deal fall apart in front of him over the course of just a few hours. Spacey’s character Williamson, representing the company, coldly reveals the truth: All the leads are trash, recycled by the company’s cheap owners. The salesmen don’t have a chance—they never did, because screw ’em. What else are they going to do?
Director: Ian Softley
In New York City, it seems helping a stranger after her purse gets stolen in Grand Central Station is enough to be locked away in a mental institution. This, like all other good deeds done by prot, the main character of K-PAX, at first arouses suspicion, then affection. In the film, Spacey as prot (pronounced with a long O sound and uncapitalized) claims to be from the planet K-PAX in the constellation Lyra, more than 1,000 light years from Earth. He baffles astronomers, physicians and psychiatrists alike with his impossible knowledge of Lyra’s planetary system, ability to see ultraviolet light, and tolerance for Thorazine—no one more so than Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges), who seems willing to entertain the notion that Spacey’s character may indeed be not of this planet. Between curing his fellow mental patients, talking to dogs and generally endearing himself to everyone around him, Spacey plays prot without irony or embellishment. His conversations with Dr. Powell—about everything from the nature of the universe and travelling beyond the speed of light to the concept of family and the idea of right and wrong—are among K-PAX’s strongest aspects, a testament to the performances of Spacey and Bridges.
7. The Ref
Director: Ted Demme
When a thief named Gus (played by Denis Leary) accidentally sets off all the alarms during a home burglary on Christmas Eve, putting the police on alert, the only place he can hide out is in the home of Lloyd and Caroline, a bickering couple. What begins as a temporary place to lay low while his partner-in-crime steals a boat for their getaway turns into a prison for Gus, who becomes a referee for Lloyd and Caroline’s escalating argument. Spacey and Judy Davis are perfectly cast as the articulate couple, with sharp dialogue that bounces back and forth like a ping pong match. All hell breaks loose when the couple’s family comes over for the holidays and Gus must pretend he’s the spouses’ marriage counselor.
6. Swimming with Sharks
Director: George Huang
“You. Have. No. Brain. No judgment calls are necessary. What you think means nothing, what you feel means nothing,” movie mogul Buddy Ackerman warns Guy during his first day on the job as Buddy’s new assistant. Working for Buddy means running meaningless errands, putting up with verbal abuse in front of the entire office, and essentially tending to his boss’ every whim, 24 hours a day. Spacey plays Buddy, shifting gears effortlessly between slowly speaking to Guy (Frank Whaley) as if he were a child and yelling furiously at the top of his lungs. When Guy finally snaps, abducts Buddy and holds him hostage, Spacey changes again, revealing that Buddy was once an equally bullied assistant and how his wife suffered a tragic death. But it’s not a ploy; his point is that life is short and difficult, and we must figure out what we want and go after it. Success must be earned, hence his abuse of Guy. A different actor would’ve played Buddy as just a bully. Another might’ve had him be a victim of circumstance. But Spacey carries it through the highs and the lows, hitting all the right notes.
5. Beyond the Sea
Director: Kevin Spacey
Critics panned this quasi-musical biography about the life of Bobby Darin for its unusual plot structure (Spacey, as Darin, is making a fictional movie-within-a-movie about his life while chatting with the kid hired to play him in youth); the fact that Spacey, 45 at the time, looked too old to portray a man whose fame peaked in his twenties and who died at 37; and that ultimately, Darin’s achievements and the events of his life, while astounding, were not necessarily enough to justify a biopic. Much of this is true. But sharing the story of Bobby Darin was a passion project of Spacey’s, who worked for almost a decade to bring his life to the screen. To his credit, Spacey nails it through the film’s song-and-dance numbers, for which he was nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Grammy; in an ad-libbed moment on TV, Roger Ebert remarked that Spacey was probably even a better singer than Darin. In Beyond the Sea, we care about Darin because Spacey cares about Darin, and he helps us understand why.
Director: David Fincher
By the time viewers finally meet serial killer John Doe in David Fincher’s Se7en, we’re already devastatingly familiar with his work. He’s force-fed an obese man until bursting, demanded a literal pound of flesh cut from an attorney, strapped a pederast to a bed for a year, emaciating him to the point of coma. It isn’t until the last half hour of the film that we’re introduced to the psychotic mastermind who has orchestrated all of it, and we half expect to come face-to-face with the Devil himself.
Instead, what we get is Spacey in an unforgettable role—as the physical embodiment of evil. Deliberately uncredited until the end of the film (and through all of the marketing leading up to its release, much to the producers’ chagrin), Spacey’s portrayal is a perfect balancing act: John Doe is detached from the murders he commits, yet deliberate and meticulous in his execution. He’s completely disconnected from society yet fighting, in his own way, against the moral injustices around him. Unemotional yet smug. Analytical, violent, patient, impenetrable. “What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed,” John Doe says. “Forever.” He’s right.
3. L.A. Confidential
Director: Curtis Hanson
As Jack Vincennes, a narcotics detective who serves as technical advisor for a Dragnet-type TV show and who tips off celebrity arrests for tabloid magazines, Spacey represents both law enforcement and show business in L.A. Confidential. Like Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra, he oozes charm as a kind of movie star among the cops in this screen adaptation of James Ellroy’s crime novel. There’s so much to like about this film—the spot-on recreation of early 1950s Los Angeles and the post-war atmosphere and energy, the smart plot about walking the line between committing crimes and exacting justice, and an all-star cast that introduced the likes of Australian actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to American audiences. L.A. Confidential has the heart of a film noir mystery and pulp fiction novel without sacrificing character for story. The loose-barrel cop, by-the-book detective, and the hooker with a heart of gold are stereotypes, but the film pulls back the veneer to give us the real people behind them.
2. The Usual Suspects
Director: Bryan Singer
Who is Keyser Söze? For nearly two hours of winding exposition—and stories about heists, murders and rumors—Roger “Verbal” Kint tries to convince customs agent Dave Kujan that this terrifying urban legend of a man, “a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night,” went unseen after a botched job and vanished. But Dave doesn’t believe him. He insists it was Keaton, one of Verbal’s collaborators. It turns out Verbal Kint is Keyser Söze, a fact that Dave doesn’t realize—until after he’s let Verbal go. The Usual Suspects is confusing as hell. But what sells the film’s final reveal is the Oscar-winning Spacey, who goes from being a limping passenger on this trip to the legendary criminal kingpin who has masterminded everything. The reveal is simple and has become an iconic moment in pop culture, a “holy crap” shocker akin to the Bruce Willis twist at the end of The Sixth Sense or the bombshell in Fight Club that Tyler Durden isn’t real.
1. American Beauty
Director: Sam Mendes
On the cusp of a new millennium, 1999 represented one of the greatest years in all of cinema. Decades of moviemaking experience combined with revolutionary new narratives and computer technology offered an unparalleled look at the possibilities that lay ahead in the 21st century. Films like The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, Magnolia, Three Kings, Girl, Interrupted, The Green Mile, Boys Don’t Cry (and even Office Space) pushed the boundaries and not only challenged the very concept of what was possible on film, but they all also carried the same message: Strive to live a more meaningful life. None conveyed that idea more than American Beauty.
As middle-aged advertising exec Lester Burnham, Spacey plays a man whose life is coming apart. His wife is having an affair, he fantasizes about his high school daughter’s best friend, and he works at a job he hates. But when he suddenly gets fired, Lester decides to turn the tables. He blackmails his boss, trades his Toyota Camry for a Pontiac Firebird, and starts smoking pot. But this isn’t Lester giving up, it’s the opposite: For the first time since adolescence, maybe since ever, Lester has decided to live his life the way he wants.
In the years since American Beauty’s debut, regard for the film has waned, with critics faulting the movie for being overly sentimental or contrived or not exploring topics like homosexuality boldly or compassionately enough. But none have challenged Kevin Spacey’s performance, in which he depicts the ultimate midlife crisis, the doting yet emotionally absent father and husband, and frustrated white-collar worker. Brash but vulnerable, frustrated, subversive and complex, this is Spacey at full form.
American Beauty comes in at No. 1, not just because it’s a great film (which it is) or because Spacey won the Academy Award for it (which he did), but because its story echoes Spacey’s: a career spent finding the beauty in all of life’s moments, whether as a leading hero or villain, or small roles in quiet films. And yes, perhaps even as simply a cat.