Is it still okay to like Kevin Spacey?

Can we admire performances regardless of the person?

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Image courtesy of Alexander Kluge via Flickr

Until recently, I loved Kevin Spacey. He’s a phenomenal actor. He can make you laugh, make you cry, and as anyone who’s seen House of Cards will testify he can scare you through a TV screen. He can sing. He can dance. He’s funny, charming, charismatic. He’s the real deal, the full package, and until recently I admired Kevin Spacey. That admiration isn’t something that can disappear overnight.

Surely, Kevin Spacey fans everywhere are having a hard time reconciling their feelings in light of accusations of sexual assault recently levelled at the actor. It’s hard coming to terms with the idea of someone you respect doing something abhorrent. Investigations are still ongoing, and it is too early to say whether these accusations have permanently spoiled the enjoyment of Kevin Spacey films. To try and predict where the dust will settle, this article will look at a previous Hollywood sexual assault scandal, and explore how recent changes to the industry and culture may make the outcome of Kevin Spacey’s case different to many that have come before.

2011’s Carnage is one of the first films that ever made me think “wow, that’s brilliant”. The film takes place over a single afternoon, and sees two sets of parents slowly descend into childlike hysteria while trying to resolve a fight that’s taken place between their sons. I was amazed at how inventive and funny it could be while restricted to one apartment, and for a while it became one of my favourite films. It wasn’t until much later I found out the following: its director Roman Polanski is a fugitive, who fled the United States after pleading guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl.

Despite not being able to set foot in the United States since his sentencing, Polanski has worked with Hollywood A-listers such as Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver. To film Carnage, Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly all flew out to Paris. What’s more than this, as well as still operating as a filmmaker, Polanski’s films have continued to receive critical acclaim. In 2002, The Pianist won Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or, and earned Polanski an Academy Award for best director.

Polanski confessed to statutory rape in 1977. Forty years later, and he’s still making movies, still working with A-listers and still collecting awards. This may be to the credit of award-giving committees, who manage to ignore Polanski’s past long enough to give his films an objective assessment. However, it must certainly come to the discredit of the film industries who still finance Polanski’s ventures, and by doing so give him the power he has previously misused to assault a child.

This brings us back to Kevin Spacey. Polanski’s case is historical, and came to light in an entirely different social and political climate. Whether Spacey’s career also recovers still remains to be seen. The allegations against him have surfaced at a time where sexual abuse is hugely in the spotlight, and the victims coming forward have significant momentum and support behind them. The size of this movement, which encompasses not just Hollywood but also big businesses and even Parliament, is surely too big to let newly discovered sexual abuses go unpunished.

When Polanski was first indicted on six accounts of criminal behaviour, many Hollywood executives came to his defence. When accusations of Harvey Weinstein’s serial misconduct first surfaced he was collectively shunned. He was suspended from the BAFTA, and from the same Academy that fifteen years ago gave Roman Polanski one of their most sought-after awards.

Almost immediately after the first allegations against Kevin Spacey surfaced, Netflix cancelled the Spacey-led drama House of Cards, sacrificing their flagship show. One person might call this decisive action a moral victory, an action that sets an example for other studios and corporations. However, a cynic might say that keeping Spacey on would damage Netflix’s reputation and brand more than axing one of their biggest assets, and so the decision to cut off ties was simply good business practice. But whatever the intention, the outcome is the same – Netflix have sent a clear message that they will not facilitate stars who use their power to abuse others. This sentiment seems to becoming more and more prevalent on all levels of the film industry.

It is worth mentioning that the allegations against Spacey and Weinstein are still only allegations, which in both cases the accused deny, and no significant action will be taken until they are either proven or disproven.

At the start of this article I asked whether it’s still okay to like Kevin Spacey, but to be honest liking him or his films isn’t really a choice we can make. Despite not knowing whether the accusations against Spacey are true, I can’t help but feel they’ve tainted my memory of every role I’ve seen him in.

In Baby Driver he plays a career criminal in a position of power, and blackmails a young boy into working for him as a getaway driver. This premise already feels a lot less fun than it did a few months ago. On the flipside, the unease we feel watching Kevin Spacey now may enhance his performance in films such as Se7en or Horrible Bosses, where he’s supposed to be creepy, predatory or dislikable. Whichever way it goes, one thing is for certain – it seems nearly impossible to separate the artist from their art.

When a great person does a terrible thing there is no clear way to feel. The great sits side-by-side with the terrible, and this moral paradox is almost impossible to resolve. Spacey is still objectively an amazing performer, and if you can find a way to watch his past performances without letting recent revelations spoil your enjoyment then great. However, if you find the experience just too uncomfortable that’s valid too.

Despite everything I still admire Kevin Spacey – not as a person, but as a performer. He’s got so much raw talent. If only he’d use it for good.