In November 2017 Kevin Spacey has been accused of low level sexual predation* in London and the USA. He doesn’t appear to be denying the offences and he’s suffered enormous reputational and financial damage. His masterly series House of Cards has been cancelled, one film has air-brushed him and a further film has been pulled. He’s the latest example flowing from the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other prominent people. Spacey exploited his position for sexual gratification. So far, so moral high ground, but it all feels a bit hysterical, a bit Salem Witches.
Spacey’s been a Hollywood star for a very long time and latterly was artistic director at London’s Old Vic theatre. He’s won two Oscars and is a ‘bankable’ actor. The Netflix TV series House of Cards, 2013-7, saw Spacey as a Machiavellian politician whose principal skill is the amoral use of power. As Francis Underwood Spacey became President through characteristic devious and ruthless ways. His chief of staff, Doug Stamper, (Michael Kelly) shared Underwood’s methods and was a consigliere in the manner of The Godfather’s Tom Hagan.
House of Cards includes scenes which are controversial. Underwood (Spacey) kissing his bodyguard Meecham (Nathan Darrow) in the presence of his wife Claire (Robin Wright) is astonishing given recent revelations. His cordial acquiescence of Claire’s affair with Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) further pushes the boundaries of Underwood’s sexuality. Underwood is a moral cesspit committing crimes himself- including murder- and manipulating others to commit crimes. He uses and abuses power. In one famous sex scene he says, “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Spacey brought authenticity to the role of Underwood making House of Cards a commercial and critical success.
Underwood is a fictional character and Spacey isn’t. It’s a category error to conflate Underwood and Spacey as though they live in the same moral space. The House of Cards is compelling because it’s plausible. Currently, November 2017, the British Houses of Parliament are convulsed with accusations of what is coyly called ‘inappropriate’ behaviour. Resignations from high office have occurred. And there may be more
Spacey isn’t as pure as driven snow but should he be? The accusations place him as a low level sexual predator. Men have been groped but there hasn’t been any police action. Incidents took place both on set and back stage so there must have been witnesses and gossip at the very least. Nor have there been resignations or pay-offs.
Netflix’s decision to cancel House of Cards, series 6, is entirely commercial. The film All the money in the world is to be re-edited without Spacey. That Spacey can be replaced at a moments notice after a film has been finished illustrates the fragile nature of film careers. The sleazy metaphor ‘casting couch’ is a metaphor precisely because it summarises alleged common practise in the film industry. In a competitive profession people who are driven by feelings of entitlement, fame, wealth and insecurity may be tempted into a Faustian Pact. Everyone understands power in the film industry and acts accordingly.
The contrast with Roman Polanski is marked. Polanski is a fugitive from US justice following his conviction for the rape of a child. He now can’t enter the USA but the Academy Awards committee have nominated him three times for Oscars and voted him a winner in 2002. Commercial and critical success have trumped moral considerations in Polanski’s case.
Using Polanski as a benchmark Spacey appears to be at the wrong end of over-blown moral outrage. He may well be sleazy and challenging to work with but the price of genius is that his workplace should adjust to him and neutralise his overt behaviour. Perhaps he should exile himself to Europe to rebuild and retrench.
*Further revelations may emerge but this is true at the time of writing.