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 Hollywoodactor. 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.