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?”