Boris Karloff, the master of early horror films, used to dress up as Santa Claus to deliver Christmas presents to disabled children. Onscreen, Karloff was a brooding, terrifying presence. In real life, he was the consummate gentleman. Onscreen, John Wayne was a bold war hero. In reality, Wayne had somehow avoided signing up to fight in World War Two.
We know better, then, than to judge our actors by their roles. Villains of the cinema may be heroes in their homes, and heroes of the cinema may be, well — less heroic than their image might suggest. There is no point conflating the life with the work. Even if Jimmy Stewart had a more impressive wartime record than John Wayne, we all know that the Duke was a far more convincing and compelling leading man.
What, though, if the boundaries are blurred? Joaquin Phoenix created genuine concern with his bizarre public behavior as he prepared for his role in I’m Still Here. Long before this, Peter Sellers was often suggested to have no real identity beyond those of his characters. In professional wrestling, the thin line between performers and their ‘gimmicks’ was obscured in cases such as that of Brian ‘Loose Cannon’ Pillman, whose deranged persona made it difficult for his friends and peers to realize that he was descending into a haze of chronic pain and drug abuse.
Perhaps the most creative employment of ambiguous theatricality, though, has come from double-Oscar winning actor and alleged sex pest Kevin Spacey. Spacey, for obvious reasons, has not had a proper acting role since he was accused by the actor Anthony Rapp of trying to initiate sex when Spacey was 26 and Rapp was 14. Spacey, in fairness, has yet to be convicted of a crime, with one criminal case against him being dropped when his accuser pled the fifth after being unable to produce much-trumpeted incriminating evidence, and another being settled because the accuser died. Two other accusers have also died: one in a car accident and the other in an apparent suicide.
Publically, the actor has been tight-lipped. He released a statement after Rapp’s allegation in which he claimed not to remember the alleged assault, apologized in case it did happen and bizarrely announced that he was gay. His only other messages to a bewildered public have been his two apparently inexplicable Christmas messages in which, through the mouthpiece of Frank Underwood, the scheming politician he portrayed in House of Cards, he offered cryptic responses to the controversy. In 2018, he insisted that he was ‘not done’ and asking, ‘you wouldn’t rush to judgment without facts, would you?’ In 2019, he announced that he wanted to add ‘more good’ to the world and saying that if someone did wrong to him he would ‘kill them with kindness’. Emphasis on kill.
Now, we should step back and say that there is no evidence that Mr Spacey was involved in the deaths of his accusers. Still, emphasizing ‘kill’ in a year where two people who have accused you of sexual assault have died (the third killed himself soon after the video was released) is at minimum astonishingly insensitive. You could call it tone deaf except that you’d struggle to believe it was entirely, blissfully accidental.
YouTube comments are rarely worth reading but the comments underneath Spacey’s ‘KTWK’ (‘Kill Them With Kindness’) video are worth skimming through. ‘He’s like a real life villain,’ says one, ‘It’s terrible and scary but brilliant in a disturbing way.’ ‘It’s like he’s the face of our nightmare dystopia,’ says another. ‘This dude took method acting entirely too far,’ adds a third.
Spacey’s videos are fascinating examples of the sheer uncanniness of American life. Stephen Paddock gunned down 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas and the FBI have never uncovered a motive. Uncanny. Jeffrey Epstein wormed his predatory way through elite life for decades despite the fact that no one really knows where his money and status came from, before dying after his prison guards fell asleep and hallway cameras malfunctioned. Uncanny. Kevin Spacey releases a video about killing people with kindness as his accusers drop like flies. To be clear, uncanniness is by no means reliable evidence for a conspiracy. (I think that there is solid evidence of some kind of conspiracy in the Epstein case but it transcends the sheer uncanniness of the whole affair.) The world can be strange by accident and not design.
Still, uncanniness persists. In an age of extreme onlineness, where real and manufactured data flits about our screens without an obvious dividing line between them, and where covert forces are more numerous and convoluted than ever before, our realities almost appear to glitch, and Spacey’s am-I-being-myself-or-playing-a-part and am-I-speaking-about-real-events-or-just-talking-nonsense videos are so fantastically well-suited for our times that I must assume there is at least an element of calculation involved.
At the very least this weirdo is trolling on a strange, transcendent level, and his videos will be studied long after Se7en and K-Pax have been forgotten. House of Cards? To some extent it was just Yes, Prime Minister for people who think they are smarter and more savvy than they are. No, ‘Let Me Be Frank’ and ‘KTWK’ are where it’s at. Part-drama, part-documentary and part-dream, they are fascinating records from an era where, in memes, humor and horror have blended; jokes and conspiracy theories have been fused. And somewhere within this sick-making surrealism is the truth.