There are many wonderful scenes in the film version of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, but my favourite comes towards the end, between the broken and desperate real estate salesman Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levene, played by Jack Lemmon, and his vile manager John Williamson, played by Kevin Spacey. Levene, facing not merely the sack but probable imprisonment, is pleading for help, cringing and cowering. But he has gone to the wrong man. When he asks Williamson why he won’t help, the manager replies with a magnificent finality: ‘Because I don’t like you.’ And Spacey’s face, almost deadpan for most of the film as he suffers the abuse thrown at him by his salesmen, is now writhed in contempt.
But not just contempt — contempt tinged with the slightest suggestion of pleasure and malice. He is, in that moment, every grim, devious, self-serving middle manager you’ve ever loathed in your life. The middle manager from the Milgram experiment, turning up the voltage on the dial and electrocuting the volunteers. And so by obvious extension the middle manager at Auschwitz who was ‘only following orders’. You watch that scene and you recoil.
There is not a bad performance in the film from anyone. I would happily watch the brilliant Ed Harris read out a telephone directory; Al Pacino is at the height of his game; and there’s even a rather decent cameo from Alec Baldwin, not to mention Lemmon’s typically affecting swan song. But it’s Spacey who steals the film. Understated, thoughtful, utterly within the pallid skin of his character. But then Spacey often steals films, doesn’t he? Have you seen many better performances over the past 30 years than Spacey’s in The Usual Suspects? He is probably the best actor Hollywood has. Or had.
It is also quite possible that if he sat down next to you on a park bench he would withdraw his penis and ask you to admire its length and girth. Somewhat odd behaviour, I would contend, although each to their own. This is just one of a dozen or so accusations of sexual harassment levelled at Kevin Spacey and some of them seem to be true, given the actor’s carefully drafted apologies. Spacey, then, may not be a terribly nice man. He may well be a serial sexual predator, or worse. If I were 17 years old, I certainly wouldn’t sit on a park bench next to him, unless Ed Harris was there to sort him out. But watch him act? I’d do that all day long.
Not much chance now, however. Nobody is going to be casting him in anything anytime soon — and perhaps that is right, assuming those accusations have a basis in fact. Maybe we should object to a man who has not faced the consequences for his previous misdeeds being paid vast sums of money to strut his undoubtedly accomplished stuff once again. I see that, although I’ve always rather liked the notion of innocent until proven guilty. But then, clearly, Spacey is guilty of something, so I understand the reason Hollywood has gone rather cold.
But what about expunging his previous work? Wiping it from the record, as if it had never been done. Eradicating Spacey from the world of film and leaving just a space. That’s what is happening now. Director Ridley Scott is digitally removing Spacey from his picture All the Money in the World and replacing him with Christopher Plummer. The sixth series of House of Cards will not feature Spacey at all, which neatly removes the only possible point of watching the thing. His films are also being pulled from festivals; all of this madness as if we were attempting to erase him from our consciousness, pretend that he has never existed. Spacey’s fall from grace was triggered by the revelations about the producer Harvey Weinstein, and indeed both men are now in some institution dedicated to purging rich people of their desire to have sexual intercourse. This is what slebs always do when they’ve been caught out: head for rehab to demonstrate to the public that they have a problem and therefore are in some sort of sense a victim, too. But anyway, I am waiting for the film world to expunge Weinstein from our minds. Confiscate all his films. No more Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction or Velvet Goldmine — none of them to be seen again. Or does Weinstein not matter because he doesn’t actually appear on screen?
This purging is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The first time I remember it happening was when the BBC started expunging Gary Glitter from re-runs of Top of the Pops, believing — perhaps rightly — that the public’s answer to the question: ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me?’ was a fairly firm ‘No, Gary, and nor does my 12-year-old daughter’. The next to be edited from existence was the producer and performer Jonathan King — one of the first celebrities to be done for accusations of historic sexual impropriety and, if you read the court transcripts, convicted on what seemed to me rather dubious evidence.
I always held that King’s most criminal act was ‘Una Paloma Blanca’, one of a string of largely novelty hits from a time when he was able to storm the charts seemingly at will. But anyway, King was cut out of another Top of the Pops re-run – shown in 2011, after he had served his sentence. King was not happy about this and complained to the then director-general, Mark Thompson, about the ‘Stalinist revision of history’. Incredibly enough, Thompson apologised and agreed that his segment should not have been cut. Of course removing Gary Glitter, Jonathan King, the Bay City Rollers and the inevitable Jimmy Savile from early 1970s re-runs of Top of the Pops would leave you with very slender pickings indeed. You’d just about be left with the morally upstanding David Bowie. Oh, and Hawkwind.
Back in 1944 George Orwell wrote an essay entitled Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali, after he had read the artist’s autobiography. Orwell detailed, with humorous fastidiousness, Dali’s appalling character: kicking his little sister in the head, eating a dying bat covered in ants, the penchant for necrophilia and so on. Orwell pointed out that there were two responses to Dali. There were those who cited Dali’s behaviour as a compelling reason to dismiss him as an artist, and those who thought he was such a wonderful artist that his behaviour could be excused or even commended — artists being afforded the benefit of clergy.
People seemed to find it impossible to navigate towards the evident truth that Dali was, as Orwell puts it, a superb draughtsman but an absolutely ghastly individual. Even so, not even Dali’s fiercest critics thought his work should be removed from public display because he had bitten a bat in half.
But Orwell’s essay has a resonance today — it’s simply that we take our absolutism a little further. In this sense, Kevin Spacey is the exception to the rule. You may have noticed that those celebrities hounded by the police (and, in some cases prosecuted and convicted) were, in the main, irredeemably naff. Look at the list: Freddie Starr, Dave Lee Travis, Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter, Jonathan King, Stuart Hall, Rolf Harris, Lowbrow entertainers, the staples of Saturday-night entertainment in that most naff of decades, the 1970s. Somehow the critically acclaimed celebrities never quite got caught in the net. John Peel, for example, who boasted in his autobiography of having sex with a 15-year-old girl: no action taken. And look at the way in which Hollywood has sheltered the appalling Roman Polanski for the past 40 years, despite accusations against him that dwarf anything levelled at Harvey Weinstein. Until this year, Hollywood actors and actresses queued up to defend Polanski — a fugitive from justice — perhaps because he is an auteur, the man who directed Chinatown, which, everyone agrees, is a clever movie.
So, Spacey is something of an exception to the rule — although I notice that this week the writer Libby Purves was defending the actor, insisting that Spacey’s behaviour took place at a time when there was much homophobia around. Seems to me a thinnish excuse. And I will bet Purves would have resisted sailing to the defence of the deathlessly unfunny Freddie Starr (who was hounded by the police but never convicted of anything at all). We still find it easier, then, to shovel our opprobrium and loathing on performers we never thought were very much cop in the first place, while affording those who are on our cultural wavelength the benefit of clergy. But expunging any of them from history is otiose, deluding and psychologically puzzling.
The argument continues online.