By the time Netflix decided, in 2013, to build the drama House of Cards around him, the work of Kevin Spacey had been singular, influential—and hip–for years. If the actor’s decade-long reign as artistic director/star of Britain’s Old Vic Theatre had cemented his reputation as an international, creative force, it was Spacey’s signature ability to portray–to perfection–cold-bloodedly aggressive types that captured the world’s attention.
How we adored the caustic cool of Spacey the actor and—on talk shows–Spacey the dead-to-rights, actor mimic! His old movies on Netflix (The Usual Suspects, Swimming with Sharks and, of course, American Beauty) became signifiers to those of us who imagined themselves capable of as much shrewd self-possession as the man himself. We devoured his films–living vicariously through Spacey’s intelligently badass portrayals. Of course, Netflix noticed this—they collected data after all–and soon they were applying the “Spacey Algorithm” to House of Cards.
That all changed when–in the wake of the MeToo/Weinstein tsunami–a relatively obscure actor named Anthony Rapp (then best known for originating the role of Mark in the musical RENT) came forward with the explosive charge that Spacey had sexually assaulted him at a party 32 years before–when Rapp was 14, and both he and Spacey were performing in different shows on Broadway.
In the wake of Rapp’s accusation, Spacey claimed (in a letter posted to Twitter) not to remember the incident. Nonetheless, he apologized to Rapp for “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” Then, in the next paragraph–in a transparent and ultimately disastrous attempt to change the subject—Spacey leapt like-a-surprise-birthday-party-guest out of the Hollywood closet, one that the openly gay Rapp had been living outside of—unnoticed–for some time.
The backlash was immediate and colossal. Scores of other men came forward to accuse Spacey of sexual harassment or assault. Netflix fired the star from House of Cards and Sony erased–and replaced him—from the film All The Money In The World. Overnight, Kevin Spacey–heralded star of stage and screen–had been expunged from public life.
Now—as the disgraced star has re-emerged to stand trial for sexually assaulting an adult busboy and Rapp is being lauded in anniversary interviews for his courage–it is perhaps time to re-access whether the punishment Rapp’s claim brought to the flawed and complex Spacey was at all equal to the crime. Whether Rapp was driven more by resentment, jealousy and ambition than by a desire to protect other minors (he’d waited 32 years after all) and whether Rapp’s coming forward was more about his own, all-too-human, desire to ride a cresting, popular wave to greater personal acclaim.
It’s important to note: Spacey and I have never met. Nor am I on his payroll (or anyone’s loyal to him). The only ax I have to grind is with the number of great, future productions MeToo’s ascendency may inhibit—productions without Spacey and without future Spaceys, their places solemnly taken by PC actors employing ersatz versions of Spacey’s riveting aggressiveness.
Let’s be Frank (pardon the bad “House of Cards” pun), many of our greatest artists wrestle with more demons than we do. In fact, their great work is often a testament to that struggle. But now that online mobs of hasty citizens routinely lynch the careers of some of these greats, we should ask ourselves: have we considered the long-term price of such lynchings–and by that I don’t just mean the holes left by the deletion of “problematic” artists–but the boring, virtue signaling, “woke” work that seems to be proliferating in ever larger numbers since MeToo began.
For Rapp’s part, what he doesn’t say about the encounter with Spacey may be as instructive as what he does. Rapp claims that, when everyone else had left the party, Spacey picked him up and placed him on Spacey‘s bed—even though Rapp also states he was already on Spacey’s bed when the incident took place. Rapp then says Spacey climbed on top of him and made a sexual pass—a fact Spacey doesn’t refute. Rapp then alleges he pushed Spacey off him and retreated to the bathroom, where he sees a picture of Spacey with his arm around another man and concludes that Spacey is gay. (This last bit seems odd given that Rapp has supposedly just undergone a sexual pass at Spacey’s hand, a fact inconsistent with Rapp requiring the bathroom picture to conclude Spacey is gay.)
Later–at the front door of the apartment–Spacey asks Rapp if he’s certain he doesn’t wish to reciprocate. Rapp declines and is allowed to leave without incident.
We are left to wonder: why did Rapp’s parents allow him to attend the party—much less ride the subway to his show–alone if he wasn’t a mature-for-his-years young man? And what did the pass (Spacey was then 26 and attractive) mean to Rapp as a gay (or gay questioning) youth?
Clearly, the fact that Rapp was gay (or questioning)—and had, by 14, surely reached puberty–are mitigating factors in Spacey’s favor. Add to this the fact that 1986 was a vastly different time—one in which professional, teenage actors would often spend significant time with adult collaborators without parental supervision. Obviously, the lines were not as clearly drawn as they are today.
If Spacey’s brief, certainly lewd, but ultimately thwarted pass did give Rapp ample reason over the years to feel resentful, is it really possible to separate the substantial fuel Spacey’s meteoric career rise–and Rapp’s own failure to launch–must have given Rapp’s resentment and jealousy? That is–as distinguished from the normal gall one feels upon remembering an unwelcome pass from someone uncelebrated three decades prior?
Rapp’s had his successes, of course–he reprised his RENT character in the film and appears regularly on television—but these pale next to Spacey’s triumphs (Oscar and Tony). And it’s not as though Rapp has been unlucky–it’s plain to even the most casual observer that he and Spacey—at least from an acting standpoint–are not in the same league.
To the (fair) argument that Spacey weaponized the closet by forcing those in the media who wished to report an incident of harassment or assault against him to first “out” him, I would say: each of us—gay or straight (or in between)–has a right to privacy. And, once an actor announces he’s gay, audiences–who remain overwhelming straight–have difficulty believing the actor in straight roles, hurting both the actor financially and artistically and film/theater in general, given a gay actor may be the best choice artistically for a straight role and vice-versa.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to believe that Rapp didn’t make a calculated gamble that’s turned out to be as winning as Spacey’s calamitously-timed self-outing was defeating. To those who would argue that Rapp was only the first of many to come forward and that, given the amount of smoke, there must be considerable fire, I would counter: would Spacey’s other accusers really have come forward without the cover Rapp’s MeToo claim–and Spacey’s subsequent self-wounding–provided?
We’ll never know for sure. What we do know is this: a great, closeted actor’s career is destroyed by a lesser, out-of-the-closet actor’s inconsistent claim of a sexual pass made decades before—an alcohol-fueled, clumsy, parried advance—yes, technically against a minor–but now rebranded as “child rape” to fit the zeitgeist of the times. That the lesser actor is then elevated and celebrated as a hero by the same mob that took the great man down is—to this writer–chilling and cautionary.
Ultimately, if artists the caliber of a Spacey or a Woody Allen can have their careers guillotined—not by hard evidence or court convictions but by a feverish gang of online strangers–what’s stopping other gangs from going after the reputations and/or legacies of sexually aggressive/promiscuous greats like Mick Jagger or Wilt Chamberlin or Philip Roth or JFK or even Martin Luther King?
Only last week Rapp took to Twitter to denounce Bohemian Rhapsody director Bryan Singer, who—like Spacey, has been media-tried (and-convicted) for sexual harassment/assault—most recently in a piece in The Atlantic which Singer claimed Esquire, citing a lack of credible sources, declined to publish. Rapp tweeted “Any actor who agrees to work on [Singer’s next film, Red Sonja] is complicit in keeping a predator in power and will be put on blast.” The slang phrase “put on blast” meaning to embarrass by publicly denouncing or exposing, especially by way of social media. Rapp has clearly assumed a role akin to that of Abigail, leader of the finger-pointing young women in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
The good news from all this is that there are still a few artists willing to risk their own careers to question these kinds of MeToo lynchings (Judy Dench, Gay Talese, Paul Shrader and Morrissey in defense of Spacey; Javier Bardem, Diane Keaton, Wallace Shawn and Alec Baldwin in defense of Allen).
The courage these artists display is rare and commendable—especially in a climate that appears to be growing more politically-correct and fear-infused by the day.