I enjoyed Baby Driver. It was a fun movie, great soundtrack, great cast and enjoyable plotline. I also enjoyed House of Cards. And Moon. And Superman Returns. Normally my eclectic movie preferences would not pose me with anything too overtly by way of an ethical dilemma. However, these films, regardless of respective visual merit, all have one thing in common. They all star Kevin Spacey.
Before dealing with the more nefarious aspects of his long career on the screen, it is important to get one thing clear. Despite the allegations made against him, Spacey is an excellent on-screen actor and nothing he has done in off-screen can change that fact. Whether that is good or not thing depends very much on your opinion. His performance in House of Cards as the unapologetically a-moral Frank Underwood is both captivating and at times terrifying but even this raises a problem for the viewer, one I personally encountered. I arrived late to the party in terms of House of Cards; it was just as I was becoming invested in the series that the allegations regarding Spacey’s predatory behaviour became public. Up until that point, I had thoroughly enjoyed the way in which the character of Frank Underwood had so callously used and abused both men and women in his quest to reach the pinnacle of power. It might not make for model behaviour, but it made for great TV and appeals to that human attraction to the macabre that we all enjoy when it resides safely within the fictional world of a book or film. However, as allegations of Spacey’s off-screen behaviour began to emerge, I was unable to view Underwood’s on-screen actions with the same sense of detached enjoyment that I had previously. As he brutally shut down a young female journalist, as he manipulated and eventually seduced his bodyguard, I began to wonder whether this was really acting for Spacey and if the reason he did it so well was because, for him, this was not acting and was instead an expression of his true nature. Maybe this is a silly line of thought, and maybe I was totally over-analysing the scenes in question, but it was a realisation that ruined the aura and sense of escapism that I had previously enjoyed about the series. I was no longer able to sit back and enjoy this wonderful work of realistic political fiction without wondering if slightly more of it than the writer intended was rooted in a not so fictional reality.
Similarly, I’m not sure I would be able to watch Spacey in Baby Driver without encountering the same problems, especially when he frequently refers to the character played by Ansel Elgort (a perfect example of the kind of handsome, young male actor that fits the description of Spacey’s alleged victims) as Baby throughout the movie. What was once a harmless nickname which fit the feeling of the movie and the mentor/apprentice relationship between Spacey and Elgort’s characters, now has so many unintended connotations that it becomes somewhat uncomfortable to think about, let alone watch.
But, the real dilemma: just because a movie that stars someone like Spacey makes you feel this way, does that mean that consequently it loses its merit as a movie completely? Take Moon for example, the low budget sci-fi drama starring Sam Rockwell that I am unashamed to admit is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. This movie also features Spacey, albeit in a voice-role, but presents to me a similar problem. Can I enjoy this movie to the same extent that I did knowing what I know now about Spacey and his behaviour? The honest answer is yes. I am not going to discard one of my favourite films simply because Spacey was a part of it. Does this make me a hypocrite? Possibly, but I can live with that. Does it mean that I am subliminally supporting Spacey’s off-screen actions, which if true are completely reprehensible? I don’t believe it does. It is very important to draw a line in the sand when it comes to moral problems like this. By damning all the works of an actor like Spacey, you are not going to reverse the deeds of the past, you are instead depriving yourself of some very fine cinematic endeavours, while also damaging the legacies of the actors who starred in these films alongside him.
It becomes increasingly clear that if we religiously follow the strict line of thinking that requires us to shun the works of anybody who is involved in scandal, then we are severely limiting ourselves. Many figures who are considered “great” by posterity are just as, if not more, suspect than Spacey and yet we still admire their work. Lewis Carroll was probably a paedophile, yet we still praise Alice in Wonderland. The Renaissance artist Caravaggio murdered a man and yet we do not burn his paintings in the street. It may not be possible to be completely guilt-free when watching a Spacey film, but I do believe that we should, as rational humans, be intelligent enough to be able to deplore his alleged actions while at the same time viewing his work with a sense of detachment that allows us to enjoy the films which depict behaviour that would not be societally acceptable. We can watch a film about a bank robbery and know it’s not ok to rob banks; we can watch a series about a sadistic and manipulative politician and know that it is not ok to behave like this in the real world even if we enjoy seeing it unfold on screen. Similarly, I believe we should be able to view actors such as Kevin Spacey in a movie, know that what he allegedly did is wrong, but separate the Spacey off-screen from the Spacey on-screen. I am not suggesting we do this for the sake of Spacey himself but rather for our own sake as an open-minded and intelligent audience. While it may never be possible to be completely guilt free, I think we owe it to the actors and actresses who starred with Spacey, and to ourselves to try.