Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lost in Spacey: Two Views on House of Cards

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Pop culture gains something when it ties itself into trends and issues that people are actually talking about, and Netflix’s political-melodrama series House of Cards gives viewers the chance to talk about something that’s been nagging at some of us for years now: what the hell has happened to Kevin Spacey’s acting? It may not be the most pressing issue on the table, but it’s one of the most mysterious and dispiriting. It’s hard to exaggerate the sense of excitement and discovery experienced by those who discovered Spacey when he took over the Big Bad position on the TV series Wiseguy from Ray Sharkey, back in early 1988. Sharkey, who had traded in a promising movie career for a heroin habit, was so charismatic and disturbingly likable in his comeback performance as the New Jersey gangster Sonny Steelgrave that a less confident actor would have been leery of following him. But the eight episodes in which Spacey played Mel Profitt, a self-made billionaire drug dealer looking to transition into munitions, amount to one of the high points of ‘80s TV. His sheer pleasure in performing, combined with the skill and dazzle of his technique, really made him jump out at a time when many film reviewers, presumably in a spirit of mournful resignation, had begun to write about what marvelous actors Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner were. 

At the time, Spacey was just 27, and was known for having played Jamie Tyrone in a Jonathan Miller-directed production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and pretty much nothing else. You wondered who this fellow was, and where he was going, and Spacey himself didn’t give out many clues, though he was still unguarded enough to let slip the occasional hint that he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. (“I don’t look like the guys who get jobs in movies,” he told one gossip magazine, as if to explain why his plan for world domination might take him a little time to implement.) His career seemed to advance by drips and drabs, and gave promise of being unpredictable, maybe not in a good way: movie roles as the bad guy in a late Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy and forgotten ensemble indies like Rocket Gibralter, a Disney adventure film (Iron Will), a Tony Award for his performance in a Neil Simon play—one that made do with Richard Dreyfuss for the movie version. It was the kind of career that make an actor’s fans worry that nobody else can see how special their man is, and when Spacey, after making his directing debut with Albino Alligator, began talking about how he’d probably quit acting to spend more time behind the camera, it was traumatic: he was still just getting started, for Christ’s sake! (Fortunately, or so it seemed at the time, Albino Alligator bombed, and Spacey gave no more interviews about how he’d soon be too busy directing movies to also act in them.)

Kevin Spacey in American Beauty

By the time Albino Aligator came out, Spacey had started to carve out an identity for himself, one that built on his success as Mel Profitt. In such roles as Ted Danson’s brother-in-law in in the yuppie tearjerker Dad, he’d shown that he could be surprisingly entertaining even in the blandest of nice-guy roles without subverting the material, but his breakout roles tended to be playing bastards, or worse—an abusive Hollywood boss in Swimming with Sharks, a cunning psychopath in Se7en, his Oscar-winning turn as contemporary noir’s most famous unreliable narrator in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, and a fame whore of a police detective in L. A. Confidential. His Dean Martin-soundalike cop in that film was in the star-making mold of the entertainingly duplicitous, amoral character who suddenly rediscovers his ideals, and so was his lead role in American Beauty. He won the Best Actor Oscar for that one, and I remember being happy about it at the time. Now, I wish I could find a way to go back in time and stuff the ballot boxes for Richard Farnsworth.

If the first dozen years of Spacey’s film career can be seen as proof that smart actors who don’t look like the guys who get jobs in movies try harder, what followed looks like an especially ripe illustration of how much damage an Oscar win can do to an actor’s instincts. Spacey started playing nice guys—and not just nice guys, but long-suffering nice guys in maudlin, treacly films like Pay It Forward, The Shipping News, K-PAX and The Life of David Gale, in which he framed himself for murder in order to become a martyr to the anti-death penalty movement. Despite all the evidence to the contrary—Beyond the Sea being Exhibit A here—Spacey was not so cut off from reality that he couldn’t tell that his onscreen image makeover was a bust with critics and audiences alike. Bryan Singer tried to come to his rescue by casting him as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns. The performance was proficient, but not especially fun or juicy; it was as if Spacey, disappointed in his failure to be accepted as the new Tom Hanks, no longer felt liberated by the chance to play characters who make their own rules. But any disappointment over his Luthor was just folded into the general public disenchantment with the movie itself.

Robin Wright & Kevin Spacey
So now we have Spacey as Frank Underwood, bloodstained, ambitious career politician, murdering and scheming his way to the top in House of Cards. The series itself was greeted as an event when its first season premiered last year: it proved, after all, that Netflix could turn out a 13-episode TV series that matched network or HBO product in terms of production values and the talent on display, and make it all immediately available for binge-watching. The series left a dull, tinny aftertaste, though, and when the year’s-end best-of lists started piling up, it was clear that Netlfix’s later, less highly anticipated Orange Is the New Black was the decisive winner. The show is dull, but the bigger shock is how dull Spacey is in it: dead-faced, delivering his lines in a flavorless, lightly Southern-accented voice, going through the motions in the kind of role that he must think people want to see him in, but that he himself may have lost interest in playing.

It’s not as if there were anything in the scripts that might make him rethink that. The show’s creator, Beau Willimon, has said that Frank Underwood’s character and story arc were inspired in part by Lyndon Johnson, but whatever you think of LBJ, he was hardly driven to seek power just for its own sake. Frank Underwood seems to have no discernible hopes and dreams beyond the steady accumulation of power, achieved by outfoxing and destroying opponents with no stature or cunning of their own. It might be more exciting, and more scary, to watch this bland snake run for election than to watch him slip away from his security detail to push people in front of subway trains: Then some intangibles might come into play. House of Cards, which at its present weight is more than twice as long as the witty British series upon which it’s based (with a third season on its way), has none of the soapy glories of the first season of Scandal, a show that’s based on the notion that people in politics may have things they want to accomplish and a mixture of good and bad motives; its view of political life is for the kind of people who once liked Obama (and before him, Ralph Nader, and maybe even John McCain) because they assumed he wasn’t a “real” politician. It isn’t satire, because it’s not funny, and it’s not drama, because Frank Underwood’s march to the top is so unimpeded. With no grand goals and no serious opposition, Frank Underwood is boring, and looks bored, because he has nothing left to prove. That might make him the perfect Kevin Spacey character, in the saddest way possible.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

Despite its clever craft, House of Cards – like Frank Underwood himself – seems unsure of what it wants to do with all that talent and money. In the second season, US politician Frank Underwood and his wife Claire continue their ruthless quest to conquer Washington DC, like a pair of warmongering Roman consuls who also happen to be husband and wife. Their personal and political efforts are impeded by a hostile White House, their own private passions, and the increasingly convoluted web of deceit they continue to spin. While this framework remains solidly compelling, I began to lose focus as the season wore on. In the first season, Frank says of Claire, “I love that woman like a shark loves blood.” While very snappy (and made better by Kevin Spacey’s southern growl), this line reveals an addictive side of Frank’s personality – he doesn't actually love her, because sharks don’t love anything. He needs her, in the instinctive, primal, uncontrollable way sharks need blood. He’s driven to a fault because he’s obsessed with winning. Obsession? Addiction? Lack of empathy? As Mark pointed out, these are textbook psychopathic traits. So, with the new season’s clean slate, the question arises: is Frank actually a psycho? Is this how we’re meant to watch the show, as a dark and layered character study?

I’d say yes, except we’re rarely allowed to get that close to him. Frank and Claire are like tigers, deadly and captivating, but locked behind bars. We’re safe from them, but we can’t begin to understand them, either. If that’s not what the show is trying to achieve, then – what is it trying to do? There’s a quote from the Season Two opener which is about a political opponent but is also an excellent microcosm of the show: “He’s a good tactician but he lacks follow-through”. Much like Lost, Cards delivers on premises, not payoffs. Frank is power-hungry, okay, got it. He spends the whole show clawing for more and more of it. But what’s the endgame? What will he do with all that power, once he claims the POTUS throne? It’s made consistently clear that it’s all about the pursuit and not the prize, but that has a nasty way of invalidating the prize and making his motivation tenuous. Moreover, Frank is personally guilty of two murders as of this season and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, he’s Michael Corleone In The White House. Cards doesn’t take us inside his head like The Godfather does, though – even in the now-famous soliloquy moments, in which he speaks directly and intimately to the audience, it’s always in the form of a political or psychological witticism; Frank is aware we’re listening and is showing off. There isn’t a hint of honesty in the whole thing – which I suppose is part of the point, thematically.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes
With the shocker at the beginning of the season, we’re reminded bang, Frank’s a killer, alright? So we’re poised, waiting to either hate him and cathartically enjoy his inevitable downward spiral, or feel a strange and troubling support for him despite his actions. But instead the show becomes mired in political subplots for more than half the season’s length, leaving little room for character development of any kind. At the season’s climactic moment, when Frank’s machinations are finally brought to fruition, I was completely unsure how to feel – was I furious, or proud? If I was happy that Frank had triumphed, should I have also been ashamed? If I experienced righteous indignation, should I have felt foolish? It’s unclear whether this nebulous characterization was intentional or not, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the writers discarded a clear arc for Frank, or any of the characters, in favour of more venomous one-liners and dramatic “money shot” moments. The first episode ends with a tight shot of Frank’s monogrammed cufflinks, arranged in a careful “FU” that is difficult not to interpret as a literal “fuck you” to the audience. Are they toying with us, or not?

Despite this disconnect, Cards builds on the first season’s strengths, delivering exceptional performances, beautiful cinematography, and drum-tight dialogue. Kevin Spacey chews scenery with vicious enthusiasm and deftly earns his role as the central appeal of the series. Robin Wright isn't far behind, blessing Claire with more nuance than I think is written into the script, and her breathy calmness masks a chilling, steely interior. This is a woman who is every bit the equal of her ruthlessly pragmatic husband, but operates in a subtler sphere of influence, and I think her character is easily more fascinating than Frank’s. There are fine supporting performances too, from Sebastian Arcelus’ broken, desperate Lucas Goodwin, and especially Molly Parker’s Jackie Sharp, who replaces Frank as House Majority Whip when he assumes the Vice Presidency. She seems tailor-made for period dramas like Deadwood, the way old-fashioned costumes hang on her body and antique dialogue trips off her tongue, but she isn’t too jarring in a modern setting, and her piercing blue eyes take us into unexpectedly tender and scary places. The only misstep is from Michael Kelly, playing Frank’s chief of staff Doug Stamper. His sideplot takes up a lot of time over the season’s thirteen episodes and he sleep-talks his way through all of it. He’s pitch-perfect as Frank’s no-nonsense lieutenant, but in these more private character moments he’s mumbly and monotone. We get guest appearances from some familiar Season One faces, too, and I appreciated a quick revisit of how these characters are surviving after the events of the first season. There’s a short scene between Goodwin and the Washington Herald’s former editor, Hammerschmidt, which was personal and moving in a way we almost never see from Cards – definitely an innocuous but memorable season highlight.

The tone, expressed directly as dialogue or performance, and indirectly through shot composition or colour filtering, is unreservedly dark. This is a very different White House than the one we get in The West Wing, for example – the corridors are sparsely populated, the lighting is harsh, the shadows are deep, and we know that predators are stalking its hallowed rooms. The staffers of The West Wing are deeply indoctrinated, believing wholeheartedly in the sacred principles of their office and the unfailing competence of their president. The staffers of the White House in Cards, by contrast, are actively undermining their president, who’s shown to be impressionable and ineffectual – a much more cynical depiction of government, and perhaps (sadly) even truer to life. This is characteristic of the show as a whole, which eschews sentimentalism entirely, and encourages us to do the same. What’s doubtful is what we’re supposed to feel in its place.

I’m confident that House of Cards’ third season will lay my qualms to rest, because I don’t see anywhere for it to go other than a full deconstruction of Frank’s character. I've been ambivalent about him because I didn’t understand if I was supposed to be rooting for him or not, and my guess is that Season Three will answer that question. Season Two, then, is an appropriately dour middle chapter, and despite a bloated midsection and some ambiguity in its intent, it’s anything but a misfire – in fact, it’s brilliantly done.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

No comments:

Post a Comment