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Devious professor? Suburban dad hero? Dark politician armed with wit and schadenfreude? Regardless of the twisty roles he’s played, Kevin Spacey rules each one with a mastery of the idiosyncrasies that comes along with playing heavily complicated characters.  Raised in Los Angeles, Spacey first tried his hand in stand-up comedy before a stint in live theatre snowballed his career into what ultimately accounted for multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.  Not too bad for the son of a secretary and a data consultant with a reputation for diva behavior on-set and a notoriously secretive life outside the microcosm of Hollywood.

If anyone were to think freehandedly of the guy with cunning-enough moxie to move up the ladder of success all while keeping his enemies in control, Spacey’s character as Frank Underwood in the highly-acclaimed political drama series House of Cards may come to mind. Arguably his most celebrated performance thus far, Spacey is just enough agreeable but vindictive to make you want to root for him but wish his own revengefulness airborne so that he’d catch a taste of his own medicine, too. Just the way you’d want to feel about a politician you’d love to hate.

But this is not Spacey’s first spin at playing whip-smart villain with vengeance flowing successfully from his sleaze and brains. Before House of Cards, he went right along with similar themes of unforgiving non-redemption as 21‘s Micky Rosa , an unorthodox MIT professor who trains the smartest of his students in order to win lucrative amounts of money in the Las Vegas Black Jack scene. His assholery is completely believable as it is in House of Cards, making audiences wonder if it could be that – maybe – Spacey actually is the characters that he plays.

But a look into his softer, slightly depressive and most definitely self-righteous for the greater good of unfabulous suburbia character in American Beauty makes you want to believe otherwise.  In this neo-noir mid-life crisis drama, we see Spacey play Lester Burnham: a well-to-do upper-middle class dad, really bored, resenting his good-standing in the white picket-fenced neighborhood that is his life asking questions that all of us who have it a little too good tend to ask – is this really all there is? Spacey’s performance in American Beauty humanizes him as the guy who is just as lost as the rest of us.

But maybe that’s exactly what the twinkle is in the eye of his acting career. Spacey is able to weave through each character so thoroughly that we feel all the right things towards him in the backdrop of each film’s purpose. Merciless, sympathetic, callously pessimistic. Who is Spacey to us, really? All in all, a brilliant actor.

Written by Dara Kim


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