Sometimes you just pinpoint — right down to the mere second — the moment when an actor has become a superstar. For Kevin Spacey, his star-making moment was the infamous twist ending in the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects, for which he won an Oscar. The Usual Suspects is now 20 years old, and Spacey has truly evolved as an actor during the two decades since his breakout role. Spacey has had quite a decorated and versatile career since he exited that police station at the end of the crime drama and he's embodied so many other different characters — from the middle-aged rebel Lester Burnham in American Beauty to (evil) President Frank Underwood in Netflix's House of Cards.
Before getting roles in movies, Spacey, now 56, spent a lot of time acting on stage and won a Tony award in 1991. He has said that he often remembers the advice actor Jack Lemmon once gave him: "If you've done well in the business you want to do well in then you need to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down." And Spacey sure has had an up and down career, which has included such hit movies as Seven, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Horrible Bosses, and Outbreak, as well as such flops as Beyond the Sea, K-PAX, and Pay It Forward.
Check out the evolution of Spacey's movie career below.
1995-1997: Breaking Out In Seven, The Usual Suspects & Outbreak
Spacey went from theater and TV actor to Oscar winner in what seemed like a flash in 1995. He had supporting roles in the hit movies Seven (as serial killer John Doe), Outbreak (as Major Casey Schuler), and A Time to Kill (as ego maniacal district attorney Rufus Buckley). For these roles, Spacey won the Society of Texas Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actor.
His Oscar win as Verbal in The Usual Suspects would help catapult him to leading man status. He also received much praise for his performances in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and L.A. Confidential. Spacey was becoming a bona fide movie star.
1998: WTF In A Bug's Life, Hurlyburly & The Negotiator
But it would be a little bit before Spacey found his footing as a leading man. His voice led a gang of grasshoppers as Hopper in A Bug's Life. He would reprise his role as Mickey in Hurlyburly, based on the same David Rabe play he starred in 1984. Spacey starred opposite Samuel L. Jackson in the action thriller The Negotiator. None of these roles gained Spacey the same recognition.
1999: Oscar No. 2 In American Beauty
And then came American Beauty. Who else could portray the sad, yet determined Lester Burnham with such middle-aged rebellious glee? Spacey nails his role as a father coloring outside the lines of life just because he wants to — which includes lusting after his daughter's cheerleader friend and buying weed from his daughter's boyfriend.
Plus, he got to say lines like this: "I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."
It's deep. His performance nabbed him a second Oscar, this time as Best Lead Actor, for American Beauty.
2000-2003: Random Roles In K-PAX, Pay It Forward & The Shipping News
Then came some really random Spacey movies. He co-starred with fellow Oscar winner Helen Hunt in the critically panned Pay It Forward as Haley Joel Osment's teacher. In K-PAX, Spacey's character may or may not have been an alien, but not many people cared, since it flopped at the box office. He also starred opposite Julianne Moore, Dame Judi Dench, and Cate Blanchett in The Shipping News, which is a pretty forgettable flick — I know I've seen it and literally forgot what it was about.
2004: Directorial Debut In Beyond The Sea
Making and starring in a film about the life of Bobby Darin was a dream project for Spacey, who finally got to make the film as Beyond The Sea. At first, studios told the 38-year-old actor that he was too old to play the "Mack The Knife" singer, who died at 37. "Bobby always looked a little older — but if I waited any more I might be too old," Spacey told Variety in 2003. He co-wrote the script, directed the film, and took vocal lessons for the role.
Unfortunately, the dream came crashing down. Beyond the Sea bombed at the box office.
2006-2012: Being The Villain In Horrible Bosses, 21, & Superman Returns
"I think people just like me evil for some reason," Spacey has said. "They want me to be a son of a bitch." So thus begins the actor rollin' with being his bad self (and it's good prep for his next breakout role, below). Spacey played an evil MIT professor and ringleader of a card-counting gang from the university. He embodied Lex Luther in Superman Returns and sadistic boss Dave Harken in Horrible Bosses.
2013-present: The Frank Underwood Years
On Netflix's House of Cards audiences know Mr. Spacey as back-stabbing President Frank Underwood, who got to his position of power by manipulation and murder over the course of the show's three seasons. Spacey truly embraces the evil as Underwood, who has done many dispicable things in order to secure his place in the White House.
What's next for Underwood? Whatever it is, you know he'll do anything to get what he wants — and he'll probably talk to the audience at some point, too.
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