The video Kevin Spacey posted on Christmas Eve has been repeatedly described as “bizarre,” with good reason: No one knows what it means. Wearing a Santa apron and occasionally sipping from a mug, Spacey seems to inhabit his House of Cards character, Frank Underwood, drawling things such as, “We’re not done, no matter what anyone says.” The monologue hints at a desire to return to Cards, despite his character having been killed off (“You never actually saw me die, did you?” he asks). It plays as commentary on the more than 30 allegations of sexual misconduct against Spacey: “You wouldn’t rush to judgment without facts, would you?” The confusion the video has sown may have distracted from the news that the actor was just charged with the sexual assault of an 18-year-old in 2016.
What’s clear, at the least, is that Spacey chose for his first significant reemergence to be a showcase—or “showcase,” heavy on the air quotes—of his acting. And for it to spotlight one of the roles that the public once feted him for. And for it to dispense thoughts about morality and truth. All of which makes a statement: Don’t separate this artist from his art.
As year two of the post–Harvey Weinstein reckoning unfolds, that old ethical question—can art be evaluated apart from its artist?—feels more and more academic. Whether or not they should, many people clearly are fine with being entertained by alleged abusers. The cheers outnumbered the walkouts at surprise comedy sets by the confessed creep Louis C.K. The rapper XXXtentacion faced well-publicized allegations of hateful violence, and yet since his death, his music has risen to mega-popularity. Art, it seems, can survive allegations. What’s more unnerving is the suspicion, now, that artists can weather them, too—by relying on the goodwill engendered by their work.
Spacey’s career long blended highbrow acclaim and mainstream appeal. A stage thespian before he was a film lead, he amassed glittering awards and a prestigious post as the artistic director of the Old Vic theater in London. These are not merely the spoils of a movie star; they are the signifiers of one who approaches his trade as capital-a Art. This particular artist’s muse? Evil. Spacey’s signature turns in The Usual Suspects, Seven, and House of Cards were all charismatic bad guys, and for 1999’s American Beauty, his suburban-dad character, Lester, lusted after a teenage girl. Accepting the Oscar for Best Actor, Spacey said he loved playing Lester “because we got to see all of his worst qualities and we still grew to love him. This movie to me is all about how any single act from any single person put out of context is damnable.”
The “Let Me Be Frank” video may be an attempt to reassert this professional history. Spacey the great actor is implied in his complaint that his scandals led to an “unsatisfying ending” that could have been “memorable”—a likely dig at the poorly reviewed final season of Cards that didn’t feature Frank Underwood. Spacey the philosopher of misdeeds is here, too: “I told you my deepest, darkest secrets,” he says, seeming to speak both as Frank and also as himself, the public figure. “I showed you exactly what people are capable of. I shocked you with my honesty, but mostly I challenged you and made you think. And you trusted me, even though you knew you shouldn’t.”
Left unstated is the way that Spacey’s acting career was accompanied by allegations of misbehavior, sexual and otherwise. (He’s apologized to his first public accuser, Anthony Rapp, and denied or remained silent on other allegations.) The Usual Suspects shut down production for two days after Spacey made an advance on a younger actor on set, the actor Gabriel Byrne told The Sunday Times. Producers on House of Cards conducted an investigation and sent Spacey to retraining in 2012 after an inappropriate “remark and gesture.”
Also left unreckoned with in Spacey’s video is the difference between the thrill of fictional villainy and the effects of the real-life kind. One of Spacey’s accusers, the filmmaker Tony Montana, has talked about the PTSD and shame he suffered after Spacey allegedly grabbed him. Another, who says he was 15 when a 24-year-old Spacey tried to rape him, told Vulture, “What he left me with, more than what he took from me, was a sense that I deserved this. And that’s the knot I’m still untangling.”
All of this queasy context is surely part of why Spacey’s video accrued more than 7 million views in just a few days. People are rubbernecking at the disgraced star opting to play the villain. “Kevin Spacey is sending a very disturbing message as he chastises his audience,” the actress Ellen Barkin tweeted. “If you hypocrites loved me as a murderer, why won’t you love me as a sex offender? Maybe because Frank Underwood’s crimes are fiction and Kevin Spacey’s are not.” Wrote Patricia Arquette, “I’m sure none of the men who were kids at the time of their sexual assaults appreciate @KevinSpacey’s weird video.”
But another unsettling fact is that some portion of the video’s viewers really do miss Spacey on-screen—and would cheer his return to public life, regardless of whether he’s an abuser. The YouTube clip has more than 51,000 “dislikes” and 170,000 “likes”: an imprecise and manipulable metric of public sentiment, yes, but one that’s reflected in some of the comments. One example: “Kevin Spacey is brilliant at what he does and what he does makes millions of people happy. The truth is we all never heard his side of the story.” The Daily Mail’s Tom Leonard reports on rumors of a comeback plan for Spacey and points out that there’s a website of unknown provenance, supportkevinspacey.com, where fans can leave encouragement. It appears that some have written in to applaud “Let Me Be Frank.”
Netflix has not commented on the video, but it seems unfathomable that Spacey’s stunt actually teases a return on House of Cards, whose recent season was advertised as its last. (The company reportedly lost $39 million after ending its relationship with the actor.) With authorities in New England filing charges and other investigations of Spacey reportedly under way in Los Angeles and London, the likelihood of a career reboot seems even more ludicrous. The quality of this video itself—the home-software title font, the bad imitation-Cards dialogue, Spacey’s conspicuous failure to act as though there’s any coffee in his mug—adds to the sense of him as delusional. But at the core of this gambit may be the belief that a man like him can act his way out of anything. Given how many guys accused of #MeToo–related offenses seem to be doing okay, is that so farfetched?