May a word be spoken on behalf of Kevin Spacey?

By David Walsh
1 November 2017

American actor Kevin Spacey is one of the most gifted and significant performers of his generation. He has been nominated more than 80 times for awards for acting in film, television and theater. Spacey has won over 50 awards, including two Academy Awards, a Tony Award and a Golden Globe Award. He has also been nominated for a Grammy Award, as well as eleven Primetime Emmy Awards.

Kevin Spacey

Born in 1959 into a lower middle-class family in South Orange, New Jersey and having grown up in southern California, Spacey attended the Julliard School from 1979-81. His first professional acting work was with the New York Shakespeare Festival, in a small part in Henry VI, Part 1, in 1981. His initial Broadway appearance came in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, featuring Liv Ullmann, in 1982. He made his film debut in Mike Nichols’ Heartburn in 1986.

In one of his first substantial acting efforts, Spacey performed in director Jonathan Miller’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1986, which starred Jack Lemmon. Spacey was to appear with Lemmon, whom he considered a mentor and to whom he became close, on a number of occasions. They both featured in The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988), a television miniseries about the infamous 1913 Leo Frank case, and the film version of David Mamet’s caustic play about the real estate trade, Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). In 1991, Spacey played famed lawyer and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow in a television movie (Darrow).

Spacey came to national and international prominence in the mid-1990s, in such films as Swimming with Sharks (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995) and Se7en (1995). By the time he received an Academy Award for Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999), the versatile Spacey had become one of the most recognizable American movie actors. He continued his film work into the new century, co-writing, co-producing, directing and starring in Beyond the Sea(2004), about singer Bobby Darin.

Spacey had meanwhile become involved in the theater in London. In 2003, he announced his plan to become the artistic director of the Old Vic, one of the city’s oldest theaters. He undertook to remain in the position for 10 years and to attract performers to the theater and appear in various productions.

True to his word, in 2005, for example, Spacey played the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard II, directed by Trevor Nunn. The following year he appeared at the Old Vic in O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. Other plays in which he performed there included Inherit the Wind (Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee), Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, Maria Goos’ Cloaca, Shakespeare’s Richard III and a single-character play by David Rintels, Clarence Darrow. A new artistic director took over from Spacey in 2015.

In recent years, Spacey has made a new name for himself as Frank Underwood, the conniving and conspiratorial South Carolina politician, in the Netflix series, House of Cards (2013-17). Whatever Spacey’s own political illusions (he considers himself a friend of former president Bill Clinton), the Underwood character has done a good deal to undermine illusions in the corrupt, murderous world of Washington politics.

Spacey brings considerable intelligence and depth, combined often with irony and slyness, to both classical and popular genres. Is there any question but that film, television and theater would have been tangibly poorer without his presence over the past quarter-century?

Now, at least for the time being, Spacey’s career lies in ruins. On Sunday, actor Anthony Rapp, for reasons best known to himself, accused Spacey in an interview of making sexual advances to him some thirty years ago when he was 14 and Spacey was 26.

The accusation comes in the midst of escalating charges of sexual harassment and abuse set off by the allegations by numerous women against Harvey Weinstein and various others, including writer-director James Toback.

In his statement, Spacey said, “I honestly do not remember the encounter, it would have been over 30 years ago. But if I did behave as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years.”

He continued, “As those closest to me know, in my life, I have had relationships with both men and women. I have loved and had romantic relationships with men throughout my life, and I choose now to live as a gay man.”

Not only is Spacey being denounced for his actions several decades ago, he is also being criticized for the decision to acknowledge his sexual orientation at the same time he apologized for the alleged offense.

With characteristic bravery, Netflix first announced that the sixth season of House of Cards, currently under production, would be its last, claiming that the cancellation had nothing to do with Spacey’s difficulties. On Tuesday Netflix and Media Rights Capital, the series’ production company, announced that filming on the sixth season itself had been suspended. Their press announcement explained that the suspension would last “until further notice” and that the two companies needed “time to review the current situation and to address any concerns of our cast and crew.” They are no longer pretending that the allegation about Spacey is not causing the series’ hold-up.

The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced that it was withdrawing the special International Emmy Founders Award it was planning to bestow on Spacey at a ceremony November 20 “in light of recent events.” And more is undoubtedly to come.

The Old Vic was quick to throw Spacey to the wolves, issuing a statement indicating that “we are deeply dismayed to hear the allegations levied against Kevin Spacey… Inappropriate behaviour by anyone working at The Old Vic is completely unacceptable.”

The current public flogging of Spacey is as shameful as it is disgusting. The incident that allegedly occurred more than three decades ago should not have happened. Even if he is culpable of improper behavior, however, that in no way justifies the current vindictive, gleeful effort to rub him out, a campaign that a Frank Underwood might well have mapped out.

The universal piling on, sanctimonious commentary and hypocritical tweets (“Twitter slams Kevin Spacey,” according to Salon) are difficult to bear. In terms of the media, there is not much to choose from between fascistic Breitbart News, warming its hands over the allegations against gay or liberal and often Jewish Hollywood, and the New York Times, with its salacious and degenerate editors.

The Times writes approvingly of “those who might have supported him [but] were instead incensed by the implication that his sexuality was relevant to” Rapp’s accusations. “They saw his coming out story as an intentional distraction from the accusation and a damaging conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia.”

We live once again in an era of denunciations, which have the power to wreck lives overnight. And everyone is expected to chime in. Those who do not do so become suspect themselves and are liable to be denounced. Careers, status and wealth are on the line. The threat of being out of the limelight terrifies actors, directors and producers in the US perhaps more than anything.

In the official narrative, there is an almost complete absence of understanding and elementary sympathy. The accused is a criminal, a monster, who must be destroyed.

Hollywood is a competitive hothouse, where at the best of times a deeply subjective atmosphere prevails that is ripe for this sort of scandal. Now it’s payback time. Frankly, career disappointments, relationships that failed and a host of other frustrations and jealousies fuel the frenzy. Old scores of various sorts, including financial ones, are being settled, and new business arrangements formed in the midst of all this. The canny are sizing up how money is to be made under conditions of the “new morality.”

Sex scandals have invariably been the province of the far right. Nothing remotely progressive will come out of this. A revived Production Code, a clampdown on “licentiousness” in films and filmmaking (which is always accompanied by the suppression of oppositional views), more powers to the censors, appointed and self-appointed—this is what’s likely to emerge at the other end of this miserable process. The dominance of power and wealth, the source of the real abuses and crimes, goes untouched.

Once again it’s “scoundrel time.” The film world, it is clear now, has learned nothing from the McCarthyite period. The same essential modus operandi is at work: the naming of names, the guilt by association, witnesses who can’t be questioned, the right-wing forces who weigh in, the studios that instantly blacklist those accused.

This is already another shameful episode in Hollywood’s history. Later on, perhaps years from now, there will be expressions of regret (“Oh, yes, mistakes were made. There were unfortunate excesses”); Spacey may even be forgiven. Perhaps at a future Academy Awards ceremony he can come before an audience of the same people who drove him out, and exclaim through gritted teeth, like Charlie Chaplin at the 1972 Oscars, after his exile of twenty years, “You’re wonderful, sweet people.”

We argued when the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted that this was not simply about Weinstein, that something else was going on, that something else was moving through this affair. Weinstein’s piggishness and wrongdoing were merely a pretext for the flourishing of all sorts of unhealthy, reactionary issues and pressures. The assault on Spacey is confirmation of that view.

We don’t make any bones about our sympathy with Kevin Spacey and our contempt for those inciting denunciations and urging on the witch-hunting hysteria.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/01/spac-n01.html

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Theater professionals address the Flint water disaster

Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play: A remarkable artistic event

By Joanne Laurier
15 June 2017

Written, directed and produced by Purni Morell, based on An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

A remarkable cultural event took place last week in the devastated city of Flint, Michigan, whose 100,000 inhabitants have been systematically poisoned with dangerous amounts of lead and other deadly contaminants.

Actors from across the US, assisted by a British writer-director, performed Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, on June 8, 9, and 10 in the gymnasium of a former school.

Ibsen’s famed work concerns a doctor, Thomas Stockmann, who tries to warn the local authorities—including his brother, the mayor—about water contamination problems and is persecuted for his discoveries. Parallels to the present catastrophe in Flint are striking, and hundreds of residents from the city and surrounding area responded enthusiastically to the performances.

Purni Morell

British theater directors Purni Morell and Christian Roe learned about the Flint water crisis in January 2016, while touring the US. In an interview, Morell explained to a reporter: “It’s not about doing a play about a water crisis in a city experiencing a water crisis—it’s about the underlying issues, like what made the water crisis possible in the first place. In the play, as in Flint, the water is a symptom of a bigger problem, and I think that needs to be investigated because it affects all of us, not just the city of Flint.”

Morell’s version follows the general outline of Ibsen’s play. Dr. Heather Stockman has ascertained through laboratory tests that the water in the town’s economic “salvation,” its Wellness Resort, owned by Mineralcorp, is contaminated with lethal chemicals and carcinogens.

Stockman tells the newspaper editor Oscar Hofford: “I mean contaminated, Hofford. Polluted. Impure. Mercury, in high proportions, chloroform off the scale—that means legionella; copper levels way too high…I’m saying the Wellness Resort is a danger to public health. Anyone who uses the water is endangering himself.” It turns out, she explains, that an industrial plant upriver is “seeping chemicals into the groundwater. And that groundwater is the same groundwater that feeds the pipes into the pump room.”

Hofford, at this point supportive of Stockman’s exposé, thinks the contamination speaks to broader issues: “What if the water isn’t the problem, but only a symptom of the problem?… I think this is the perfect opportunity to talk about what’s really going on. The vested interests, the—well, maybe not corruption exactly, but the system, Heather—the system that means these people can do whatever they like without any comeback.”

Audience members in Flint

The newspaper’s publisher, Stephanie Anderson (Ibsen’s Aslaksen), representing the city’s small business concerns, makes an appearance. The embodiment of petty bourgeois philistinism, Anderson’s watchword is “moderation” in all things. As a founding member of the Homeowners’ Association and the Temperance Club, she informs Stockman that the “resort is the backbone of our enterprise…Especially for the property owners.”

Anderson too is initially supportive of Stockman’s revelations, even suggesting that the doctor be recognized for her “contribution to the city’s welfare.”

Everything changes when Stockman’s brother Peter, the mayor, outraged by word of the doctor’s findings, bursts in and demands that the truth be suppressed to protect Mineralcorp’s interests. He claims that re-laying the pipes, to avoid the contaminated water, will cost $7 million and mean closing the resort for at least two years. “Do you have any idea, any idea at all, what this means? … This would finish us. We close the resort, everyone else capitalises on our idea, and in three years’ time, when, if, we reopen it again, this city will face ruin. And it’ll be your fault.”

In Ibsen’s play, Act IV is entirely taken up by a public meeting at which Stockmann denounces town officials and imparts “a discovery of a far wider scope than the trifling matter that our water supply is poisoned … the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” He passes on from that insight to a misguided conception, the defense of “isolated, intellectually superior personalities” and the notion that the “majority never has right on its side.”

In the Morell-Flint adaptation, the director and actors have decided to turn over this portion of the play to a genuine public meeting.

Tyee Tilghman (Horster)

Tyee Tilghman, the actor playing Jim Horster, a soldier who faces deployment to Mosul in Iraq, addresses the audience directly: “What we’re going to do now is change things up a little bit because in the next scene in the play, there’s a town meeting and what normally happens in it is that Stockman tells the people in the town about the water problem, and they call him an enemy of the people because they don’t want to hear about it—but we thought it would be more interesting to do this a different way, since we’re here and you’re here, and so we thought we’d set up a little town hall of our own.”

This prompted audience members of all ages, children, teenagers and adults, to discuss their appalling and inhuman conditions. One man described having to lug endless cases of water up flights of stairs. Some audience members reported owning houses that were literally crumbling. Others bitterly denounced the bullying of the authorities, who threaten to take their homes and even their children. Still others recounted how they had received water bills higher than their mortgages, and how the homes of protesters had been broken into by police who confiscated computers. Angry residents explained how they contracted health problems and even debilitating diseases from the poisoned water.

All of this was reinforced by the fact that signs in the restrooms alerted users not to wash their hands with water from the taps! Cases of canned water were stacked against the wall.

Sign in the restroom warns against using tap water to wash hands

When Public Enemy: Flint resumes, Dr. Stockman and her daughter, Petra, a teacher, both lose their jobs. Moreover, Stockman’s mother-in-law, Eleanor, the owner of the polluting plant, threatens the doctor and her daughter with financial disenfranchisement and destitution. Stockman lashes back at “hypocrites” like Anderson, with her “cheap, small-town flimflam,” and the townspeople themselves.

Petra has the final word: “This town is fine—it’s no better or worse than anywhere else. OK, there are things you can’t fix—you can’t fix that people with money can buy their way out of problems, and you can’t fix that some people care more about their position than what’s right—maybe you can’t even fix the water.

“I think you’re wrong about people, Mom. You said people get the government they deserve but I think people get the government government can get away with. And the government gets away with a lot, not because people are poor or because people are stupid—but because for years, for decades, we’ve eroded our schools, we’ve failed to educate our youth, we’ve failed to invest in ourselves as people.”

And she mentions that like her counterpart in Ibsen’s play, a work now 130 years old, she will start a school.

Public Enemy: Flint is a highly unusual confluence of a classic play, committed, talented actors and a motivated and engaged audience. It is proof, if proof be needed, that art is not something detached from social life. Important, enduring art by definition is work that does not remain indifferent to the crises and convulsions of its time. From that point of view, this modest three-day presentation, staged in a gym, was one of the most significant theatrical efforts in the US in recent years. The participants in the production, which was serious and thoroughly professional throughout, deserve the strongest congratulations and thanks.

The central role of Dr. Stockman was exceptionally performed by Los Angeles-based actress Michole Briana White. She was supported by an outstanding cast that included Charles Shaw Robinson from Berkeley, California as Peter Stockman, Madelyn Porter from Detroit as Stephanie Anderson, Briana Carlson Goodman from New York as Petra, Tilghman from Los Angeles as Horster, Meg Thalken from Chicago as Eleanor and Chris Young from Flint as Billing.

Public Enemy: Flint was the creation of British theater company fieldwork, in collaboration with Detroit Public Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Chautauqua Theater Company (New York), Berkeley Repertory Theater, People’s Light (Philadelphia), UM-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance, M.A.D.E. Institute, & the New McCree Theater, Flint.

Morell’s adaptation honored Ibsen’s play while eliminating its more elitist tendencies. The latter had a great deal to do with the situation in Norway in the 1880s, where, as Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov once explained, “a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.”

Plekhanov pays strong tribute to Ibsen’s social insight and instincts, in particular the dramatist’s abhorrence of the crude, grasping petty bourgeoisie. The Norwegian writer, observes Plekhanov, despises the “moral rottenness and hypocrisy of small town society and politics” and “the boundless tyranny of petty bourgeois public opinion.” He notes that “Ibsen hates opportunism with all his soul; he describes it brilliantly in his plays. Recall the printer Aslaksen [Anderson, in Morell’s play], with his incessant preaching of ‘moderation,’ which, in his own words, ‘is the greatest virtue in a citizen—at least, I think so.’ Aslaksen is the epitome of the petty bourgeois politician.”

The play’s passion and outrage continue to speak to present-day audiences, not least of all in Flint, whose working-class residents are the victims of corporate predation and government indifference or worse. In fact, when the mayor in Public Enemy: Flint proclaims that “the public doesn’t need new ideas; what the public needs is good, strong, time-tested method, not hare-brained theories that turn the world upside down,” one is tempted to shout out that the world, above all, needs to be turned upside down.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/15/ibse-j15.html