- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

I’ve got a galley copy of culture critic Lee Siegel’s forthcoming collection “Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination,” and it looks like a feast of ideas and lively writing.

Andrew Sullivan has, in recent months, enjoyed picking on Siegel with “Poseur Alerts” for pretentious writing (I was awarded one, deservedly, a few years ago), and there certainly are moments when Siegel’s erudition gets the better of him.

Indeed, I thought for sure that Siegel would be all wet with a piece (included in “Falling Upwards,” due next month) comparing Jack Nicholson’s bigger-than-one-character-can-contain onscreen persona with Kevin Spacey’s. But darn it if the thing doesn’t hang together - and strongly persuade.

Siegels’ gist is this: The stock Nicholson character of the 1970s fit the era perfectly: He was the yearning, sexual, rebellious male, prone to colorful outbursts. Then, by the ‘80s and ‘90s, when, Siegel writes, “business culture gained a foothold in American society that it hadn’t had since the 1920s,” Nicholson became less a “hero” than a “freak” in movies like “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Batman” and “Wolf.”

Enter Kevin Spacey. Siegel asserts that Spacey turned Nicholson’s persona on its head: In movies like “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Swimming with Sharks,” “Hurlyburly” and “American Beauty,” Spacey took Jack’s “alienated, destabilizing outsider” and turned him into an “alienated, destabilizing insider.”

And - here’s the most intriguing part of Siegel’s thesis - he did so by toying artfully with the longstanding rumor that he’s homosexual. Writes Siegel: “It’s tantalizing to think that it has something to do with the defeat of Nicholson’s rebellious, vexed, working-class heterosexual heroes. Whereas the Nicholson character’s passionate openness spelled his doom, Spacey refuses to be open about anything. It’s as if he’s learned his lesson from Nicholson. His insolence, his defiance come from within. Nicholson’s persona was fire; Spacey’s is ice.”

I’m not sure I can swallow Siegel’s thesis whole, especially since Spacey has all but lost his icy edge, but the piece is well-argued and exceptionally well-written - as is the rest of the anthology. Check it out.

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