Reaction Weekend

The condemned Emperor and the vanishing of Kevin Spacey

In the first Reaction Weekend Essay, Edward Thicknesse draws out parallels between the disappearing of disgraced Roman Emperors and Kevin Spacey's erasure from cinema

BY Edward Thicknesse   /  10 March 2018

Four months ago, Kevin Spacey was effectively acting royalty, garlanded with honours and fêted for the extraordinary range and variety of his talent. Now, his reputation and his career lie in ruins, following a string of allegations of sexual assault stretching from the 1980s to the present day. Gone are the praise and the acclaim: instead, any semblance of an association with his name has become the kiss-of-death for a potential project as Hollywood finally begins to rectify the attitude of criminal negligence that has permitted and bred such behaviour.

Perhaps the keenest example of this startling fall from grace is Director Ridley Scott’s decision to remove Spacey from his new film, All the Money in the World, mere months before the picture’s premiere in the US. Over nine days, every scene featuring Spacey as the oil tycoon John Paul Getty I was reshot in meticulous detail, with Christopher Plummer stepping into the role of the ‘richest man in the history of the world’, and earning nominations for the Golden Globes and Baftas in the process. This unprecedented act is a triumph of technical skill, and a comparison of the original trailer and the updated version is a genuinely uncanny experience: the operation has been carried out with such a surgical precision that it is almost as if Spacey’s performance had never existed.

It’s easy to see why Spacey was Scott’s first choice for the role of Getty. Whether as Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, or onstage at the Old Vic as the titular Richard III, Spacey’s recent career has been defined by portrayals of the great and mighty, the sinister and ruthless. Possibly his unique gift as an actor has been the ability to make these antiheroes appeal to us: whether by a knowing smile, a wink, or a fourth-wall-defying aside, we are brought into his character’s confidence, and become complicit in their misdeeds. Getty, more a shark with a smile than a man, believed himself to be the reincarnation of Hadrian, the fourteenth emperor of Rome, a dangerous equation of money and power whom Spacey must have seemed born to play.

Indeed, Getty’s predilection with ancient Rome finds a curious epitaph in the case of Spacey, whose replacement in the film serves as a remarkable parallel to the fate of the Emperor Domitian. So unpopular was Domitian that, following his assassination in 96 AD, the Senate took the extraordinary step of passing the decree of damnatio memoriae – literally, ‘condemnation from remembrance’. Statues of Domitian were recarved, and coins bearing his name and likeness melted down; his property was seized, and his achievements erased from the record. For the purposes of the Roman state, the emperor Domitian had never existed, and his memory was consigned to oblivion.

One particular artefact makes the reality of this process strikingly clear. In the 1930s archaeologists uncovered the so-called Cancelleria reliefs, a set of carvings that purport to show the emperor Nerva, Domitian’s successor. Analysis of the sculptures has shown that the head of Nerva is however curiously disproportionate to the body to which it is attached, and indeed if one takes the effort to approach the figure side-on, one cannot help but notice that its two eyes are grossly mismatched. What we are actually looking at, it is suggested, is an image of Domitian, recarved in the aftermath of the Senate’s decree to show the new emperor, a process that is likely to have been repeated throughout the empire. The parallel to the situation in Scott’s film is frankly uncanny: Spacey, like Domitian, is simply removed from existence, his image written over by that of another.

This act of replacement, however, is more than just a ‘condemnation from remembrance’: in fact, it is as much a ‘condemnation by remembrance’, a nuance of the Latin that is lost in translation. When we watch Plummer’s Getty, it is impossible not to think of the situation that led to him taking up the role. His image does not help us to forget Spacey’s: in fact, it serves as a prompt for us to remember what is absent, and the reasons why it is absent. This is in a sense of far more fitting punishment than to be merely forgotten: instead, we are reminded to remember Spacey not as an actor, but as a man (is accused of)/who repeatedly and methodically sexually assaulted dozens of individuals over more than thirty years. The crown has fallen from his head, and royalty is revealed to hide a weak, sickening man.

A lot has been written about the happenings of recent months as representing a watershed moment for Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole. A year ago, these men were invulnerable, but suddenly their empire has crumbled around them, largely thanks to the bravery of a few woman who have ignited the wider public in the name of justice. The act of remembrance that occurs when we see performances like Plummer’s is crucial if we are truly to change this world for the better: when we are prompted to think of Spacey or Weinstein, so too are our anger and our outrage triggered, and we are driven to hold accountable those who managed to escape the consequences of their crimes for so long.

Recent events may give us cause for optimism, and there are increasing signs that the drastically-overdue culture change is finally under way. Indeed, the process of replacement, though unprecedented a few months ago, is becoming more common: Ed Westwick, the former star of Gossip Girl, is the latest case, with the BBC reshooting their adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence without him as a result of allegations made by three separate women in November. Studio executives seem at last to have begun to respond.

The scale of the battle to come, however, can perhaps best be illustrated by Scott’s comments on his reasoning behind removing Spacey. The decision was not one taken to advance a moral standpoint or to provide an example for an under-fire industry. It was, as Scott has repeatedly stated, purely a matter of business: the original film, “all kinds of perfect” with Spacey, simply would not have made the money and landed the nominations it has with its original protagonist in place. In the context of the film, there is something wryly appropriate about such logic: Getty, one feels, would have applauded it.

A dynasty died with Domitian. His name passed into history, where it has suffered the criticisms of authors such as Tacitus and Suetonius for nearly two thousand years. For the average Roman, however, legacy was a physical concept, a matter of marble literally ingrained onto the fabric of the city at the centre of the world. The Cancellaria reliefs, like Augustus’ Ara Pacis or Trajan’s Column, were a part of this process, designed to show Domitian at the height of his power, the imperator departing Rome to subdue the people of the Chatti. Instead, they are testament to the depths of his disgrace, a perpetual reminder to Rome of his tyranny. So too, in the face of the ageing Plummer, do we find the beginnings of Spacey’s legacy. We no longer write our records into stone; instead, they are beamed into our homes and onto our screens. Let us hope that this is the beginning of the end for another dynasty.

This article was originally published in The Alexandria Review, a new journal of thought, culture and art.