At the beginning of the forgettable comedy Austin Powers in Goldmember, there is a selection of starry cameos, including Tom Cruise as an idealized version of Powers and Kevin Spacey hamming it up to high heaven as an alternate Dr. Evil. The film was made two decades ago, when Cruise was probably the biggest star in Hollywood, and when Spacey, a double Oscar winner for his roles in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, was the leading character actor of his generation, both onscreen and onstage.

Today, Cruise is as successful as he has ever been,...

At the beginning of the forgettable comedy Austin Powers in Goldmember, there is a selection of starry cameos, including Tom Cruise as an idealized version of Powers and Kevin Spacey hamming it up to high heaven as an alternate Dr. Evil. The film was made two decades ago, when Cruise was probably the biggest star in Hollywood, and when Spacey, a double Oscar winner for his roles in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, was the leading character actor of his generation, both onscreen and onstage.

Today, Cruise is as successful as he has ever been, with his latest film, Top Gun: Maverick, attracting rave reviews and stellar box office earnings. It has been a far different story for Spacey. Ever since the actor Anthony Rapp came forward in 2017 to accuse him of sexual assault, his career has nosedived. Films starring him were recast, never released or quietly allowed to wither and die commercially. He was fired from his starring role in the Netflix series House of Cards and lost a lawsuit that has left him and his production companies liable for $31 million in damages. And he has been charged on four counts of sexual assault in the UK where he’ll be appearing in court next month.

It is unsurprising, then, that a new documentary has been announced, with the working title Spacey Unmasked. The two-part series, from Roast Beef Productions — responsible for the show Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer — will look at Spacey’s fall from grace. Yet the announcement by the show’s executive producer Dorothy Byrne took a curiously fence-sitting approach. She said:

Kevin Spacey is one of the most highly honored and admired actors of our age. His brilliance has won him two Oscars and multiple other awards. Critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for his film work, he led the Old Vic for eleven years of remarkable success, becoming one of the most important figures in London’s cultural life, a friend to some of its leading figures, making regular appearances in society columns. These films will follow the unfolding story of the allegations of abuse against him and the resulting court cases.

There is an obvious problem with making a documentary about someone who is about to go on trial. Should Spacey be acquitted of all charges, then the show largely loses its point, not least because any suggestion of impropriety would have to be scrupulously omitted from the final cut. It came as a surprise to many that Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service has pressed charges against him, given that several civil cases against Spacey in the United States have foundered. In a touch that his fictitious president Frank Underwood no doubt would have enjoyed, three of his accusers died in 2019. Yet the accusations and court cases rumble on.

Setting aside the issue of Spacey’s guilt or innocence, it’s impossible not to miss his presence as an actor. His film career never returned to the heights of his imperial run in the ’90s and early ’00s, when his presence in classics such as Seven, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential and (some would say) American Beauty was truly indelible. But he remained a performer of extraordinary versatility and interest who seldom gave a bad performance, even if the material he was working with was weak. Since his downfall, the most watched performances he has given have been in a trio of bizarre YouTube videos in which he has alternately reprised the Underwood role, evidently for fun, and offered an apparently heartfelt plea for people to respect their mental health.

Spacey had begun taking acting roles again, albeit in the kind of Z-movie projects that would only ever be sought out as curiosities for his presence in them. Had the court cases never come to fruition, he might yet have revived his career. As the rehabilitation of Mel Gibson has proved, Hollywood is surprisingly quick to forgive its leading men if there is the prospect of commercial success.

But at the time of writing, Spacey Unmasked looks as if it might be an epitaph to a fascinating, if checkered, career. The British legal system holds his fate, and that of the documentary, in its clutches.