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A BLACK-COMIC 'BEAUTY'
IN A MASTERFUL TALE OF SUBURBAN ANGST, THE LAUNCH OF A LEADING MAN

The film of sweat on Kevin Spacey's brow isn't flopsweat. That's for sure. He's talking about the film that is sure to be one of the year's most praised and talked about, "American Beauty." It's a film that is a near-certainty to score in the Oscar nominations sweepstakes.

It isn't his fault that the room for the "American Beauty" cast's press conference at the Toronto Film Festival is as hot and dank and humid as a Central American textile works.

But in this one strange case, there's something vaguely fitting about that, no matter how much everyone suffers. Film festival press conferences are the media version of Third World countries, where glam and wealth and minority privilege sit tantalizingly close to the funky and sometimes envious underdogs of the majority media world. Members of the film press don't look like Hollywoodians, don't smell like them and are, quite often, too drenched in obsession to come off with any savior faire at all. Those being questioned, on the other hand, are a kind of country club elite in the Age of Information.

Spacey and all the principals but one were there to talk about the film that wound up being the talk of the entire 319-film festival. The only one missing was his co-star Annette Bening, who, it was announced, stayed home with her husband, Warren Beatty, because she's pregnant.

It was a historic moment, of sorts -- director, writer and cast talking about a movie that will be one of those that mark this movie year.

"American Beauty" is the smash first film of Sam Mendes, whose versions of "Cabaret" and "The Blue Room" on Broadway (and London before that) marked him as a major talent. It opened Friday in area theaters.

This is Spacey's bid for major consideration as an actor, his effort to go beyond character brilliance (his turn in "The Usual Suspects" won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) into the hosanna'd center of his profession where Tom Hanks and Anthony Hopkins are.

With the temperature soaring, he is sitting with Mendes, young co-stars Thora Birch, Mena Survari and Wes Bentley, grown-up co-stars Chris Cooper and Peter Gallagher, and the writer of the film, Alan Ball.

Spacey is the center of attention because everyone knows that he has done what many said couldn't be done: he has transformed himself from an award-winning character star into a leading man. Salaries in the high-seven or even eight figures will probably follow.

But it is Ball whose contribution in the film is, by far, the most important and surprising. Previously known only for his sitcom work ("Grace Under Fire," "Cybill," the current ABC sitcom "Oh Grow Up") and some well-received plays in New York, his first produced film script is an exceptional work, mixing black humor and a poetic sense of the everyday.

Ball is a tough-looking fellow who looks like an old tennis pro, as if he had once played matches with Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors. His way of selling the script was to talk it over with studios, which read it and then immediately "mark them off the list" the minute they suggested changing it. DreamWorks was the first studio that gave him no flak, not even about the proposed May-June sexuality of the film. (Spacey, as a middle-aged suburban married man, fantasizes about a love life with young Survari.)

While everyone else present -- especially Spacey -- was firm in preferring to work in theater rather than films ("the theater has been a primary allegiance in all of our lives"), Ball pointed out that, because of its intimate nature and delving into the stuff of fantasy and reverie, "American Beauty" could really exist only as a film.

"I originally started writing this as a play six years ago," he said. "I got 30 pages into it and had to stop. It simply wasn't making it as a play. It needed a camera and the fluidity of film."

The closest thing to testiness at the press conference came when a journalist pressed them all to comment on why "American Beauty's" depiction of middle-class angst and sexuality and suburban corruption isn't likely to contribute to the very subjects the film so niftily satirizes. Why, he wanted to know, doesn't "American Beauty" emblemize everything politicians currently hate about Hollywood?

Spacey stoutly defended the film, saying that in the immediate future "we're going to go to Washington, D.C., to show it to Democrats and Republicans equally."

"Hot-button issues," he said, can always be casually tossed around, but the film isn't about them but rather "inner peace. This film's maturity and honesty in dealing with these issues ought to be admired."

Who hasn't had "jobs they don't like, a boss they hate? . . . Everybody recognizes the desire to break free from that kind of life."

For all the temperature stress in the room, no one asks Spacey the most difficult but obvious question of all. That's because it would be pointlessly hostile and intrusive, but more importantly, because he has already answered it eloquently in a long interview in this month's Playboy magazine.

The question is about the gruesomely coy 1997 Esquire magazine interview in which writer Tom Junod toyed around nastily with the rumor that Spacey is gay. It is a subject of major interest in both the legitimate press and the tabloids because the piece not only infuriated Spacey (who denounced it publicly every chance he got) but caused a major hue and cry within the press itself over the piece's widely perceived irresponsibility and viciousness.

An incensed Spacey called the piece "vicious and dishonest" at the time and talked about it in the Playboy interview.

"It's not true. It's a lie," he says in Playboy of the Esquire piece's clear implication. "It wasn't that I cared if they inferred I was gay, because I believe people in this country are more advanced than certain members of the media who try to use their medium as a weapon. But I felt betrayed. I gave the writer, Tom Junod, more access than I'd given anybody. I made it a point not to tell my friends he was a reporter so they would be comfortable with him. What I couldn't have known was that he had an ax to grind and an agenda. . . .

"In my industry, I'm surrounded by all types of people. I know gay people, straight people and people who are bisexual. There are people who haven't figured out what they are. As I said to the writer, I have nothing but admiration for these people, no matter what floats their boat. In other words, their sexuality doesn't matter in any way. I didn't want to have to say, 'I'm not like them.' I don't like the question. I said: 'I'm living my life, which is private. I haven't asked anybody to vote for me. I'm not being indicted for kickbacks. I'm an actor. . . .

"I'm not married and I won't talk about my private life, so it must mean I'm gay. The worst part was the editorial in which they attempted to justify the story. They said: 'We can write whatever we want about anybody and it doesn't have to be true. We can write whatever we want about anybody so long as the junkie who told us doesn't admit he was lying.' . . . Esquire is supposed to show some degree of class, yet it had descended to tabloid journalism. I was picked as the experiment. Well, the experiment failed. . . . The entire story was made up. It's infuriating."

The big star push is on at the moment with Kevin Spacey -- you'll see his face on magazine covers as you check out at your local supermarket. It's no accident, then, that he's coming out swinging at anyone who might diminish his status.

The near-certainty here is that with this film -- whose reputation can only get bigger than it already is -- Spacey has broken free, on film, into the leading-man status he wanted and he probably deserves.

At the moment, flopsweat is very definitely for others.

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