Sometimes, an actor will have a year that s filled with so many great performances that they are instantly propelled up onto the Hollywood A-list. 1995 was such a year for Kevin Spacey. Spacey had been working in Hollywood for several years as a character actor, with his memorable roles probably being in Glengarry Glen Ross and The Ref. My first exposure to Kevin Spacey came in early 1995 when I saw him in a supporting role in the medical thriller, Outbreak, but little did I realize just how huge the actor would be by the end of the year. Spacey would give us one of the most frightening villains in screen history when he made a surprise appearance as serial killer John Doe in Seven, and earned himself an Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor” for his memorable performance as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. However, people tend to forget that Spacey delivered another dynamite performance that year that was somewhat overshadowed by these other roles. In late 1994, Spacey starred in a black comedy called Swimming with Sharks, which was shot in 18 days on a budget of only $700,000. However, this low-budget indie flick started to garner Spacey a bit of buzz when it was released in early 1995, thanks to his galvanizing turn as a character who can only be described as one of the biggest assholes in the history of cinema. After the success of Robert Altman’s The Player in 1992, it became fashionable to release dark comedies which offered a satirical, hard-edged look at the cutthroat world of Hollywood. George Huang, the writer-director of Swimming with Sharks, had slaved away working as an underling in Hollywood for years and desperately wanted to share this traumatic experience with the world.
That trailer makes Swimming with Sharks look like a fairly lightweight comedy, but the movie is much darker than that and conveys this right from the outset. When the film opens, an ambitious young man named Guy (Frank Whaley) has been working in Hollywood for over year as personal assistant to Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), the Senior Executive Vice President of Production at Keystone Pictures. Obviously, the experience has been an unpleasant one since Guy decides to break into Buddy s house and hold him hostage for a night of sadistic torture. The film then uses flashbacks to show how things got to this point, and it isn’t long before the viewer understands why Guy would snap. Like many young people who venture out into Hollywood, Guy is naïve and views the town with wide-eyed innocence, but he soon comes to understand just how harsh this world really is. Guy takes the job as personal assistant to Buddy Ackerman because he sees it as a stepping stone to a very successful career. Buddy’s previous assistant, Rex (Benicio Del Toro), warns Guy that the job will be an incredibly difficult one, but since Rex is on his way to a top-notch position as a Hollywood executive, it seems like the experience is worth it. However, Guy quickly discovers just how soul-crushing this job really is. Buddy Ackerman turns out to be the ultimate “boss from hell”, a sadistic brute who constantly subjects Guy to insults and abuse, and makes him work his ass off for little appreciation or reward. Buddy’s catchphrase is “Shut up, listen and learn!”, and a simple mistake like mixing up Buddy’s Sweet‘N Low with Equal can lead to Guy’s painful humiliation.
The only bright spot in Guy’s life is a producer named Dawn (Michelle Forbes), whom he becomes romantically involved with. Dawn is trying to get Buddy to finance one of her projects, and it’s obvious that she has a past relationship with him. This triangle causes Swimming with Sharks to delve into dark psychological thriller territory, but this approach doesn’t entirely work. The film doesn’t do as successful a job at balancing its comedic and thriller aspects as The Player did, and its surprise ending isn’t entirely believable and leaves the viewer seriously questioning the motivations of the characters. However, the film’s portrayal of day-to-day life as an abused Hollywood underling is pure gold. George Huang pretty much worked Guy’s job for years in hopes of launching his own filmmaking career and his painful personal experiences are right up there onscreen. He might have been stuck in this hellacious existence forever if he had not struck up a friendship with Robert Rodriguez, who encouraged Huang to quit his job and make a film based on his experiences. There has been much speculation about which real-life Hollywood mogul the character of Buddy Ackerman is based on, with two of the biggest suspects being Scott Rudin and Joel Silver. Sharp-eyed viewers say that one of the biggest hints is the moment where Guy rubs some salt in Buddy’s wounds and says: “I saw this in one of your movies”. This seems to mirror a torture scene where Murtaugh had salt rubbed into his wounds in Lethal Weapon… a film which just happened to be produced by Joel Silver! Whoever the inspiration for Buddy Ackerman really was, Kevin Spacey succeeds at turning the character into the ultimate monster. Spacey recently portrayed another sadistic “boss from hell” in the dark comedy, Horrible Bosses, and it’s hard to think of an actor who does a better job at portraying an asshole than him.
Yet as over-the-top as the character may seem, Spacey is careful not to turn Buddy into a caricature. In one scene, Buddy proclaims that he had to start from the bottom just like Guy did and be subjected to the same kind of abuse, but now that he has made it into a position of power, he truly believes that he has earned the right to treat other people like dirt. You get a sense that Buddy may not have always been this sadistic and is simply a product of the system. Buddy showcases some humanity and even manages to garner sympathy during a scene where he describes the murder of his wife, but then, the viewer also wonders if he is completely making this story up just to manipulate Guy. It’s an incredible performance, but given that Spacey received Academy Award recognition for The Usual Suspects that year, one can’t complain too much about the performance getting shafted at Oscar time. While Frank Whaley has primarily spent his career as a character actor, this is one of the rare times where he’s gotten the opportunity to play the lead. The role of Guy probably seems like a thankless one next to Buddy, but the two actors play off each other well, and Whaley does an effective job at making Guy the personification of someone who’s slowly had their soul drained from them. Even though George Huang is one of the lucky ones who finally got to realize his dream of making a feature film, his career never really took off after Swimming with Sharks and he has mostly worked in television and directing B-movies like How to Make a Monster. Did Swimming with Sharks burn some bridges with the wrong people? Who knows? However, Swimming with Sharks still remains a very effective and underappreciated black comedy, and is a great opportunity to see Kevin Spacey at his best, just as he was on the verge of super-stardom.