The Nantucket courtroom in which Kevin Spacey was arraigned Monday was a real courtroom, not a Hollywood set. Instead of a dramatic mahogony judge’s bench, it had a plastic laminate desk. Instead of a coiffed character in costume, it had a 59-year-old man - puffy and pasty without the benefit of a makeup department - who responded to his given name of Kevin Fowler as he pleaded not guilty to sexually assaulting a busboy in 2016.
The job of a performer, of course, is to perform. To create a persona in which the audience invests itself. One, for example, like Spacey’s Frank Underwood from “House of Cards” - an oozy reptile whom viewers nevertheless root for. Not because they like him, but because they want to see how he’ll slither out of his latest jam.
Recently, it’s seemed as if Spacey wanted us to conflate him with his most famous character. On Christmas Eve he posted a bizarre video, titled “Let Me Be Frank,” in which he implored the viewer in Underwood’s molasses accent, “I showed you exactly what people are capable of ... I challenged you and made you think.” Was Spacey referring to the assault allegations against him, the actor? To his murderous on-screen alter ego, Frank? The answer seemed to be, both.
We’re currently muddling through Chapter 2 in the #MeToo story. The chapter in which we decide who to punish and how, who gets a comeback and what it looks like. And what I keep thinking of is how these bad men are still creating performances.
How they were always creating performances. How we, their audience, weaved their public personas with their private misdeeds until the lines between real and not real were all mixed up.
Louis CK has been testing out new material recently, which is making headlines for its crudeness. There were jokes about Parkland survivors, jokes about transgender teens.
But then, his set was always based on crudeness. It was based, explicitly, on the kind of crudeness it later turned out he was actually engaging in.
We’re very forgiving of geniuses and their compulsions. We expect brilliance to be accompanied by neuroses.
Howard Hughes and his shoeboxes. Beethoven, who refused to wash his clothes to the point that well-meaning friends would steal them while he slept. As a culture, we’re accepting of all of that, so long as we believe the true demons are being worked out on the page or the screen and what we’re seeing is a persona.
This past weekend, Lifetime aired the multi-part documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly,” a six-hour dissection of his alleged crimes and misdeeds.
The documentary is an indictment of him, but even more, an indictment of our own willful blindness. Throughout his career, Kelly did such a convincing job pretending to play an R&B bad boy - a cheeky commentary on music culture - that it apparently took years for it to sink in that in real life, he actually was a very bad man.
In concert venues, he pretended to cage a woman on stage. Then he went home to mansions where he’d actually imprisoned women, allegedly, starving them for days and forcing them to ask permission before using the bathroom.
He hadn’t been coy about his proclivities; he’d been screaming them. He hadn’t been a wolf in sheep’s clothing; he’d been a wolf in a wolf costume, convincing everyone that there was really a sheep inside.
And so, for more than a decade, he allegedly got away with it.
Next time there’s a performer with R. Kelly’s lyrics, or Louis CK’s set, I hope we’ll ask ourselves to be more discerning. Is this person making a commentary on outrageous behaviors? Or is this person in fact behaving outrageously?
Now, it’s time to do what we should have done all along: Treat them not as characters, whose lives we consume for our own sense of drama, but as sad, damaged humans.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”