The night that Kevin Spacey won an Academy Award for playing a frustrated suburban father in “American Beauty,” Anthony Rapp was at an Oscars party in New York City. Rapp, watching Spacey accept his prize, threw a pencil at the screen, he testified this week.
Twenty-two years later, Rapp claimed he reacted that way because he was reminded of what he described as “the most traumatic single event” of his life: the time when Spacey allegedly climbed on top of him at a Manhattan party in 1986, when Rapp was 14 and Spacey was 26.
Spacey has denied that allegation, and the lawyers representing him in a civil sexual misconduct trial in federal court have presented to jurors an alternative explanation. They insist that for much of his life, Rapp has been all-consumingly jealous of Spacey.
Spacey’s lawyers have tried to convince the jury of six men and six women that Rapp fabricated his claim in large part because he was bitterly envious of their client's success. Rapp, they contend, desperately wanted Spacey’s career: the hit films, the plum roles, the two Oscars.
In interviews on Friday, five legal analysts familiar with but not involved in the case expressed skepticism that this argument would persuade the jury. Two of the experts characterized the jealousy defense as a gambit that could easily backfire.
“Jealousy is a human motive that can be very powerful. Do people act in vindictive ways out of jealousy? Yes, they do. Is it a particularly compelling motive in this case? To me, it isn’t,” said Alan Tauber, a Philadelphia defense lawyer and former public defender.
“It sounds a little far-fetched, actually, and it seems hard to fathom given that the allegation has been made by an adult 35 years later, quite frankly,” said Tauber, who once represented a Roman Catholic official in a child abuse case.
Joseph Cammarata, a Washington lawyer who represented seven women who sued Bill Cosby for defamation, said the defense’s rhetoric struck him as strained.
“He’s going to put his own credibility, reputation and potential for jail time if he’s lying on the line because of jealousy? It seems like a stretch to me,” Cammarata said, referring to Rapp, who is currently a series regular on the Paramount+ show “Star Trek: Discovery.”
Rapp claimed that he met Spacey when they were both acting in Broadway shows in 1986 — Rapp with Ed Harris in “Precious Sons,” and Spacey alongside Jack Lemmon in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Rapp claimed Spacey invited him to a party at his apartment.
Rapp alleged that he did not recognize anyone at the party, so he went into a bedroom to watch TV. He testified that at some point, an apparently drunken Spacey entered the room, lifted him up, placed him on a bed and rested his full weight on top of him.
Rapp’s attorneys are seeking $40 million in damages — $30 million in punitive damages, $5 million for past pain and suffering, $5 million for future pain and suffering.
Rapp claimed he privately told friends about the alleged encounter over the years but felt inspired to go public with his allegations in the early days of the #MeToo movement in October 2017.
In an opening statement on Oct. 6, Jennifer Keller — one of Spacey’s attorneys — argued that Rapp “created a story” and told it “for sympathy, for attention and to raise his profile.”
She portrayed Rapp as “bitter” and filled with “simmering resentment” that he “never became an international star” like Spacey, who appeared in high-profile films like “Se7en” and “L.A. Confidential,” and starred on the Netflix drama “House of Cards.”
In the course of the trial, Rapp has said he is proud of his career in the arts, especially his performance as Mark Cohen in the popular musical “Rent,” as well as his supporting role in Richard Linklater’s cult classic “Dazed and Confused.”
In an aggressive cross-examination on Tuesday, Keller suggested that Rapp was especially resentful that Spacey, who publicly came out as gay in 2017 in response to a BuzzFeed News article on Rapp’s claims, remained closeted for the majority of his public life. (Rapp, who is also gay, came out publicly in the ‘90s.)
Keller has also suggested that Rapp did not enjoy being the “third wheel” during a May 1986 dinner with Spacey and fellow actor John Barrowman, whose video deposition is expected to be played for jurors later in the trial.
But through the first five days of the trial in downtown Manhattan, Rapp’s alleged jealousy has been a recurring and striking theme.
In the cross-examination Tuesday, Keller highlighted that Rapp has never been nominated for an Oscar or a Tony — unlike Spacey, who won Oscars for “The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty,” plus a Tony for the play “Lost in Yonkers” in 1991.
Keller, speaking in an incredulous tone, asked Rapp: “Do you really expect us to believe you were not envious of someone who has won” these industry accolades? “You wanted to be that person, didn’t you?”
“No, ma’am,” Rapp replied. “I wanted to work as an actor.”
In an interview, Brett Ward — a New York lawyer who specializes in matrimonial, family and child protective cases — said he believes that “standing alone, this argument is ridiculous.”
In his view, Spacey’s lawyers would have a better chance of winning the case if they focused on Rapp’s lawyers’ “$40 million ask.” He went on to say that the jealousy argument “would not be my top choice or even in my top five choices if I was Spacey’s lawyer.”
Rapp tried to rebut Keller’s portrait during a redirect examination Wednesday from his lead attorney, Peter Saghir. Rapp explained to jurors that while it would “certainly be nice” to win a Tony, he has always put a greater emphasis on “projects I care about.”
“I never wanted Kevin Spacey’s career,” Rapp testified. “I wanted my career.”
Warrington Parker, a San Francisco trial attorney, and Danny Cevallos, an NBC News legal analyst, both described the jealousy argument as a high-risk bet for Spacey’s lawyers. Parker, a former federal prosecutor, called it an “all-or-nothing gamble of a defense.”
Cevallos, a practicing criminal defense attorney, said there is a chance that personal attacks on Rapp could “turn off a jury,” although some jurors “might be inclined to think of Hollywood people as strange, overcompetitive, eccentric and so on.”
“Is it a risky defense? Yes,” Cevallos said. “But sometimes you don’t have any other options.”