American Beauty: The American Frustration

I think it’s reasonable to assume that we all know what the “American Dream” is: our simple yet strangely complex utopian vision of a house, white picket fence with a sedan and an SUV in the driveway. For decades, this simple idea has shaped our nation into the urban model that we see today. Urban sprawl, miles of asphalt freeways, suburbia, car culture, the decline of men’s hats all stem from this idea of a perfect future. 

 

The American Dream has also become synonmous with the middle class, the backbone of American life, political influence, and economic clout. The dream does have its drawbacks, too. I’m not here to lament the ills of suburia nor to play down today’s dwindling middle class that is rife with wage stagnation and other issues. But it’s always importion to keep its downsides in mind. When a detached home became the norm across America, especially in the post-war years of the early Cold War, millions of middle class Americans have been on the path to compartmentalization, placing their own needs in their wood-framed house over the needs of the community at large. 

 

Suburban life certainly gives off the appearances of a quaint yet affluent existence, but Sam Mendes’s 1999 Best Picture winner American Beauty show us that paradise is not always at the end of a cul-de-sac. Featuring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, and Chris Cooper, American Beauty is a satire about troubled lives in a Chicago suburb. But it also isn’t that at all. But it also is. Clear as mud? 

American Beauty has no heart for us to hold gingerly in our hands, but rather lets us feast upon the whole of its flesh to allow us to digest what the film is about, and what it can teach us about our own lives. Piled high with heaps of themes like materialism, self-esteem (or lack thereof), sexuality, redemption, paternal love, pedophilia , self-worth, success, confinement, and escape, American Beauty leaves itself open to many, many interpretations. 

 

Now, for the rest of the movie. 

 

Plot

 

American Beauty starts with Lester Burnham (Spacey) narrating his life. He states that he’ll be dead in a year. We follow Lester throughout his day, from him masturbating in the shower, to the job that he hates, to his home life that is not fulfilling. His wife, Carolyn (Bening), is materialistic and his daughter Jane (Birch) hates the both of them. Throughout it all, Lester becomes sarcastic and sexually frustrasted. 

 

When he’s “dragged” to one of Jane’s cheerleading performances at a high school basketball game, Lester sees Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane’s 16-year old best friend. He’s immediately smitten by her, fantasizing about all parts of her body and sleeping with her. 

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Lester begins to remake his life and bettering himself for Angela. Naturally, this drives a wedge between his wife and daughter by becoming a quintessential jerk wagon. 

 

Carolyn responds by having an affaird with a rival real estate agent and Jane starts seeing the Burnham’s new neighbor’s odd and artistic son, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Angela, aware that Lester, a 40-something year-old man desires her, starts to bait him. 

 

American Beauty engages us through its narrative by giving us both the solution and the problem right up front: we know that Lester is going to die, and there’s a home movie of Jane asking someone to kill him. This “solving of the crime” takes the speculation about Lester’s death largely out of the movies and refocuses our attention to the parts of the film, like Lester’s not-so-subtle attraction to a 16-year old girl. 

 

For the rest of the film, the themes come out organically over the entire 122 minutes, seemlessly flowing from one to the next. There were times I felt like a slime ball while watching, but I was never not entertained. 1. 

 

Writing

 

Alan Ball first wrote American Beauty in the early 1990s as a result of his back luck finding writing jobs in movies and television. From that rough patch, the script sat almost forgotten until the struggling studio Dreamworks bought the script in 1997. 

 

In 12 Years A Slave, I wrote about that movie’s lack of “a narrative hand” guiding us through the story. American Beauty, by conrast, spoon-feeds us that narrative hand with Lester’s narration. Nothing helps an audience understand a film better than someone literally telling you about it. 

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As for the rest of the script, Ball’s cyncism over his lack of work is apparent as this film wallows in its own anger. But, as the film wears on, the script begins to encapsulate all human emotions and experiences. It’s cynical, yet poetic, gritty but also inspiring. For this script, Ball won Best Original Screenplay at the 72nd Academy Awards. 1. 

 

Sound

 

Thomas Newman composed the score for American Beauty and he received a nomination for Best Original Score for this film. With no grand overtures or classic themes, Newman instead provides a perfect compliemnt of an unexciting, yet necessary mood score. At times, however, Newman’s score is the perfect emotional undertone. 

 

Along with Newman’s score are a number of contemporary pieces which, in my mind, steal whatever scene they’re used in. Shortly after Lester quits his job, which helps him break free of his prison, he sings along with “American Woman” in the front seat of his car. It’s clear that Lester is moved to sing along with this song because he’s thinking about Angela. But, the song’s rock ‘n roll nature helps to solidify Lester’s rejection of the norm and his rebellion against his wife. 1. 

Set Design

Set in a quiet suburb of Chicago, American Beauty’s setting is perfection done. But the movie, while being shot entirely in Burbank on the Dreamworks lot, is really a villain in its own right. It is the suburbs, the drab, the ordinary that helps to send Lester over the edge, isn’t it? The suburban sprawl is massive in scope in this film, and it imprisoners Lester within a life that he deems is a failure. 1. 

 

Cinematography

Conrad L. Hall was the Director of Photography for American Beauty. Working in close proximity to Mendes, whose background is in theatre, Hall brings a modern take to the classic stage-on-screen look of the early days of film. There were times in which I felt like I was looking through the window, watching all this play out. Coupled with long shots and very slow movements, Hall keeps us engaged with dynamic yet simple shots. 

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I’d be failing to do my job if I didn’t talk about all the rose petals. The petals, a recurring motif, signify Lester’s lust, particularly when he imagines her on the ceiling, covered in them. This is one of the most iconic shots in film history, and it’s perfect from head to rose petal. 1. 

 

Acting

Kevin Spacey won Best Actor for his role as Lester Burnham, the middle-aged burnout. His job at a magazine is in danger, his marriage is just for “keeping up appearances,” and his only daughter, Jane, is an angsty, rebellious teenager with self-esteem issues. Lester has fallen into his trapped lifestyle easily, and trouble is brewing within his home with a white picket fence.

When he meets Angela, his life suddenly has purpose, as horrible as that is. Normally, making yourself better is commendable, but in Lester’s case, it’s to sleep with a 16-year old girl. Plus, he becomes a jerk.

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The transformation within Lester isn’t superficial, though. It’s here to stay. His life is the very definition of a mid-life crisis, but one that actually ends with a quality outcome before his death from a gunshot. He quits his terrible job and buys his dream car. He’s determined to be his own man and break free from a numbingly terrible life. He seems to not care when his wife cheats on him, reacting with a dead pan and rehearsed cheeriness when she and her lover show up at the fast food place where he now works. Lester’s story is certainly a very human experience, and generally relatable, except for the sleeping with a 16-year old part. 1.

Directing

 

Takin the director’s chair was Sam Mendes, an accomplished and acclaimed theatre director. American Beauty was Mendes’s movie debut, yet he was only given the job after about 20 directors told Dreamworks no. He won Best Director for this film, the sixth person to win Best Director in their directorial debut. 

 

One of my first ideas that struck me when watching the filme was how American Beauty seems to capture, rather, the American frustration. Lester’s life when we meet him is the perfect example of this idea: he hates his job, his marriage is a farce, and his daughter loathes him. His perfect two-story house, a monument to his ordinary life, traps him, making him cynical. This idea carries forth throughout the film. Frustration manifests itself as anger and this is a very angry movie. The anger encapsulates the fears that many of us have about our own lives, and even our own mortality, too. 

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American Beauty is nearly a perfect satire of suburban existence. It explores each one of its themes with enough depth to ponder them individually, but moves on from idea to idea without being preachy. Interestingly, Lester’s intense obsession with Angela, while wrong, slimy, and disgusting (as evidenced by Laci’s wretching noises while we were watching the movie) is mearly the bridge between the movies story and its actual lessons. It starts the story, but it’s certainly not why we’re being shown the film. 

The themes in the movie are numerous, but also important. American Beauty is the rare movie where focusing on one theme minimizes the others. In this case, the sum of the parts equal more than the whole, yet when taken seperately gives us an adequate, yet unfulfilling movie experience. Mendes said that even he got a different interpretation of the script every time he read it and I suppose that’s the point of it all: you can make your own assumptions about the film’s true meaning. 

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So, what are my assumptions? Let me just say that the irony is not lost on me when I wonder what the lessons are from a movie where I literally just said that the lessons are numerous and relevant. But, hear me out. There’s some discussion among critics and scholars as to whom the movie is about and for, and what that character’s specific lessons are. 

 

First, American Beauty celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and it’s a film that knocked on the door of the 21st century surprisingly well. It seems to forecast the coming turbulences of American life and politics in our society today. The American frustration in the film points to cynicism that millions of Americans have regarding our identity politics, massive wealth inequality, etc. All the trials of life experienced in post-9/11 America, as well as its accompanying cyncisim are satirzed in this film. 

 

The second comes from the title itself. I believe the film is really about Lester’s journy to self-fulfillment and it ties in with everything I’ve talked about thus far. Every single significant character in the movie wants a reality that is different from their current one. Lester wants to be his own man, Carolyn sees success as amassing material things, Jane craves attention and broader acceptance, Ricky wants to be set free, Angela wishes her reputation was based in truth, and Frank Fitts, Ricky’s father, craves order and discipline in a world that he sees as increasingly chaotic. 

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But only Lester, after we see his journey through cynicism, self-betterment, sexual fantasies, and rebellion from his wife discovers what his life should really be about. Even though his is murdered far too young (as if there’s an appropriate time to be murdered) Lester’s character arc is also a human experience arc too. Life’s beauty, to Lester, is best appreciated as it is, not how we want it to be. We’re all just a plastic bag blowing in the breeze, powerless to fight the forces of nature and of life. 

Without a doubt, American Beauty is the deepest and most cerebral movie I’ve seen while doing this project. As of right now, it’s also my favorite. 1. 

 

Bonus Points

It gets a 10.

 

Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Facts

American Beauty won the 72nd Academy Award for Best Picture on March 26, 2000 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It beat out The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, and The Sixth Sense for Best Picture. The award was presented by Clint Eastwood and accepted by producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks. In total, American Beauty was nominated eight times and won five statuettes, the most of the evening. 

Other notable winners include Hilary Swank winning Best Actress, Michael Caine winning Best Supporting Actor, and Angelina Jolie winning Best Supporting Actress. Despite its generally favorable reviews, the four-hour ceremony was marred by issues before the show, including nearly 4,000 paper ballots mailed to Academy members getting lost in the mail, and the theft of 55 golden statuettes weeks before the ceremony. The event was hosted by Billy Crystal

 

Next Week

Next week, I’ll pick things up with 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front. After that, it’s The English Patient, An American in Paris, Gigi, Hamlet, and Out of Africa

 

3 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your review of this movie. I haven’t seen it but would most likely like it except for the 16 year old girl part. I laughed when you said what Lacy was doing while watching it! Even though this movie is 20 years old, 1999 just doesn’t seem that long ago to me!!

    Liked by 1 person

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