Re-assessing ‘American Beauty’ On Its 20th Anniversary
Throughout the year in 2019 movie critics, Film Twitter denizens and even a couple of book authors have been reexamining the cinema of 1999, on its 20th anniversary. There have been celebrations of movies most people loved at the time (The Matrix, The Sixth Sense), and reconsiderations of films that were overlooked back then (like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Summer of Sam, and Bowfinger).
I knew 1999 was a special time for movies all the way back then, as a college student who saw one or two of them each weekend, reviewed them for the college newspaper, and argued about them in film classes during the week.
…there are several reasons American Beauty isn’t a fun movie to think about these days, starting with a big one:
But throughout all of this, there’s one movie whose re-appearance as a subject of discussion in film culture I’ve been somewhat dreading: The movie that won Best Picture for 1999, American Beauty. That film arrived in theaters 20 years ago last week.
It’s a film whose reputation has waxed and waned over time, as has my impression of it as I’ve re-watched it over the years. But there are several reasons American Beauty isn’t a fun movie to think about these days, starting with a big one: It’s primarily about Kevin Spacey lusting after a teenager. Whether for separate-the-art-from-the-artist reasons or art-imitating-life ones, that’s quite a hard thing to get past.
American Beauty, written by future Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, starred Spacey as Lester Burnham, a miserable middle-aged man whose wife and teenaged daughter (Annette Bening and Thora Birch) both seem to despise him.
Sleepwalking through life with what to modern eyes is clearly clinical depression, Lester eventually meets his daughter’s hot cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari), and his all-consuming lust causes him to suddenly revert to his teenaged self and to snap out of his depression. He quits his job, goes to work at a fast food joint, buys a sports car, and gets back to smoking weed, weightlifting, and listening to ’70s rock music. Then, through a wild series of coincidences and misunderstandings, he winds up dead.
I loved American Beauty when I first saw it back in the fall of ’99, and when I re-watched it again recently, I liked it a lot less. But it’s not just because of the Spacey stuff. It’s more that I first saw it as a college student, who hadn’t worked or been married or had kids, and therefore had no reason to realize how false its depiction of real adult life was. This is one of those movies that’s somewhat ruined by having an adult bullshit detector.
Even though it’s about an older guy – Spacey was 40 in 1999 – American Beauty fits in squarely with a very specific ’90s, Gen X, slacker ethos, as best exemplified by the musical Rent and movies like Reality Bites; quitting your job, avoiding “selling out,” and just doing whatever the hell you want is the highest form of human virtue.
Obviously, in real life, that’s stupid, and it’s an attitude that was very unique to that particular time. Whatever you think of Millennials, they tend not to have that attitude. If someone you knew did what Lester did in this movie, you’d probably be worried that something was wrong with them.
…American Beauty fits in squarely with a very specific ’90s, Gen X, slacker ethos, as best exemplified by the musical Rent…
Like a Bag in the Wind
With a lot of these movies that are the subject of anniversary re-assessments, there starts to be a revisionist history that no one said anything negative or found anything problematic about them until very recently. But as in most of the time, with American Beauty, there’s been a pretty robust case against the film all along. Sure, enough people liked American Beauty at the time that it won a ton of Oscars, but it always had a large and vocal haters club too.
Most of the characters are notably shallow and Mena Suvari’s Angela, in particular, behaves nothing like any real person I’ve ever seen. The film’s main conceit, that people in well-manicured suburbia are actually secretly miserable, was far from a shocking or revolutionary idea in 1999. The moral center of the film, Wes Bentley’s Ricky, is a creepy stalker who, also, doesn’t behave anything like a real human being. It’s yet another movie is which a character’s love or lust essentially cures their depression.
The plot is so reliant on silly misunderstandings that it’s been compared to a Three’s Company episode by more than one person. And really, that plastic bag blowing in the wind wasn’t all that beautiful.
Then there’s the character of Chris Cooper’s Col. Fitts, Ricky’s dad, who’s a jerk, AND a homophobe, AND an abusive father, AND a closeted homosexual, AND a secret collector of Nazi memorabilia, AND a murderer. I always considered Fitts a ridiculous, over-the-top villain, but certain societal revelations have made me reconsider that. In fact, I’d say the Fitts part of the plot holds up better today than the Lester part.
The Case For:
American Beauty isn’t all bad. Spacey’s performance was worthy of the Oscar it won. Thora Birch’s Jane is one of the most real-seeming and poignant teenagers of 1990s cinema, and the motif with the flowers was especially visually striking. The Elliott Smith cover of “Because” is outstanding.
But even so, history – as well as those of us who are older and smarter than we were when we first saw it – has shown that American Beauty was far from the best movie of 1999. And that would be the case even regardless of Kevin Spacey’s #MeToo history.