“I feel like I’ve been in a coma for 20 years… and I’m just now waking up.”
That’s what Lester Burnham tells us in American Beauty, and may also describe some people’s reaction to this Best Picture winner from 1999, which is a mite more controversial in the wake of the #MeToo movement — and allegations of sexual misconduct by its Oscar-winning lead.
When We Were Young invites you to “look closer” at the stunning cinematography, the innovative editing, the memorably melancholy score, and, of course, Alan Ball’s sharp-tongued screenplay, which follows a doofy dad through a particularly fatal midlife crisis and satirizes upper middle class suburbia. There’s plenty to cherish here, from the darkly comedic performances of Annette Bening, Mena Suvari, and, yes, even Kevin Spacey — but what about its approach to gender and sexuality in the 90s? Is this a cautionary tale about the dangers of chasing youth in your middle age, or is watching Spacey lust after a teenager in 2019 just too… icky?
Does American Beauty hold up like a plastic bag on a blustery day? Or is the bloom off the rose? Find out in our newest episode!
There’s no question that American Beauty makes a different impression in 2019 than it did in 1999. A large part of that is thanks to Kevin Spacey, one of the most notorious perpetrators of sexual misconduct outed in the Me Too movement.
But not all of it.
At first glance, American Beauty celebrates behavior we’ve found problematic in a lot of other 80s and 90s movies. In Sixteen Candles and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Clerks and plenty of others, average (at best) white dudes feel entitled to sleep with beautiful women, get paid for doing the bare minimum amount of work, and generally follow their id wherever they please to the detriment of everyone around them. At the time, it was endearing, I guess, to “stick it to the man” — even when “the man” was merely asking you to show up to work in exchange for your paycheck. (The nerve!) These were simpler times. We’re asked to revel in Lester’s rebellion against his “oppressors” — his boss, whom he blackmails, and his wife, whom he belittles. Or are we?
Look closer, I tell you! Lester’s midlife crisis also involves buying a cool car, smoking pot, and almost banging a cheerleader. Lester, who has mentally regressed back to adolescence, thinks this is all pretty awesome, and it might be, if he were 17. But Lester is a grown-ass man, so it’s actually pathetic. American Beauty is presented through Lester Burnham’s point of view, so we see this problematic series of events as Lester himself would see it — as unproblematic. But Lester is also dead now, we learn in the film’s opening moments, so clearly something went awry here. Lester Burnham breaks free from the self-imposed shackles of upper middle class suburbia, and is doomed because of it. Because what Lester does isn’t actually sustainable. In this film, Lester dies before he can face the many, many consequences that would await him otherwise — he thinks flipping burgers is fun for now, but how would he feel about losing his big house and moving to a sad studio apartment in the bad part of town? He could be criminally prosecuted for several things he does in this story. Sooner or later, his midlife crisis would stop being fun. His death is a cinematic representation of just how unfeasible these choices are. There’s no way that any of this is going to work out for him, with or without his neighbor’s homicidal interference. I don’t think Lester Burnham is a role model or an antihero — I think he’s the cautionary tale you hear too late to take heed of the warning.
For me, American Beauty is about the death of a certain kind of American life. In the 1990s, Gen X railed against office jobs and picket fences and other representations of systematic, status quo consumerism. Its middle-aged characters have either given up on happiness completely (as the repressed Colonel Fitts and his catatonic wife have) or take ill-advised stabs at recapturing it (as Lester and Carolyn do). Lester and Carolyn find fleeting satisfaction in their respective escapes from domestic trappings, but none of this will fulfill them. In truth, they’re probably too far down the wrong path to turn their lives around. We’re left to hope that their daughter will fare better, in making bolder and riskier decisions. (The point is not that Jane is necessarily better off being Ricky’s mol in New York, but that she’ll at least have the satisfaction of making her own decision instead of confirming to what her parents, friends, and society at large are asking of her.) Ricky Fitts is kind of a creep, sure, but at least he’s upfront about it. Everyone else in American Beauty is a creep, too — they’re just trying to hide it.
This time around, I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 drama Sex, Lies, And Videotape, often credited with kicking off the independent cinema boom of the 90s. Sex, Lies, And Videotape concerns Graham, the kind of guy most people would consider odd — or maybe even creepy. Graham’s kink is videotaping women talking about sex, an act more intimate than sex itself. Graham shares a lot of traits with American Beauty‘s Ricky Fitts. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that either of them turns out to be a serial killer. Sex, Lies, And Videotape also centers on a conflict between a repressed housewife, who denies herself a sexual appetite, and her “extroverted” sister, who is more layered than her stereotypically trampy wardrobe and demeanor would suggest. It mirrors the relationship between Jane and Angela in American Beauty. Of course, the plots of both movies revolve heavily around infidelity. (And both infidelities involve Peter Gallagher.) There are also comedic scenes of frustrated housewives furiously cleaning in both films.
Both American Beauty and Sex, Lies, And Videotape portray film — or, actually, video — as the ultimate truth. Soderbergh’s film was made shortly after video disrupted the film industry, first by making film a medium that could be enjoyed in one’s own home, and also by democratizing the making of movies — consumer-grade video cameras were inexpensive and easy to use, and videotape was much more disposable than film ever could be. Ironically, Sex, Lies, And Videotape was shot on 35mm, though it is quite scrappy in spirit, and Soderbergh would later become the industry’s biggest champion of cheap, consumer-grade moviemaking.
Sam Mendes is on the opposite end of that spectrum. There’s nothing cheap or tossed off about American Beauty, one of the most meticulously crafted contemporary dramas of all time. Every inch of the frame, and every moment, feel meticulously labored over — in pre-production, on set, and in editing. There are no accidents in American Beauty. If Sex, Lies, And Videotape kicked off the 90s independent film boom, American Beauty may be its biggest triumph, winning a Best Picture Oscar to cap off the decade. In 1997, Miramax’s The English Patient won Best Picture, in a year when many smaller, genuinely independent films were also nominated for prominent Oscars; Miramax’s Shakespeare In Love won two years later. Both signaled a new era in prestige filmmaking, wresting awards power away from the major studios — though a sweeping epic romance and a cheeky biopic about the world’s most famous writer are not exactly the fringe fodder you’d find at Sundance.
And neither is American Beauty, exactly, but it’s a contemporary R-rated dramedy from a first-time screenwriter and a first-time director, lacking major stars, with semi-taboo subject matter like homosexuality, recreational drug use, and lusting after teen girls at its center. American Beauty is too pretty and polished to be properly labeled an “indie” — plus, how independent can you be when Steven Spielberg is helping out behind the scenes? Still, American Beauty‘s roots can be traced back to Sex, Lies, And Videotape, and other small movies that sought to unearth dirty little secrets in ordinary places. As arch as it is, American Beauty does what most independent films do — it tells a story about real people dealing with everyday problems (in this case, with a fatalistic twist at the end). On a technical level, American Beauty is about as perfectly calibrated as a movie can be. The script, direction, production design, cinematography, editing, music, and performances come together so masterfully, the movie almost feels like it was made by machines. (Very tasteful machines.) That’s the very opposite of what we think of when we think of independent cinema, and yet I love this unholy fusion of fuss and spunk.
As far from Sex, Lies, And Videotape as American Beauty is in certain ways, the central conceit is the same: a weirdo with a video camera can cause a lot of disruption in the picture perfect American life.