BEST PICTURE REVISITED: AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

The first time I watched American Beauty, in high school, I knew this was a movie for adults. There were clear similarities: my ordinary suburban house; my dad worked for a large corporation; I felt lonely, isolated. But even then, I sensed the broad strokes Sam Mendes and Alan Ball painted with: this wasn’t my high school experience. I didn’t see myself in these dysfunctional characters. Maybe one day, as a grown-up, I would.

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So Much Beauty

It’s been fifteen years, and many people find Sam Mendes’s directorial debut overrated. “Criminally” overrated, in some cases. A.O. Scott would say florid, smug, and lurid. American Beauty has lost its cool. But is it worth redemption?

Re-watching American Beauty, it’s almost impossible to separate the movie Mendes gave us from its overwhelming acclaim, the equally profuse backlash, and the way it spoke to 1999 pop culture. Family Guy, for example, wouldn’t go out of its way to parody The Hurt Locker or The King’s Speech like this:

As the plastic bag sweeps the screen, Ricky (Wes Bentley) sees “so much beauty in this world, I feel like I can’t take it.” On the flip side, Family Guy tells us it’s just “trash blowing in the wind.” American Beauty from a 2015 lens falls somewhere in-between. Let’s start with the plastic bag – a scene directed and scored with complete sincerity that interrupts an otherwise corrosive dark comedy. We can laugh at Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening’s disintegrating marriage because they are cartoons; but Ricky and Thora Birch’s Jane aren’t caricatured the same way. Ricky is a filmmaker. He is an outsider to his ridiculous community, literally watching from the darkness of his room, the safety of his camera.

Therein lies my main hurdle with American Beauty: This presumably outrageous satire is played so safely. We knew how tiny and unimportant we were. We already knew the suburbs could suffocate us. But let’s consider that the plastic bag isn’t an attempt at real beauty at all; it’s actually the biggest joke Mendes and Ball filmed. So artificially moving, so deliberately sincere. We’re suddenly on another level of parody, unsure whether or not we’re supposed to laugh at the stupid bag. Over the movie, what seems beautiful deflates in reality; we see this when Lester decides not to make love to Mena Suvari’s Angela.

So Ricky’s bad art videos provide the largest critique: an artist trying to be profound, like the movie itself. They are supposed to be the greatest truth we see – but in fact, they are a lie. There is nothing beautiful in this fictional town. Nothing good happens to anyone. Even the young lovers, Ricky and Jane, were originally on trial for Lester’s murder (in an epilogue that Mendes deleted). The dead man got off easy.

 

Nothing Worse Than Being Ordinary

Scene by scene, the movie has wit and style. Kevin Spacey, radiating maximum smugness, has never been better. Watch Spacey’s expressions when he meets Angela, from his lumpen walk to how brazen he is leering at her, pathetic but enchanted by her beauty. Then later, ending their tryst before it begins, he wraps her in a blanket like a father, gently reassuring her. He’s the key to American Beauty, wry and playful.

American Beauty was a prime queer text of the nineties, echoing the oppressive middle-class air of Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), far removed from the mainstream fare like As Good As It Gets (1997) with stock sitcom-gay characters. The script by Alan Ball, who is gay, oozes with repressed sexuality from its two fathers: Lester’s lecherous advances on the underage Angela, her nudity obscured in his fantasies by cascades of rose petals—and thus neutered; and Colonel Fitts, who we learn is closeted, and so discomfited (and aroused) that he kisses then murders Lester. Crime of passion, indeed. The closeted bigot feels pat in 2015—did it back then?

 

Why It Won

The new millennium arrived, and nothing changed. But we’d listened to omens that the end times might come. The media talked about Y2K all day long, as if they secretly wished for disaster. We were primed to examine ourselves and where we’d come to, superficially.

With a first-time director praised for his stagework and a top cast of actors, plus the proper studio support, this was the prestige picture of 1999. Not since The Silence of the Lambs was a winning movie firmly rooted in “today.” Ball’s screenplay echoes with Raymond Carver, John Updike, Richard Yates  the aging suburban patriarch out of touch with his community.

Leading the competition were two handsome, though dramatically less riveting, movies based on John Irving’s The Cider House Rules and Stephen King’s stab at Southern Gothic, The Green Mile. Russell Crowe and Al Pacino were both excellent in The Insider, reminiscent of old-school conspiracy thrillers like All the President’s Men and Silkwood. Though how relevant was a three-year-old 60 Minutes broadcast about tobacco companies denying their cigarettes were addictive?

Today, I’d hand the Oscar to The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shyamalan’s movie didn’t launch an impressive career, but it was a sensation, grossing more than every movie that year except Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Watch it again; Shyamalan comes by his thrills and reveals honestly, supporting an emotional canvas of two families struggling to reconnect.

 

Not Nominated

Being John Malkovich!

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