Next year, the Oscar winning film for 1999 will be 20 years from release date. “American Beauty”, the suburban opus directed by Sam Mendes, swept many of the big categories that year including Best Picture, Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Actress (Annette Benning), Best Screenplay (Alan Ball), and a couple of others.
At the time, I deeply disliked this movie, and thought it to be a tired and insulting genre film. After four years at Columbia TriStar Home Video, I had read, by my estimation, some 4,000 film scripts and “American Beauty” fell in to a common genre I dubbed at the time “toxic suburbs.” In this kind of script, people who live in the suburbs lead a false life, with only the appearance of normality, when in fact, the Dads are all lecherous creeps, the sons are all gay, the daughters are all sluts, and the Moms are brittle pill poppers obsessed with retaining their youth. “American Beauty” came close to hitting the mark on all counts, with the addition of a murderous Marine Corp neighbor and a congenial gay couple who stand out for their normality.
The story centers on Lester Burnham (played by Spacey) who is a sad sack suburban Dad barely tolerated by his shrill and dominating wife and his laconic teenage daughter. One day, Lester sees his daughter’s friend, a blonde siren named Angela Hayes (Get it? “Angel Haze.” This is the kind of subterfuge that screenwriters live for) dancing at a school function and in that moment, some long-extinguished spark rekindles inside him. His libido begins to burn and his tolerance for all the petty humiliations and castrations that have made up his adult life evaporates.
Lester has had enough, and he takes action.
The early manifestations of this change are pathetic, but in time, his quest for freedom matures. He starts paying attention to his body again, he refuses the petty tyrannies of his job, he laughs more, and he buys the car that reflects his new personality. His wife responds to these changes with derision, and by beginning a sexual affair with another man more to her aspirated status. His daughter, revolted at his interest in her friend, pulls even further away. It turns out, no one in his family is interested in his freedom; they preferred the prostrate Lester. When Angela finally offers herself to him, he declines in a fatherly way, having reached a new state of maturity that allows him to put her well-being over his own.
He has regained his freedom and sense of self and self-worth.
At that time, all I could see was the denigration of an American way of life that I had both come from and aspired to. I grew up in a lower middle class suburb and the assumptions that screenwriters made about my social class offended me. I aspired to an upper middle class version of my earlier life, and have largely achieved that, but, in the nearly 20 years since “American Beauty” was released, I have also found that not everyone who should be invested in my freedom and dignity really much cares. The American familial model is lacking in many ways, and it can be a lonely road for a man. Like Lester, to achieve my personal freedom. I had to leave many institutions, including marriage. So, when I watched this movie again recently, I saw something I recognized in Lester and something I had not previously seen; I saw a man trying to set himself free.
My new fondness for this fable is also borne of the knowledge that it is now far beyond the pale; it would not get made today. First of all, the actual Kevin Spacey has been cast into outer darkness for having actual sexual contact with an actual teen, but also, a man who lusts for a woman outside of the narrowest and most neutered constraints would not be considered as a sympathetic leading figure. In the new Puritanical age in which we live, “American Beauty” would be anathema, which makes it a more revolutionary film today than when was made.
** It occurred to me a few days later that “American Beauty” has quite a bit in common with a Hemingway short story called “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In Hemingway’s tale, Macomber is on a big game hunt in Africa with his wife and a hunting guide named Wilson. When Macomber shows cowardice while hunting lions, and is saved by the quick actions of Wilson, his wife takes to the tent of Wilson. Days later, Macomber stands his ground while hunting buffalo, but his wife accidentally shoots him in the back of the head. Macomber, like Lester Burnham, is an emasculated male that finds his backbone and pays for it with his life. It’s fascinating because it would be hard to imagine two writers less alike than Ernest Hemingway and the openly gay (and fellow Florida State alum) Alan Ball, and yet they make similar observations about a particular kind of male dilemma and the completely unsympathetic response of the women in their life.
** It’s a real pity that Mena Suvari wasn’t nominated along with so many of the other players in “American Beauty” for an Oscar as her performance is spot on.
UPDATE July 16, 2022 – Kevin Spacey’s fall continues and now he is facing sexual assault charges in the UK.
“Since 2017, when actor Anthony Rapp alleged that Spacey — who was starring in Netflix’s House of Cards at the time — had sexually assaulted him when he was 14, over 30 men have come forward with accusations, ranging from nonconsensual groping to the attempted rape of minors.”