HomeMovies1999 Movie-versaries: American Beauty

1999 Movie-versaries: American Beauty

1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix‘s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.

To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films with writer, Matt Gilbert, taking a closer look at 1999’s Best Picture winner, American Beauty.

No 1999 retrospective would be complete without a deep dive into the year’s crown jewel and controversial-ever-since Best Picture winner. American Beauty is an enigma wrapped in simplicity and one of the all-time great films of Americana.

Even in the wake of shocking revelations regarding the film’s Oscar-winning star, Kevin Spacey, Sam Mendes’ directorial debut has not lost its poignant bite. Despite a mountain of self-righteous but valid take-downs and retrospective re-examinations, it endures 20 years later not only as an essential piece of cinema but yes, also one of the most deserving Best Picture winners ever.

The discourse surrounding American Beauty has undergone a long and compelling cycle of passion and fury on its most basic plot content and on its legacy as a Best Picture winner. At its outset, the film was hailed by critics and audiences as a darkly funny masterpiece reflecting the middle class end-of-the-century angst in a fashion akin to Fight Club and The Matrix, making it a perfect time capsule of the year. It took the feelings of numbness and dissatisfaction that its viewers felt and mirrored them on screen.

Maybe the honeymoon phase eventually wore off, or maybe we simply started listening to voices outside of the film’s blindingly white and predominantly male demographic. Well before the film’s 10th anniversary, the discourse soured significantly. Retrospective viewers rejected and were largely repulsed by Lester Burnham’s character arc where they were once entertained and challenged by it. The plastic bag scene that arguably carried the film to Alan Ball’s Best Original Screenplay win became a sardonic meme as the exemplar of pretentious writing in a self-obsessed, white privileged bubble. The dialogue felt clunky. It became a film we felt we were not supposed to like. The film’s five Oscar wins suddenly earned the film a permanent spot atop dozens of listicles declaring it “the so-called most overrated films of all time” and the “Academy’s biggest mistakes.”

I’d like to think that the conversation surrounding the film has mellowed and settled between the two extremes, or that a conversation on its MO or technical components can exist removed from knee-jerk moralistic rejections of the film’s most basic composition. But despite a slight correction, the consensus on American Beauty has not changed from the predominantly negative. Perhaps it might have, were it not for the elephant in the room.

Let’s not mince words. This is a film in which the entire second and third acts are spent watching (and even laughing with) Kevin Spacey…yes, that Kevin Spacey, ogle and lust after a teenager. It was as wrong then as it is now and it still requires mental gymnastics to even talk about. Even orbiting the conversation consistently sucks the oxygen away from everything else in the film worth unpacking. But in 2019 especially, American Beauty carries the embarrassing burden of accidental truth in such a way that poisons the entire perception of the film, and the Lester character for thousands of viewers. However, when viewed in the full and proper context of the rest of the film, Lester’s arc still feels strangely palatable. Rather than horrific and creepy, even now it reads as more pitiable than anything.

Lester’s relationship with Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) is the most powerful in the film; driven by the constant underlying theme of falsely projecting idealized appearances. His directive is not necessarily to lure and seduce underage Angela into his bed, but to improve his physical appearance enough to make himself desirable to her and regain at least some sense of personal agency.

At the same time, Angela projects herself as confident and sexually mature in her desperation to prove herself as anything but ordinary. The two have their existences validated solely by the other’s adoration of their carefully-molded images, but as soon as Angela makes her confession, the bubble pops. Lester no longer wants it, and he immediately realizes the value of what is real and in front of him. His final interaction with Angela, in which she asks him how he is doing and he can honestly say “I’m great,” moments before his death, is the most human moment of the film. The characters let down their walls and are finally allowed to be honest with each other and themselves and feel free because of it.

American Beauty’s currency is irony. The film wears it on its sleeve and employs it as shorthand for character depth. The film is so expertly crafted it can practically see the gears turning in our heads as each of its ironies unfolds one after another. The trick is that it layers so many surface-deep ironies and contradictions on top of each other in rapid succession that there is always another level in this film to discover—even twenty years later.

Its residence in relatable middle-class white suburbia turns out to be an ideal juxtaposing engine for such extreme personae. Its razor-sharp comedy is undercut by the darkness of Lester’s soul. The B and C plots involving Carolyn (Annette Bening) and Jane (Thora Birch) and Ricky (Wes Bentley) balance out Lester’s midlife crisis before crashing together in the film’s finale. The performances by Spacey, Bening and Chris Cooper are possible career bests for all three.

Wrapped from head to toe in Mendes’s astonishingly precise direction and Thomas Newman’s iconic score and the late Conrad L. Hall’s breathtaking cinematography, American Beauty plays almost like a true-crime reenactment. It mirrors its characters’ pursuit for seamless authenticity and yet is permanently unable to capture it. The plot would not survive a second of rational thought without the exact tone and craftsmanship Mendes’s team brought to it. But the film itself continues to endure because of how it infuses that fixation with appearances into its own filmmaking, thereby inoculating it from aging.

As a piece of art and culture, American Beauty single handedly creates and perfects a subgenre. But as a retrospective Oscar winner, it is both the Best Picture of the year and the film most about living in 1999. The controversy is its legacy, and the film would likely not have it any other way. 20 years and a gauntlet of think pieces later, this is still one of the best films I have ever seen.

Pass the asparagus.

American Beauty is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.


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