Film of the day:
“American Beauty” (1999)
Poster art by Fabian Seiler (shinz0n on DeviantArt).
“Welcome to America’s weirdest home videos.”
When I first saw American Beauty, I was 15 years old, in the 9th grade, and we were living in the post-9/11 era. My parents were very uptight about R-Rated films being brought into their home, so much so that it was almost as if they thought that R-Rated films were alike to hardcore drugs.
When I was 13, and “American Beauty” won best picture in 2000, my mother got quite angry. “Why does Hollywood keep putting out smut? Why do smut movies win at the Oscars each year?” As I told her that a movie’s parental advisory rating does is not a definition of the film’s content, she replied back and asked me, “then why is it R-Rated?” I didn’t have an answer at the time. I just knew that parental advisory warnings were just that: Parental advisories.
I then went down what I consider to be some pretty extreme avenues to see the film. I tried seeing if I could rent a copy at a Cleanflicks-like store. Wouldn’t you know it, they told me there was no way they could edit the film without the storyline and content being significantly altered. When my mother found out about this fact, it only made things harder, and she found her opinion on R-Rated films that much more justified. Let’s not forget the fact that I was considered too young to rent or buy R-Rated films, and I lacked the social connections that would grant me the ability to see this film. I was stuck in a rut.
Then, I’m having a horrible day at school, and as a result, I miss the bus back home, and I find myself getting a ride home with my 2nd cousin. Today was a good end to a very bad day, for her friend Melissa had a copy of American Beauty that was recorded onto a videocassette from an airing on Cinemax. I hesitated at first, thinking about the hell I would bring upon myself if my mother or father were ever to catch me with this movie in their home. But, being the rebellious free thinker that I am, I took the risk.
Even at 15 years old, even with having some difficulties understanding all of the content, I knew that American Beauty was the best film I had ever seen. I believe that it is this film that was the cause of my obsession with cinema. The storytelling, the characters, the realistic portrayal of the suburbs in late 90s America. It just didn’t get any better than this.
If you remember films like “Gone with the Wind”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and “The Wizard of Oz”, these are time-less films because of how rare, precious, and wonderful they all are. I’m pretty sure no one realized the effect these films would have on society in the future when they were first released, but today, those films are regarded as American cinema classics. Although it’s possible that not enough time has passed for “American Beauty” to be regarded as a cinema classic, I personally believe in 20 years when people look back at cinema, they will look at “American Beauty” like we look at “The Wizard of Oz” today: An American cinema classic.
While other drama films during the late 90s hid from realism and muddled it down when portraying society, “American Beauty” was completely shameless, and it never disguised or hid taboos. Everything was open for discussion. There were a set of people going through a mid-life crisis, a teenager critical of her own body, and another teenager who acted like a slut to get attention. Then there’s a teenage boy who looks at the bigger picture, and a man out of the marines who has some really big post-war issues.
The cast is phenomenal. Kevin Spacey is Lester Burnham. It’s hard to state that he commands his role, because saying that would be an understatement. Annette Bening is Lester’s wife Carolyn, who also is Carolyn. These two could not be any more real, or any more complex. These two were born to play these roles. Their characters are the product of a marriage gone wrong, a marriage that has become “typical.” They both go through a mid-life crisis at the same time, they both do some very questionable things, and they both behave very irrationally.
“I see you’re smoking pot now. I think using psychotropic drugs is a very positive example to set for our daughter.” “You’re one to talk, you bloodless, money-grubbing freak.”
Thora Birch plays Lester and Carolyn’s daughter Jane, and Birch showcases true talent here with her role, as it is hard not to think of her as the Ellen Page of the 90s. Jane hates her body, and she doesn’t think she’s good enough for anyone to even notice her. Mena Suvari is Jane’s supposedly slutty best friend Angela, someone so extremely starved for attention, who actually ends up getting the attention of Jane’s father. Wes Bentley plays Ricky Fitts, a boy who is obsessed with Jane, but his reasoning about everything is misunderstood by just about everybody…except for Jane.
Peter Gallagher is Buddy Kane (the real estate king), who is Carolyn’s competition in the real estate business. She hates the fact that he is kicking her butt, but she actually respects him. However, her irrational behavior makes her think that he’s the perfect answer to her mid-life crisis, someone she can do business with, and do business with. He becomes her mentor, and they both become each other’s toy.
Chris Cooper and Allison Janney play Ricky Fitt’s parents Frank and Barbara, who are also the Burnham’s new neighbors. Frank has some really awful post trauma from serving in the marines, and it is only made worse by being disconnected from his wife, who is deteriorating mentally. He is also very disconnected from his son, but his holding back of any real emotion makes their communications with each other intimidate hostility.
There is emotion buried deep within each and every one of these characters, and every character in the film is holding something back. At one point, they all have to let go, for better or worse. None of the respected endings for the characters are of a typical Hollywood style. The characters, their stories, and where they ultimately end up are entirely unique and realistic.
Alan Ball’s script is no doubt some of the best writing Hollywood could ever have. Sam Mendes translation of Ball’s material is executed flawlessly. Ball has written a beautiful and lovely story that will be endeared by several more generations to come, and Mendes could not have directed Ball’s story any better.
In the end, it’s understandable that the events that take place and the things that these characters do can be very ugly. But “beauty” and “ugly” are all relative, for our flaws and our mistakes are what make us beautiful. The title of the film can either be taken as ironic, or truthful, or even both. Personally, I will always see it as both.
“You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”
Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, and Chris Cooper. Directed by Sam Mendes.