The Spool / Filmmaker of the Month
“American Beauty” as the Ultimate Boomer Opus
Sam Mendes' Best Picture winner is a flawed but evocative time capsule of '90s middle-age anxiety.
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Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. Since December sees the release of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917, we’re looking back at the London theater director-turned-filmmaker’s eclectic works. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Watching Sam Mendes’ audacious debut American Beauty now, it feels almost impossible not to recall the famous poster that adorned many a film nerd’s wall between the years of 1999 and, say, 2001: a hand with a simple clean manicure holding a rose against a flat stomach. The image read a sophisticated simulacrum of reality. Was the stomach actually a real person’s? Had it been CGI’d or shopped to smooth blemishless reflection? Ditto the hands? Or the rose? Did they really manage to get a shot of a perfectly dewy rose?

American Beauty boasts that feeling of unreality as well. Some of it is intentional: for instance, the oft-cited fact that all the houses on the suburban streets of Beauty’s world just endlessly repeat. The Burnhams, the Fittses, and the Olmeyer/Berkley homes differ, but around them repetition reigns.

The sumptuousness of the imagery furthers this feeling of something just slightly removed from this plane of existence. The rose-strewn sexual fantasies of a suburban dad begin to bleed into the day-to-day. The line of demarcation blurs. Soon, that deep red that colored the imaginary can be seen everywhere on-screen. The closer the film comes to its moment of tragedy and revelation, the further the real world seems to slip away from itself.

American Beauty

Other times, though, there is a falseness to the people, to the situations, that cannot be handwaved away by claiming the film is “suburban satire.”

Mendes’ sense of the alien does owe much to the time from which it arose. The ’90s were a strange time of economic and social stability for suburban dwellers. The Internet and 9/11 were poised to completely upset the fabric of reality we were taking for granted. The Internet of ’99 (or ’98 when Beauty was filmed), however, remained predominantly dial-up. The ubiquity of what people still called the “World Wide Web” could be seen coming down the hill, but few could picture exactly how that looked or what it would do to our lives. Social media in that age consisted of AIM away messages, chat rooms, and webrings. 

In the absence of big changes, Americans became resentful of the status quo. We see it again and again in history — during periods of upheaval, middle-class white Americans hunger for a “return to normalcy” and during periods of stability those same people begin to see prosperity as some kind of trap, an oppressive force bringing soul-deadening boredom in its wake.

The closer the film comes to its moment of tragedy and revelation, the further the real world seems to slip away from itself.

The performances can feel strange. Annette Bening, as Burnham matriarch Carolyn, proved the most controversial, even at the moment of Beauty’s release, and it is easy to see why. She comes in at an eleven and only gets bigger from there. However, I think she matches what was demanded of Carolyn. She needed to be that loud, that strident to get through to her husband. Think about it, when we first meet Lester he tells us right away that he has been sleepwalking through life for some time. Imagine trying to get a reaction from that kind of man.

And then, consider how, in the span of the week, he seems like a totally different person. And not just totally different, but also just as indifferent to you and your concerns as ever. Who wouldn’t scream and weep and gnash in frustration to that man, to that personality shift, to that reality that even with a total change of presentation he still doesn’t seem to have room in his world for you?

Kevin Spacey, as Lester, gives the character a kind of seductive milquetoast quality. He is so innocuous and, especially at first, pathetic, you don’t realize the monstrousness of him. In fact, judging by reviews then and now, his spell might take more than one viewing to see past. Given the current pile of sexual allegations against him, there is also an undeniable queasiness to seeing him on-screen doing the things he is doing. He is a great actor doing very good work, but no one could be blamed if a viewer can’t see that through the horrible things he has done outside of his job.

American Beauty

In fact, a lot of why Beauty’s stock has fallen precipitously from its debut to now comes from the yawning gap between what is on-screen and the reality of life now. Complaining about your largesse in 1999 read as relatable, especially to adults in their 40s then. Now, to people in their 40s, it reads as whining. How dare Lester Burnham resent a steady job that gives him time to masturbate in the shower every morning and the money to live in the expansive abode he calls home?

It makes sense if you think of Lester as the movie’s hero. If, however, you place it in the 2019 context and considers him an archetypal boomer, the film begins to vibrate on a different frequency. Instead of being asked to relate to someone so self-centered )and, briefly, self-destructive_, we can start to see it as an investigation of how the masters of the universe in ’99 seeded our (and, truly, their) destruction.

It’s all there: the obsession with material wealth, the association of work and busyness as a measure of one’s worth, the treatment of sex as both dirty and irresistible, the fixation on youth and beauty, and so on. Yes, these, in some ways, remain American “values”. However, they got there in large part due to the unique psyches of the Boomer Generation.

To view Beauty’s story as a critique of the generation that came of age in the ’60s, to power in the ’80s, and continue to punch, kick, and scream for relevance today removes the aura of endorsement from the proceedings. Consider that it is Lester’s refusal to accept his current age or status that brings about not only his death but the destruction of everyone around him. 

There is plenty unhealthy about the suburbia of Beauty before the plot unfolds, of course. The Burnhams seem to seethe with resentment of each other from moment one. Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney) is literally walking with catatonia as her exacting husband the Colonel (Chris Cooper), subjects his son Ricky (Wes Bentley) to ongoing drug tests in the name of building trust. The fact that the two Jims (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards), the one same-sex couple in the neighborhood, seem the only healthy adult romantic relationship is a bit of sly fun.

However, it is a place that could go either way. One can imagine a scenario where therapy or divorce or both creates upheaval for the good. Instead, Lester acts unilaterally and selfishly and brings all of reality down around his ears. He got the car he wanted, the laid-back fast food job he wanted, the body he wanted, and the attentions of the teenage girl he wanted and all he had to do was completely upset the lives of everyone around him.

American Beauty

In a way, Lester’s selfishness continues past the grave. He gets to realize he should be grateful “for every single moment of my stupid little life.” Granted, it took the revelation that his fantasy object Angela (Mena Suvari) was a virgin and thus not the path to sexual freedom and fulfillment he objectified her to be, some insight into how his daughter is doing, and a bullet to the brain. However, those still living are still trapped in the unraveled world he left behind. 

His daughter Jane (Thora Birch) must live with being the first to find him dead and the knowledge that part of her wanted him that way. Carolyn is stuck with the reality that he discovered her cheating and the two never came to any sort of choice about what that meant for their future. Angela was in the house when he was killed and has a severed relationship with Jane because of Lester’s increasingly aggressive flirtations. And so on down the line. Lester gets nirvana, those still alive have the hell he molded.

It’s a hard thing to swallow. It means immorality goes largely unpunished and the innocent suffer. That is not a happy note. But it is a powerful one.

That’s the thing that makes American Beauty such a compelling feature even now. It is why so many feel motivated to return to it, even if it is to dismiss it in the strongest of terms. Twenty years on, it can still be funny, arresting, and deeply unnerving. Its imagery remains striking and intensely beautiful at times. It is not a movie that needs to be resigned to the junk heap of history as overrated and out of touch. Instead, it simply demands a different cultural reading: seeing Lester with new eyes, with current ones, placing him properly as a villainous protagonist, not a hero. Once that switch is made, Beauty opens up once again and shows why, to shamelessly steal its slogan, it remains further of a closer look today.

American Beauty Trailer: