erik lundegaard


American Beauty (1999)

The attention American Beauty has been getting seems slightly misplaced. Critics have focused on the Burnham couple — Spacey and Bening were the only actors in the film to garner Oscar nominations — but this aspect of the story, while well-told, is familiar: a suburban, middle-class couple in mid-life crisis. She's a prim, puckered, Martha Stewart-type; he hates his job, moans over his lost youth and falls for a younger woman. The daughter is horribly embarrassed by both parents. What communication there is in the house is sharp-edged and bitter. Everything looks perfect but is in fact soulless. Haven't we seen this before?

Written by:
Alan Ball

Directed by:
Sam Mendes

Kevin Spacey
Annette Bening
Wes Bentley
Thora Birch
Mena Suvari
Chris Cooper
Peter Gallagher
Allison Janney
Scott Bakula

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress (Bening)
Best Film Editing
Best Musical Score

Academy Awards:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor (Spacey)
Best Screenplay
Best Cinematography

“You probably have no idea what I'm talking about. But don't worry. You will someday.”

What makes the film extraordinary, and what shakes up the Burnham clan, is the introduction of a next-door-neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). We first see him filming the Burnhams from outside their house, but he's no skulking peeping tom; he stands straight and unblinking and seems curious if not slightly saddened by their lives. His own life is no great shakes. His mother (Allison Janney) is near-catatonic, and his father, a U.S. Marine Colonel (Chris Cooper), is a strict disciplinarian who fears outsiders. When the doorbell rings during breakfast everyone looks at one another with perplexed, worried faces. Who could possibly be calling? Turns out a gay couple welcoming them to the neighborhood with a gift basket, but the Colonel is even suspicious of this. He mistakes their "partner" reference, thinking they're in business together, and pointedly asks what they're selling; only later does the other shoe drop, and we are subjected to a homophobic harangue as he drives his son to school.

Ricky Fitts could easily have turned into a movie cliché — the handsome rebel without a cause next door — but Wes Bentley plays him just this side of creepy. He's beyond cool — he's cold — and his eyes are intense and unblinking. Waitering at a real estate banquet, Ricky invites Lester Burnham (Spacey) in the back alley to smoke some grass, and while the two are getting high, Ricky's boss finds him and orders him inside. "What am I paying you for?" he asks. "Then don't pay me," Ricky responds. The boss takes a threatening step forward. "What did you say?" Ricky is unthreatened. "Don't pay me. I quit. Now leave me alone." He says all of this without heat and the boss is completely flummoxed. Ricky makes his money selling drugs — waitering gigs are just a cover — but this alone doesn't explain his confidence. At school he is caught filming a dead pigeon, and when asked why, he says, in the same, even tone, "Because it's beautiful." Later, to the Burnham daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), he explains why he films dead things. The closer to death one is, the more one can see God; the more one can see God, the more beauty there is.

This is the true "beauty" in American Beauty: it's not the roses that Carolyn Burnham cultivates, nor is it the All-American beauty of Jane's friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), whom Les fantasizes about amid flutters of rose petals. When Ricky shows Jane the most beautiful thing he's ever filmed, it turns out to be a plastic bag blowing in the breeze before a winter snowstorm. The filmmakers, in other words, are equating garbage with beauty, and they're correct: the bag, dancing in the wind, is beautiful. Watching it, Ricky tells Jane that the world is so full of beauty sometimes he wants to burst. One could argue that this moment is beautiful to Ricky because it's about to die; a snowstorm is about to bury it. One could even argue that Ricky finds every moment beautiful because every moment is in the act of dying, and Ricky holds death close to him, unlike most of us, who push it away. Some may be turned off by this message but I found it truly life-affirming. Life, friends, is not boring, no matter what we may do to make it so.

Fueled by his encounter with Ricky, and by his infatuation with Angela, Lester quits his job but blackmails his employers into giving him a year's salary plus benefits. He begins to pump iron and bucks off his tyrannical wife. This is the aspect of the movie that most viewers focus on, and it's hilarious, if a little one-sided. Both parents are shown singing along to music in their cars, for example, but Lester jams to "American Woman," American rock n' roll, while Carolyn tries to toughen up a crooner's song and comes off as pathetic. Her affair with the Real Estate King is pathetic ("Who's the King? Who's the King?" he shouts as he's banging her), and when she and Lester are about to make love for the first time in who-knows-how-long, she ruins the moment by warning him not to spill beer on the couch. He yells at her, "It's just a couch!" The message is supposed to be anti-materialistic but it comes on the same day he bought himself a '70 T-bird, so it's really not materialism that's bothersome but the kind of materialism. A couch represents domesticity and stagnation (which we don't want); a car represents freedom (which we want). Carolyn is the finely-upholstered couch, and, as a result, she's never in the audience's good graces. She's a phony bitch who doesn't really grow during the course of the film, the way that Lester and Jane grow. Not coincidentally, she's the only member of the Burnhams to have no relationship with Ricky Fitts.

The first and last lines of the film are narrated (a la Sunset Boulevard) by a now-deceased Lester, who echoes some of Ricky's earlier comments to Jane. Lester talks about his life flashing before his eyes — not a flash at all but an ocean of memory which opens up before him. Now that he is dead, he says, he is grateful for every single moment of his stupid life. Sitting in the audience, I thought, "I wish I could hold onto that thought; I wish I could be grateful for every single moment of my stupid life." Then Kevin Spacey's voice adds, "You probably have no idea what I'm talking about. But don't worry. You will someday."

Bam! Writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes are essentially telling everyone in the audience that they will die. It's the perfect message in a medium that usually delivers the opposite message.

The New York Times calls American Beauty a "dark suburban comedy," which it is. But it's so much more.

—February 18, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard