On Film: Revisiting 1999’s American Beauty

I watched American Beauty tonight. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it since the 1999 release, but it had been a while.

It’s hard to fathom that 16 years have passed since the film, which won Best Picture, originally debuted.

American Beauty has aged well.

The characters and their various unhappy struggles are timeless. The overall theme – people struggling to wake up and tell the truth as opposed to merely fitting in and striving for success – still resonates.

That’s probably not an adequate description of the theme, but whatever the theme, it still resonates.

Personally, the strangest thing that’s happened over the 16 years since the film was released is that I’ve gone from identifying with the film’s teenagers (Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari) to identifying with the adults – Spacey’s character in particular.

I was 21 in 1999, I’m 37 now.

Spacey’s character, who also narrates the film, is brilliant. He begins with this powerful setup:

Lester Burnham: My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I am 42 years old. In less than a year, I will be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I’m dead already. Look at me, jerking off in the shower. This will be the highlight of my day. It’s all downhill from here. That’s my wife Carolyn. See the way the handle on those pruning shears match her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident. That’s our neighbor, Jim, and that’s his lover, Jim. Man, I get exhausted just watching her. She wasn’t always like this. She used to be happy. We used to be happy. My daughter, Jane. Only child. Janie’s a pretty typical teenager – angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that’s all going to pass, but I don’t want to lie to her. Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser. And they’re right. I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this — sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.

What struck me tonight is that Burnham’s awakening – which is seemingly in progress as the film opens – is almost entirely driven by sexual frustration. This is intellectually honest. At 21 I thought the opening scene in the shower was a hilarious throwaway, now I realize the sadness and truth of it – and it’s still funny because it’s true.

Burnham’s entire motivation is summed up in an epic moment of dialogue between he and Suvari’s character – who at a minimum represents feminine beauty and youth:

Lester Burnham: So, are you gonna tell me? What do you want?

Angela Hayes: I don’t know. 

Lester Burnham: You don’t know?

Angela Hayes: What do you want?

Lester Burnham: Are you kidding? I want you. I’ve wanted you since the first moment I saw you. You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. 

Angela Hayes: You don’t think I’m ordinary?

Lester Burnham: You couldn’t be ordinary if you tried.

Angela Hayes: Thank you. I don’t think there’s anything worse than being ordinary.

I love this dialogue. I love it so much.

Spacey and Suvari's interchange in American Beauty is just perfect.
Years of self help and analysis can be summed up almost entirely in this one simple image from ‘American Beauty’

First of all, the way Burnham asks the question: So, are you gonna tell me? What do you want? Almost as if he’s asking her to divulge a secret, the secret of what women want. She doesn’t know. She just wants to feel special, not ordinary.

It’s perfect.

So it doesn’t glorify the feminine, but it doesn’t say much for Burnham either. At least not until that point.

Even as he was waking up to the fact that his life was fraudulent, that he was unhappy and that he had wasted many years – Burnham was still driven significantly by his passion for Suvari’s character. Multiple fantasy sequences, and the above exchange, make that perfectly clear.

When Burnham realizes that Suvari’s character is, in reality, a deeply insecure  and inexperienced young woman – his fantasy suddenly dies and he’s left to merely comfort her emotionally. Then, as he discovers his daughter is happy, he realizes he’s truly happy. Then, he dies.

It’s all very symbolic. And awesome.

In 1999 I thought of Burnham as pathetic and slightly perverted. Now, I see him as driven and waking up – first to the reality that his life is worthless, then to the reality that his sexual pursuit (Suvari) isn’t what he thought it was and won’t do for him what he hoped – existentially speaking. And in that moment, he becomes happy.

The other characters – Carolyn Burnham (Annette Benning), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) and Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) are all fascinating as well. Even Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane) and Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts) add a lot. Each embodies a struggle common to American society as much today as in 1999. From Benning’s relentless materialism to Birch’s teenage need for authenticity and attention to Cooper’s internalized homophobia, the emotion of the film is gripping.

If you haven’t seen this flick in a while, you might want to revisit it.

If you’ve never seen it – I highly recommend you do.