Revisiting ‘American Beauty,’ The Worst Best Picture Winner Of The Modern Era

When people talk about the past, they’re usually actually talking about the present. In 2019, there have been a flood of remembrances about the films of 1999. Widely acknowledged as one of the finest years for cinema in modern times, 1999 truly offered a bounty of movies that would eventually be regarded as timeless classics: The Matrix, Office Space, Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, The Virgin Suicides, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, Galaxy Quest, Bringing Out The Dead, The Straight Story. Even films that haven’t been celebrated critically, like American Pie and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, have inspired thoughtful reappraisals.

Nearly all of these films are distinguished by the guiding hands of auteurs who were emboldened to create highly original work, culminating a decade that had been catalyzed by a vital independent film scene which nurtured budding talents like Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze. Clearly, any conversation about this period is freighted with contemporary dread about the state of movies in 2019, a time when young, visionary directors are often subsumed by the Comic Book Movie Industrial Complex before they get a chance to make their Magnolia or Being John Malkovich. It’s enough to make a movie lover nostalgic for the glory days of Stifler and Jar-Jar Binks.

One 1999 film, however, has been conspicuously absent from these warm tributes: American Beauty. Sam Mendes’ debut feature, written by future Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, was as celebrated in the moment as any film released that year. Critics likened it to commercial and critical favorites like The Graduate, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Ordinary People, and that glowing press (set in motion after phenomenal screenings in September of 1999 at the Toronto International Film Festival) was trumpeted in a powerful trailer scored with The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

Put yourself in the place of a cinephile in 1999. Who wouldn’t want to see this movie?

American Beauty centers on forty-something Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), an advertising executive for an unnamed magazine who as the movie opens is entering a hellacious mid-life crisis. He hates his job, he’s grown emotionally estranged from his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and his daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), hates him. Finally, he finds purpose in life after developing an intense, unseemly infatuation with Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Meanwhile, Jane becomes involves with the family’s next-door neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley), a sensitive teenaged drug dealer whose father, Col. Fitts (Chris Cooper), is an abusive Marine who worries that his son might be gay.

Audiences were primed to expect the sort of epoch-defining masterwork that would put a cap on Clinton-era America at the end of the 20th century, a period of apparent peace and prosperity with an undertow of despair about the failure of this collective good fortune to make Americans feel any better about themselves. American Beauty was sold as an examination of boomer ennui delivered with a healthy dose of Gen X anti-consumerism, and a surprising dollop of spiritual yearning. A film with the trappings of the edgy indie pictures that had captured the imaginations of young people and the press, but with reassuring mainstream conventions and big-name stars. A zeitgeist-y water-cooler flick through and through.

Knowing that it had a commercial and critical juggernaut on its hands, the studio, DreamWorks, went into overdrive selling American Beauty to Oscar voters. Just the year before, DreamWorks had been outmaneuvered by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax at the 1999 Academy Awards, when the lightweight romantic comedy Shakespeare In Love pulled off a shocking upset in the Best Picture category against presumed favorite Saving Private Ryan. The following year, American Beauty was pitted against Miramax’s The Cider House Rules in the awards sweepstakes. This time, DreamWorks wasn’t going to take any chances. They invited voters to informal screenings and set up displays advertising American Beauty in Beverly Hills-area book stores, where many Academy members resided.