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.
The gambit paid off: American Beauty won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Spacey), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (for veteran shooter Conrad Hall, who had previously won for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). No other film from 1999 has that kind of pedigree. And yet, when people talk about the most important films of that year, American Beauty never seems to come up. It is to prestige pictures what Avatar is to blockbusters — a movie that seemed to dominate the culture for a time, and then it promptly fell into a memory hole, never to be heard from again, except for the occasional ribbing from snarky rubberneckers.
It’s not unusual, of course, for a once-beloved film to age poorly. Anniversary pieces for American Beauty have noted the movie’s obvious transgressions against modern sensibilities — the unquestioning sympathy afforded the privileged white male protagonist, the not-skeptical-enough depiction of Lester’s lust for a teenage girl, the insensitive portrayal (spoiler alert!) of the abusive Marine’s closeted homosexuality, the inevitable veneer of creepiness that accompanies any Kevin Spacey movie now.
But the problem with American Beauty isn’t that it offends those who choose to revisit it with a 2019 lens. It’s that very few people care enough to be offended by American Beauty, or even revisit it, at all. In the realm of questionable Best Picture winners, movies like Driving Miss Daisy and Crash continue to generate conversation. Even if a lot of that talk happens to be derisive, those movies at least feel alive as perpetual button-pushers in a way that American Beauty does not. This movie is eternally trapped in 1999, like a Lou Bega CD.
As for me, my opinion of this movie remains unchanged. American Beauty didn’t become terrible in retrospect. It was already terrible in 1999. Many people (though not enough!) thought this at the time. It just took a while (but not that long!) for this become the consensus opinion. But it’s worth pondering what people saw in this movie once upon a time, and how American Beauty speaks to the present moment more than we might think.
Any investigation into how and why American Beauty is the worst Best Picture winner of the modern era must begin, as all films do, with the screenplay. Alan Ball was going through his own Lester Burnham phase in the ’90s, when he was a successful TV writer for sitcoms like Grace Under Fire and Cybill. Ball wanted to break out of his professional rut, so he began working on a script inspired by the Amy Fisher scandal of the early ’90s, in which a teenage girl from Long Island was driven to shoot the wife of her adult lover. Around this time, Ball was also taken with the image of a plastic bag he saw floating outside the World Trade Center. This would become the central metaphor for American Beauty‘s meditation on how the beauty of life coexists with ugliness.
With all due respect to Ball, who managed to tell a dramatically better “American family in collapse” story on Six Feet Under, American Beauty plays like a redux of Blue Velvet that’s been authored by a hacky ’90s sitcom scribe. The infamous and rightly mocked “plastic bag” monologue, gamely delivered by Bentley in a dreamy monotone, is probably the one thing everybody remembers about American Beauty. (Though many people might mistakenly believe it originates from Katy Perry’s “Firework.”) Either way, it’s pop dreck posing as profound insight.
“There’s so much beauty in the world it makes my heart burst,” Bentley says about that plastic bag, and it rings about as true as everything else in this movie. No character or plot development in American Beauty has any recognizable tie to how people actually talk or behave in the real world. (Earlier in the film, Ricky marvels at the “beauty” of finding a dead homeless woman in the street. “When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back,” he beams. About a dead homeless woman.)
As faux-deep Oscar bait goes, American Beauty is as broad and predictable as an episode of Three’s Company. The Burnham family resembles the typical sitcom family — the sullen, schlubby Al Bundy-esque father, the nagging wife, the moody daughter. And they communicate strictly via sarcastic zingers that convey just how much they can’t stand one another. Though only the father, of course, is justified in his anger, even when he throws a plate of asparagus against the wall in a fit of petulant rage, or stupidly buys an ostentatious sports car like a regular TV a-hole.
Meanwhile the wacky Marine next door — played valiantly by Cooper, who tries to humanize a patently absurd and poorly drawn character — has a ’50s buzzcut and laughs hysterically at the corny Ronald Reagan movie, 1943’s This Is The Army, on TV, while his neglected and borderline comatose wife (Allison Janey) stares into space like a lobotomy victim. Upstairs, Jane complains to Ricky about her dad. “I need a father who’s a role model. Not some horny geek boy who’s going to spray his shorts every time I bring a girlfriend home from school. What a lame-o.” Exactly how young persons in the year 1999 conversed with fellow young persons in 1999, as I recall.
Looking back, the way that Ball’s script depicts Lester’s rebirth as an outgrowth of his “horny geek boy” phase makes it an easy “problematic” target for modern culture critics. But it’s not so much the subject of American Beauty that’s offensive, but rather the execution. If Ball had written a better script, and Mendes had made a more nuanced film, American Beauty could’ve been a worthwhile story about an unsympathetic creep with a thing for young girls.
To pick another movie made in 1999 as a point of comparison, Alexander Payne’s Election is also about a flawed middle-aged man in crisis (Matthew Broderick) who becomes abnormally obsessed with a teenaged girl (Reese Witherspoon) who once had an affair with an adult man. Eventually, the man in crisis is moved to upend his life, just like Lester, though the results in his case are (hilariously) disastrous. The most crucial difference is that Payne’s movie recognizes the Broderick character as the villain of the story. No matter how much we might initially like him, Election makes it clear by the end that this man is pathetic and projecting his resentment and self-hatred on to other people. (It also helps that the kids in Election seem like actual kids, and not vehicles for a screenwriter to deliver his greeting-card musings on the meaning of life.)
In 1999, relatively few people saw Election; it bombed at the box office, though it soon became a cult favorite on video, and is now regarded as one of the best films of 1999. Audiences instead were attracted to American Beauty, in which the toxic male lead talks down to his wife and calls his daughter a “bitch” because he is a flawed but righteous signifier of societal frustration with The Way Things Are.
It’s tempting to look back and shake our heads at how entitled people were back then, especially given how much worse off the world seems now. But everything is relative. In 1999, there was palpable anxiety about the end of the century, and what lied ahead in the uncertain future beyond. The Y2K virus is a punchline now, but back then it seemed as though the very things underpinning the comfortable lives of ordinary Americans might one day come apart at the seams. Those fears, as we all know, weren’t unjustified.
In American Beauty, people saw “the pain and anger felt by lost and lonely men and boys who are starting to fight back,” as one New York Times writer put it. Soon, the culture would pass American Beauty. But we haven’t transcended that pain. It’s just that our perspective has shifted to the point where flying garbage no longer seems quite so poetic.