Tuesday, March 10, 2009

FotM: American Beauty - Best Picture 1999

I debated about whether or not writing about American Beauty was the best idea. I really did. For starters, I hadn’t seen the film until last year, and, while I’ve been meaning to watch it again, seeing a film once doesn’t exactly give me the level of confidence I’d like before getting in-depth on it in an article like this. That said, the reason I decided to do this is because I am hard-pressed to think of a film in recent memory that has affected me like American Beauty has. I’ve said enough in the past about my feeling about “experience movies,” so I don’t intend to bore you with a repeat of that little soapbox speech.

It’s ironic, because I can clearly remember when the film was in cinematic release in 1999, otherwise known to all “normal,” well-adjusted individuals as the year of the return of Star Wars. I used to pick up this little movie newsletter at the grocery store and I clearly recall American Beauty being advertised in it. I can even remember the picture that was in the advertisement. As you might guess, for a 14 year old kid growing up in a conservative household, it was not tops on my “must watch” list. At the time, we didn’t watch R-rated films, so that ruled it out automatically. Additionally, the amount of flesh on the poster seemed positively scandalous to me. I remember one of my esteemed co-writers for this blog telling me in high school, “I have no interest in seeing a film about a man going through a mid-life crisis.” Boy, did we have the wrong idea.

Anyway, times change and, last year, I watched American Beauty for the first time. I found myself amazed at the film’s ability to both supersede my expectations and bypass my preliminary responses to it while I was watching it. The tonal shift that occurs in the film is second to none. The tagline that appears on the film’s poster, “Look closer,” is the key to understanding American Beauty. Talk about the answer being in plain sight.

On the surface, the film’s characters are broad stereotypes of people that we’ve all either had personal experience with, have talked to people who have personal experience with similar people, or know people who know still other people who’ve known people like that. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is the grown-up teenager in midlife crisis. Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) is the controlling housewife with everything in its right place and matching gardening accessories. Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) is the high school slut who won’t stop talking about all the guys she’s bagged. Col. Fitts (Chris Cooper) is the homophobic next door neighbor who thinks the world ought to be rewound to 1955 and won’t stop talking about it. I think you get the idea.

Some have accused American Beauty of containing nothing but caricatures, as though these generalized characters and the situations that they find themselves in lean toward broad statements about American suburban life that become the sole thing that the film is trying to say about that life. I tend to disagree. While the film has many aspects that appear formulaic at first glance, it does one thing that so many, if not most, films with stereotypical characters fail to do. After establishing those conventions, American Beauty sidesteps them in one fell swoop with one of the best third acts of any film that I’ve seen. Almost every single character is proven to have depths that the audience never dreamed existed. These previously hidden facets grab us by the throat and refuse us the luxury we have grown accustomed to when dealing with stereotypical people and stereotypical situations. We are no longer allowed to dismiss these people because we think we know everything there is to know about them because of the label they wear. Instead, we are forced to think of them as real people, which is what they deserved all along.

The biggest mystery of American Beauty is how it achieves such a sense of grace and beauty when it ends. We’ve known all along that Lester is going to die. He said as much at the beginning of the film. The film is fascinating in the way it moves and changes from a twisted, disturbed, creepy look at American suburban life into a meditation on life, love, and the things that make both of them worthwhile. We may have known how it would end, but I dare anyone to say that they’d figured out the twists and turns that would bring American Beauty to its breathtaking climax. I've seen a lot of films in my life, but the climax of American Beauty ranks as one of the most moving of any I've seen.

The 2000 Academy Awards were hosted by Billy Crystal and held at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. The nominees for Best Picture were American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, and The Sixth Sense. In addition to winning the top prize, American Beauty won Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball), and Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), winning a total of 5 Academy Awards out of 8 nominations. You won’t be surprised to learn that I believe that the right film won that year. I’d also argue that Annette Bening should have won Best Actress over Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry. Here’s the real kicker: Sam Mendes and Alan Ball had never worked on a motion picture before, and THIS was the result. American Beauty is a modern classic that I’ll go back to again and again for the rest of my life. Those films don’t come along very often. I am very, very grateful that this one did.


Anonymous said...

As you might guess, for a 14 year old kid growing up in a conservative household, it was not tops on my “must watch” list.

Hahaha! I had the OC life too.

I watched this on the last day of my American Film History class, I believe. Like Gran Turino, its suprisingly funny as well.

You don't realize how accurate is until you get older though, I remember some guy who used to pick on me in school was a dead on archetype of the Chris Cooper character. That creeped me out when I learned why he was always picking on me in those days but having seen this film it made a lot of sense now seeing where he is today.

Megan said...

Boy did we change since high school, and I'm glad we did because we now have movies like American Beauty in our film vocabulary.

Chris W said...

I've heard more than a few people say that the Oscars should be retroactive for like 10 years. As in this year people would vote on the movies released in 1999 because only the test of time can really tell how good a movie is. There's no doubt in my mind that if such a thing were practed by the Academy Awards AMERICAN BEAUTY would win just as many if not awards. I also definitely agree about the Anette Benning thing. AMERICAN BEAUTY should have joined the ranks of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as a film that one the top 5 awards.

Adam said...

Senor Granto,

I wonder why Cooper didn't get an Oscar nomination for his performance. That scene in the garage with Spacey toward the end of the film is so moving.


I am quite glad to have movies like American Beauty in my film vocabulary. I can't wait to add the next major 'word!'


That's a very interesting idea. I agree that American Beauty would still win if the awards were voted on today. It'd be very interesting to see which films would rise and which films would fall. I think one thing's for sure: retroactively, Scorsese, Altman, and Hitchcock would all pick up a TON of hardware.

Now, I have a question for you guys. Obviously, the big thing that stuck out about American Beauty for me was the third act. Since we all came to the film later in life, I'd love to hear from you as to what it was about the film that made an impression on you.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the Oscar nomination, Cooper is consistently good in everything that he does.

I also like the idea about the retroactive Oscars.

As for your question, I don't have anything in particular to say but that I don't think I would have appreciated it as much had I seen it when it was in theatrical release than had I seen it just a few years back. I like to see a lot of films that way since they're free of so much of the hype that permeates new releases and you can view them on their own merits instead.

Hannah said...

I was just having a conversation with someone about archetypal characters, or caricatures, in a novel I'm reading. It feels so distracting and unreal. These overused characters that anyone can just pump out of their story-making machine can easily take away all of my care for the characters moving about the page, or in this case the screen. But American Beauty is very different than that. The plot line is so unique in that they took these very familiar characters and had them act on their guilty desires. What happens when the middle-aged man actually succumbs to his lust for the hot teenage slut? What happens when a ultra-conservative homophobe who's stuck in the past takes his aggression out based on a misinterpretation of what he sees across from his house? Point of view is such a major theme in this film. Ricky Fitts video tapes almost anything, even the mundane. But when he does, and as he accumulates his countless tapes of seemingly meaningless recordings, we see the beauty in his perspective.

I've only seen this movie once, too. And I was shocked at what I had been missing. I'm not going to lie, for years I thought American Beauty was just another American Pie. Isn't that sad?

Well, I think I am going to watch this movie tonight.