American Beauty: Still Powerful, Still Relevant

This article contains spoilers. 

Yes, many of us have seen this film countless times. However, the film that asked us all to “look closer” seventeen years ago is still as powerful and relevant as it ever was.

American Beauty revolves around Lester Burnham, a lonely husband and father whose life has slipped away before his eyes. In the opening moments of the film as we fly over a typical suburban neighborhood, he speaks to us in the following narration:

“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 am dead already.”

Yes, the narrator, Lester, is speaking to us from beyond the grave.

He wakes up every morning, masturbates in the shower – the “highlight of his day”, as he calls it – attends his job in advertising, and goes home to his family to have dinner, where he makes several failed attempts at socializing. This family has slowly fallen apart over the years, especially Lester. His wife and daughter both think of him as a failure. His daughter does not want anything to do with him. They have nothing in common. His wife is a real-estate agent, who is constantly competing with another firm.

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Lester’s daughter, Jane, is your basic, depressed teenager filled to the brim with angst. She feels that she is not attractive, that she is “ordinary”. She has been saving money for a breast augmentation that she clearly does not need, and yet she is totally determined to change her image.

Lester’s wife, Carolyn, has not sold a home in quite some time, a fact that she cannot ignore, which causes her much grief. She projects a false image of herself to mask the pain that she is feeling inside. She is obsessed with perfection, listens to self-help cassettes, and starts off everyday with a lip-syncing of “Don’t Rain on my Parade”. Carolyn is an emotional wreck.

Then, one night at a high school basketball game, Lester catches sight of a beautiful cheerleader, Angela Hayes, Jane’s best friend. He becomes awestruck as he watches her in amazement and from there on, she pervades his thoughts, and he would do anything to have her. He starts obsessively fantasizing about her, and something inside of Lester snaps.

Meanwhile, the new next-door neighbor, Ricky Fitts, has his own problems. His dad is an ex-military officer who is very demanding and beats him often, insisting that he lacks “structure and discipline”. His mother is clearly not there. She has become totally disconnected to the chaos that surrounds her, and goes through life like a zombie in a haze. Ricky films everything around him with his camera. He sees beauty in the most unusual things, including a plastic bag floating gracefully in the wind – an image that he deems “the most beautiful thing” that he has ever seen.

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Ricky also aids in Lester’s re-awakening. Lester notices Ricky’s carefree way of living and it inspires him. It fuels the fire that burns inside of him. Lester also begins to buy marijuana from Ricky, and the two form a bond with one another. Lester goes to work the next day, blackmails his boss, then quits his job, and applies to work at the local Mr. Smiley’s fast food restaurant. He also starts to work out in order to properly seduce Angela.

Lester abandons all responsibility, which only adds more pressure to the familial situation. His wife begins an affair with the competition, and eventually Jane and Ricky become romantically involved. Lester is completely unmoved by all of this. Filled with a sense of freedom that he has not felt since his teenage years, he becomes a man on a mission, without a care in the world. He is no longer content to lead the superficial suburban life. He lives his life with complete and total abandon until the day that he dies.

“Remember those posters that said, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”? Well, that’s true of every day but one – the day you die.”

Lester’s behavior sets off a chain of events that will startle the audience as the film goes on. The balance of raw drama and dark comedy still has the power to shock and surprise today. With its disturbing undertones and effective use of symbolism, American Beauty pulls you out of your comfort zone. Since the initial release, many of the situations in this film may feel cliché, but if you take a good look at the world around you, you may find that this film is as relevant today as it was thirteen years ago. Certain situations may be exaggerated within the film, but they are never far removed from reality.

Whether you see Lester Burnham as a hero or a pervert – or a little bit of both – is entirely up to you. The characters may seem false to you, or you may just find yourself relating to one, if not many, of them. This is a film which finds beauty in imperfection. Screenwriter Alan Ball allows us to peer into the private lives of his characters, and has the grace to allow individual moments of beauty to shine through the darkness. At certain points, we are invited to share intensly personal moments with these people. In these moments, we see them as they really are. The masks are unveiled. As they are completely exposed, emotionally – and sometimes, physically – naked in front of our eyes, we see their humanity. Collectively, you could say that these segments are the heart of the film. In one sequence, Ricky’s camera zooms in to catch the hidden smile of Jane as she looks at herself in the mirror. At this time, she is unaware that anyone is watching her. Her humanity shines through, breaking through the wall that she has built around herself. All of her insecurities are gone, withered away, if only for a matter of seconds. It is a wonder to behold.

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When this film opened in 1999, it ushered in a string of intellectually satisfying films that would forever change the face of American cinema – Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, and Being John Malkovich, to name a few. These films were challenging, splitting audiences and critics into two specific groups. You either loved these films or you hated them. American Beauty seemed to bridge the gap, in that it strangely appealed to mainstream as well as art-house audiences. It went on to gross over $130 million at the box office, and became something of an instant classic. People were talking then, and they’re still talking now.

American Beauty is timeless. And, in my personal experience, it only gets better with age.

The film took home five Oscars. It was nominated for eight. Kevin Spacey won for his iconic portrayal of Lester Burnham. Annette Bening was nominated for her role as Carolyn. Sam Mendes took home an Oscar for Best Director, which was quite an honor, considering that this was his feature debut. Everyone involved in this film did a spectacular job. Wes Bently, Mena Suvari, Thora Birch, Allison Janney, Chris Cooper – all top notch in their performances. The late, great Conrad Hall photographed the film, and every frame shines in its own unique way. Thomas Newman penned the score, and as per usual, it is unforgettable.

This is definitely a film that has been a positive influence on me, in terms of my personal journey with film. I love to share it with the uninitiated. It speaks to me, specifically in the character of Ricky Fitts. Sometimes, you need to stop long enough to look closer. Learn to see the world through a different lens. Stop taking beauty for granted, for it can be found anywhere if you would only take a moment to notice – whether it be in a red rose, a plastic bag, a hidden smile, or lastly, a trickle of blood.

Look closer.

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