On movie sex and movie love...

American Beauty

YEAR: 1999
DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes
KEY ACTORS: Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 8.3
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 87%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel Test. There is a lot of talk of dating and men but there are enough examples for it to easily qualify.
❌ But I don’t want to fuck the cast. Are we supposed to? They’re all flawed and difficult to take seriously. These don’t necessarily make someone unfuckable but here they really do!
❌ And it’s not that rewatchable. It’s not a film I’d watch from halfway through if I found it on TV and it’s kind of intense!!
❌ It also didn’t inspire fantasies. There is something in being totally and utterly desired, as Lester desires Angela, but the power dynamics on display are all wrong for me.
❌ But is it sex positive? I’ve thought a lot about this and I can’t give it the mark. The portrayal of teenage sex was pretty accurate, lies and exaggerations included, and it wasn’t exactly negative about the sexual needs of its characters, but even the slightest hint of sympathy or justification for homophobia and statutory rape is unforgivable.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: NowTV (free with subscription), Sky Cinema (free with subscription), YouTube (from £7.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: abuse, statutory rape, homophobia]

The poster for American Beauty

So let’s start with a statement: in my opinion, you cannot separate the art from the person who made it. This isn’t going to be the last time this issue presents itself in my movie blog but it is the first time that it has become integral to my opinion of a movie so I wanted to address it now. You can understand the context and perhaps frame your opinion around how the world was at that time, but I feel very strongly that you cannot judge someone’s creative output without considering the person who made it.

If I write about Rosemary’s Baby at Halloween, for example, it is really important to consider who Roman Polanski is – no matter how brilliant it may be, it’s a fucked up film made by a fucked up man! And you need only read posts under the #MeToo tag to see how those sexual harassment revelations a few years ago have irreversibly altered my view of Hollywood and the movie industry.

So. Kevin Spacey. A man whose career has been ruined by revelations of sexual assault and coercion, which he chose to initially blame on undisclosed homosexuality, here plays a man who ruins his career to indulge a midlife crisis that involves lusting after a teenage cheerleader and ends up being killed by a man with repressed homosexuality. I’ve got to say that his performance feels much less Oscar worthy now…

As well as the story of Lester Burnham’s (Spacey) midlife crisis, American Beauty describes the dark reality of suburban America, and the chaos and destruction hidden behind the picket fences. Lester and Carolyn’s (Bening) marriage is a sham, held up by a need to project success; their daughter, Jane (Birch), is fucking the weird neighbour who films everything; and Jane’s friend Angela (Suvari) fulfills the teenage cliche that those who talk the most are doing the least. It’s sardonic, it’s sarcastic and it’s stylised…but is it as good as we all thought?

I ask because it’s the fifth movie that I’ve reviewed from 1999 – further evidence to support its claim as the greatest year in modern cinema – and it’s the film that won the Best Picture Oscar for that extraordinary year, but it’s rarely listed when considering great movies from 1999. I was asked for my favourite movie from that year and I ran out of characters before I ran out of great films:

And yet I didn’t and wouldn’t include American Beauty, and I’m not alone in looking past it.

On its release, American Beauty was seen as the great American movie. Critics went wild for it and it was seen as ‘an unusually fresh, fashionable Oscar victor’ but it didn’t take long for people to notice how pretentious it was and how it perhaps wasn’t nearly as clever as originally thought.

Lester and Carolyn

In 1999 when I was fourteen, I thought American Beauty was awesome exactly because of that pretentiousness – I didn’t get it and I presumed that was simply because I wasn’t cool enough. Guy Lodge in the Guardian wrote that when he first watched the movie aged 16, he’d hoped he would become an adult who was ‘a bit like American Beauty itself: quick and quippy and a bit poetic, nasty-smart and slickly good-looking’ and I know what he means. Jane and Ricky and even Lester were kind of cool in their weirdness and their rebellion against authority, and watching it, I felt like I was catching a glimpse of a private joke that one day, if I was very lucky, I might understand.

Watching it now, I do get the joke but it’s not funny. Because even before Spacey’s fall from grace, it was becoming clearer that American Beauty wasn’t presenting a wise and secret truth but just the reality of the destruction surrounding a selfish man’s breakdown. Lester wasn’t clever and misunderstood, he was an arsehole! And I think that’s why opinion on this film has fluctuated so much over the last 20 years – the whole film looks very different if you look at Lester as a hero or a victim or a failure, and the other characters also look different framed around him.

To give Sam Mendes his due, I can’t decide if this ambiguity is intentional or not. In many ways, the characters are too obviously caricatures to have been an accident and I can only assume that they’re supposed to be unbelievable. Like Paul Vorhoeven in Basic Instinct and ShowGirls, maybe it’s supposed to be satire and everyone just took it too seriously! Maybe we’re supposed to dislike everyone and only see their flaws. Maybe we’re supposed to find our own hero – be that Lester or Jane or, godforbid, even Colonel Fitts – and then see the film differently depending on that perspective. Or maybe Entertainment Weekly was correct in labelling American Beauty as a stoner movie, or at least one that buys ‘into its own stoner wisdom a little too much,’ and we should stop trying to maintain that it’s a good and important movie and simply enjoy it for the weirdness that it is.

But aside from all that history, there is something more than a little off with the sexual politics on display in American Beauty, and I think that goes a long way to explain why I struggle with the film now.

Lester’s obsession with his teenage daughter’s friend really bothers me – there’s a sleaziness to the hugely unbalanced power dynamic that I can’t get past, and I was faintly horrified to read reviews that sympathised with his plight, like this nightmare of a quote from the usually reasonable Roger Ebert:

‘Is it wrong for a man in his 40s to lust after a teenage girl? Any honest man understands what a complicated question this is. Wrong morally, certainly, and legally. But as every woman knows, men are born with wiring that goes directly from their eyes to their genitals, bypassing the higher centers of thought. They can disapprove of their thoughts, but they cannot stop themselves from having them…Lester’s thoughts about Angela are impure, but not perverted; he wants to do what men are programmed to do, with the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.’

Are you fucking kidding me?

Not only do I strongly disagree that men are slaves to their sexual desires and believe that it’s exactly that kind of thinking that perpetuates the rape culture, but Lester doesn’t just have thoughts. He indulges them! He has full blown fantasies while he wanks over his teenage daughter’s friend. He stares, he tries to look better naked for her, he acts like a teenage boy trying unsuccessfully to flirt with a cheerleader and he is so obvious in his lust that Jane is too embarrassed to bring her friend over to the house. And don’t forget that he only reason he doesn’t actually have sex her is because she tells him that she’s a virgin. Lester has taken advantage of a young girl in a vulnerable moment when she’s looking for validation and doesn’t know how else to find it – he doesn’t get to be a good guy because he decides at the last minute to act as the patriarchal hero!

An image from American Beauty of Lester looking at Angela in a bath of rose petals

Do you think middle aged men in 1999 really did see Lester as some sort of hero? Did those boomers yearn after exactly that self-destructive midlife crisis and wish that they too could jack it all in to work for minimum wage while doing exactly what they want and driving a bright red Pontiac Firebird? Urgh, these are the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, aren’t they?

Perhaps American Beauty just isn’t for me – after all, I’m not a cis white affluent man who is bored in suburban America. I can’t take his problems seriously because I can’t see past his privilege. He quits his job to work minimum wage for a laugh, for fuck’s sake! Ebert claims that we can ‘laugh at the absurdity of the hero’s problems…[and] identify with his failure,’ but I can’t. Calling his problems absurd cheapens everyone who really is struggling and haven’t caused all of their problems themselves.

And I really don’t like that Lester is positioned as the victim, even if we don’t accept that he’s a hero. He’s a victim of Angela’s enticing allure; he’s the victim of his wife’s repression and later infidelity; he’s the victim at his job because he’s underappreciated and he’s a victim when they later choose to fire him for being expendable. It’s just so dull. And it’s not original. Even if the cinematography and music and style is new and exciting, it’s such an old and tired story.

Jane

Anyway, this is a feminist movie blog and I am much more interested in the female characters in American Beauty. Maybe I’m biased but rather than the story of a middle-aged man’s midlife crisis, why can’t this movie be the story of a professional woman struggling to hold it together while her whole world crumbles around her? Why isn’t it the story of hidden domestic abuse? Did anyone even remember Allison Janney was in this film as Colonel Fitts’s downtrodden and likely abused wife?! Of all of the potential plots in American Beauty, Lester’s really is the least interesting to me!

Take Carolyn – doesn’t she create a fascinating portrait of how difficult it is to be a successful professional woman in the modern world? She draws all of her self-worth from her work and so feels that she has to succeed professionally, even if it is at the detriment of her family life. Her reaction to learning Buddy’s mantra that ‘in order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times’ made me really sad because it felt more like a justification for how she was already living than a realisation of how she should change. Carolyn already tries so hard with everything she does – gardening, cooking, selling houses – and it shows, but I get it. I absolutely understand her need to do everything absolutely perfectly because then no one can criticise her trying to do it all. If her house is in order and her garden is tidy then she isn’t a bad wife and mother for going back to work and focusing on her career. But, of course, she also has to succeed at that too or really, what was the point? This may sound ridiculously obvious but Carolyn has to be a success otherwise she is only a failure. She doesn’t have Lester’s option to be a successful failure or an inspiring failure or whatever it is we’re supposed to think he is.

Angela is also more than just the hot girl to tempt Lester. Watching this movie now as a sexually confident adult rather than the insecure and unsure person I was when I first saw it, it is so much more obvious that Angela is telling lies about her sexual promiscuity. In her overly sexualised stories and apparently unwavering belief that everyone wants to fuck her, she is not that dissimilar from Jay from the Inbetweeners. Although pre-#MeToo, we shouldn’t rule out that a famous photographer really did pull his dick out in front of her. ‘That’s how things really are!’ Angela claims, and sadly she’s been proven right. But I did understand Angela’s mistaken belief that being sexual is all that is important. From a patriarchal perspective, isn’t that how all women are valued? Isn’t that what the mainstream media is telling us?

An image from American Beauty of Angela and Jane as cheerleaders

Her friendship with Jane reminds me a lot of that between Jennifer and Needy in Jennifer’s Body. I don’t really know why they’re friends as I don’t think they like each other that much and they both seem to be using the friendship for different reasons than just company – Angela is the hot girl who needs someone to be in awe of her, someone to listen and believe her stories, and Jane needs someone to make her feel relevant. She isn’t ready to accept herself for who she really is, until she meets Ricky who loves her anyway. And then, of course, the friendship implodes.

Finally, I do think that Chris Cooper’s character arc does age the film somewhat. Homophobia as a shield for homosexuality is hardly an original idea and while I suspect that it was meant to be ‘transgressive,’ it feels more like a tired trope. Writing in 2008, Scott Gwin felt that ‘there are forms of edgy cinema that tackle troubling and disturbing topics. And then there are movies like American Beauty that don’t so much tackle them as exploit them for shock value.’ Fitts’s homosexuality feels unnecessary – he was already a reprehensible character who I would believe was capable of murder and the revelation that he was secretly gay feels terrifyingly close to a justification for all of the awful things that he had done.

Roger Ebert ended his weird review by claiming that ‘nobody is really bad in this movie, just shaped by society in such a way they can’t be themselves,’ and, to me, this sentence sums up why this is such a fascinating movie. Because without question, there are bad people in this movie – Colonel Fitts is a murderer and an abuser, and his sexual confusion is never ever a justification for this; Lester so so nearly commits statutory rape and the fact that he didn’t actually penetrate Angela doesn’t change his abuse; he also blackmails his boss. Oh and Ricky is a drug dealer, which is still illegal even if you feel it shouldn’t be. These are bad people! And yet, the film and contemporary reviewers were oddly sympathetic towards them, and that fascinates me.

To steal an extended quote from Mariana McConnell, ‘Sam Mendes’ 1999 debut is not the withering analysis of curdled society in suburban wasteland that the film was lauded as being. Rather, American Beauty is an insipid spook story about a second adolescence, dressed up with ham-handed, unoriginal critiques: Suburban banality is bad for you? Really? The film is wholly heartless; full of old stereotypes and outrageous misogyny, presented with the puffed up pretensions of an art student.

Looking back from 2020, American Beauty remains a really interesting film, but not for the same reasons that everyone loved it in 1999. Both the film and the critical reaction to it capture exactly what 1999 was like, particularly in America – on the cusp of a paradigm shift, waiting for the new Millennium, at the end of the Clinton era. Guy Lodge feels that it is an ‘exquisitely presented time capsule, a snapshot of middle-class, notionally liberal white society entering a spasm of panic,’ and I can’t help but feel that our changing opinions of it reflect just how much the world has changed: ‘view Spacey’s brilliantly icky-droll performance not as an exercise in misplaced heroism, but as a grim, complicit prophet of an even more dishonest, self-serving era of American patriarchy to come.’

If Lester really was a hero, before 9/11 and before the financial crisis really gave us reasons to complain, is it any wonder that so much of the world has gone to shit?

Happy Brexit weekend.

Next week: Lolita

In my #NSFW sex blog, I’ve recreated the poster for this movie as part of the FebPhotoFest erotic photography challenge!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

1 Comment

  1. lovelustlondon

    One of my favourite films! There are so many little acting nuggets scattered throughout (the awkward “any friend of of Angela’s is a…friendofmine”*, the slightly unhinged, determined “I will sell this house today”, pretty much everything that Allison Janney does…) that I can easily forgive the pretentiousness, I can even forgive the idea of quitting a high pressure job working for rich assholes in favour of one which involves much less stress. I do, however, agree with a lot of what you say above, especially the Colonel Fitts arc. Perhaps I particularly like this film because it was one that I saw on a rare visit to the city during months of volunteer work in the Amazon – The Beach is another fave from this year for exactly the same reason!

    *Seriously Roger Ebert?! That is fucked up

Do you like this film? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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