Re-watching ‘American Beauty’ in 2020: As Bad as it Ever Was

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*Note: This piece discusses sexual assault, particularly that of minors and the Kevin Spacey allegations. Reader discretion advised.*

When viewing celebrated films from decades past in our current era, there is often a re-evaluation, adjusted to our contemporary societal outlook and views of ‘good’ film-making. Most films survive this reappraisal, some even gain additional meaning, relevance and esteem decades after. American Beauty, however, has seemed to only get worse with every passing year since it was released in 1999 to (almost) unanimous critical acclaim and a worldwide box office of $350 million. For reasons beyond many people today, it swept the Academy Awards, being nominated for eight (the most of the year) and winning five, including Best Actor for Kevin Spacey and Best Picture. 

It is not impossible to see why American Beauty would have been such a hit with the type of people that were Academy voters and critics in 1999. The film follows Lester Burnham (Spacey) an unfulfilled man living in suburban America with his wife and daughter whose mid-life crisis is triggered by a sudden infatuation with his daughter Jane’s (Thora Birch) teenage best friend Angela (Mena Suvari). It was lauded as a satire of the American bourgeoisie in a time of a thriving economy where white middle class Americans prospered and many felt bored and trapped by this new sense of stability. It captured a specific part of the much discussed turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist and may have felt striking at the time but the world has changed so unimaginably since 1999, and along with it our sensibilities.

The film is described by many as a pre-9/11 film, as the terror attacks happened just two years after the film was released and drastically changed America. Along with that, changes in the economy and eventually the 2008 crash all meant that a man complaining about his boringly perfect life and office job wasn’t relatable or important anymore, which was one of the films main powers when it was released. Obviously, most films that capture a specific moment and feeling in history still stand up after decades and many become more important with time because of the feeling they captured. However, American Beauty has barely survived the years because once you remove the thin veil of social commentary, it is hollow and smug. The film really isn’t saying much about this life at all.

Especially compared to films released in the same year that took on similar themes, like Fight Club, Office Space and The Matrix, that not only satirised the life but had worthy critiques of the characters, including the protagonists, American Beauty’s script is just not strong enough.

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The script was also not strong enough to take on some of the serious issues that it does. Producer Dan Jinks asserted in his Oscar speech that among these serious issues that the film “dealt with” was homophobia, in a perfect example of how badly the film has aged, the plot line he is referring to is Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper),the raging homophobe next door who… wait for it… is actually gay! The homophobe-is-secretly-gay trope has been done to death and we’ve all finally realised recently that it is actually, in itself, extremely homophobic. Fitts is then the one who kills Lester, after kissing him and having his advances turned down. The whole thing is a ridiculous plot that sets us up for a boring twist ending and does not ‘deal with’ homophobia at all, instead just adding to a harmful trope.

The other aspect of the film that was always questionably dealt with but has only got worse with time is its portrayal of sexual abuse. Angela Hayes is portrayed as confident, sexually liberated and in control, but wider society now has a more nuanced understanding of the facets of sexual abuse. It’s now clear that, although she presents herself as in control of her sexuality and is many times the one pursuing Lester, the power dynamics of a relationship between a sixteen-year-old and a 40-something means she is vulnerable and being taken advantage of. Towards the end as Lester and Angela are about to have sex, and Lester is about to commit statutory rape (with a kiss that MTV viewers in 1999 nominated for ‘Best Kiss’), Angela admits that she is a virgin and Lester suddenly sees her as the child she is. This moment entirely focuses on Lester and his paternal epiphany about his daughter Jane. Angela is discarded, just used as a vehicle for his mid-life crisis at the beginning of the film and his realisation at the end. She is barely a character, just a projection.

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Accepting the clearly predatory lusts of protagonist Lester has always been an issue, but the events of 2017 seemed to solidify the film as not much more than a dodgy relic. Actor Anthony Rapp, inspired by the growing Me Too movement, claimed in an interview with BuzzFeed that Spacey made sexual advances towards him when Rapp was just fourteen. Numerous other people came forward with similar stories, most of them teenagers at the time, which showed a clear pattern of predatory behaviour from Spacey and sent another huge ripple through the ocean of stories of sexual assault and abuse by high-powered Hollywood figures.

After this horrifying development in the ongoing reevaluation of American Beauty, people couldn’t help but notice the irony and similarities between Spacey and his character in the film, Lester Burnham. This inevitably added another veneer of uncomfortable creepiness to the film, knowing that Spacey preys on young people in real life; especially as Lester is afforded so much sympathy. 

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There was a wave of morally ambiguous, likeable, but definitely ‘bad’ anti-hero protagonists in the 1990s but Lester doesn’t fit into this archetype. Lester is a terrible, selfish and un-likeable person who we are blatantly told to feel sorry for. The script isn’t strong enough to craft a multi-faceted and conflicted man. He is an American man at the turn of the century who is taking back control of his life and his masculinity, at the expense of his horrible wife and his terrible daughter. Lester is afforded the sympathy that many of the other characters, —especially the women— aren’t given even an ounce of. And he dies a hero, after he turned down the teenager he’s spent the whole film lusting after because she’s a virgin; in a moment of supposed enlightenment. He’s the victim that we pity, that dies while finally realising the beauty of his mundane life and after ruining the lives of the women around him. He’s the straight, middle-aged, middle-class man who is the only one whose anger and disillusionment is ever explained or justified.

For a film so acclaimed at the time, American Beauty has taken quite a tumble. Not only would it seem to many that the film operates on a moral compass that is in opposition to attitudes of our current times, but now more than twenty people have come forward with disturbing allegations against Spacey we are watching knowing that real people suffered from similar behaviour that he performs in the film. This makes it quite an uncomfortable watch in 2020 and subtracts from many of the attributes that made it so popular upon its release. 

American Beauty recently became available to stream on Netflix UK. Have you rewatched the film lately? How has your opinion of this Oscar-winner changed? Let us know!

2 replies »

  1. This new Netflix reissue comes complete with ad images which remove or conceal Spacey’s presence. I think you’re right to suggest that this movie was severely overrated at the time, and Spacey’s presence, while problematic, is not the only problem with the sexual politics. For me, I just never want to see this film again, so thanks for sparing me any notions of a re-assessment!

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  2. The film was written by Alan Ball, who went on to create Six Feet Under (and True Blood), and honestly it seems like SFU got to be the more fleshed out expression of a style and treatment of themes that Ball had clearly been sitting with for some time. I agree that AB does NOT hold up very well these many years later, but it’s central idea–normal middle to upper middle class American life but actually it’s dysfunctional and weird AF!–became like the go-to cable comedy drama premise for the better part of a decade (aforementioned Six Feet Under, Weeds, The Big C, Transparent, Nurse Jackie, not to mention all the hard drama anti-hero stuff). I am hoping we are moving away from that style of TV.

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