IMDb Top 50 – #41: American Beauty (1999)
*Oscar Winning Direction by: Sam Mendes
*Oscar Winning Screenplay by: Alan Ball
*Oscar Winning Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Starring: Kevin Spacey (in his *Oscar Winning Performance), Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher
“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.”
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a depressed suburban husband to Carolyn (Annette Bening) and father to Jane (Thora Birch) experiencing a mid-life crisis. He decides to turn his oppressive life around after developing an infatuation for his daughter’s attractive friend Angela (Mena Suvari) and meeting Ricky (Wes Bentley) a teenage drug dealer next door.
American Beauty played like a trumpeting fan-fare announcing the arrival of director Sam Mendes. The British director had transitioned from theatre and burst on the scene with an instantly iconic and powerful drama that managed to straddle cutting to the core of the uniquely ‘American’ suburban life, and capturing mid-life crisis. Since then he’s continued his examination of American life with films such as Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road - each with a detached and objective perspective, presenting and framing the wonderful and terrible with the same stayed approach. Mendes directorial style in American Beauty shifts the audience’s perspective from his own objective and theatrically steady composition; to the living fantasy of Lester; and finally to the pure veritae eyes of Wes Bently’s Ricky – showing gritty hand held camera, recording every element of his life. And strangely enough some of the purest and poetic (and Abbas Kiarostami influenced) cinematography of the film is captured by Ricky’s hand-held video camera. The moment where the grand, yet fragile piano notes of the score play under Ricky’s footage of a plastic bag on the wind, still moves me to the brink of tears.
And it’s no surprise that the genius behind True Blood and Six Feet Under - Alan Ball – provided the scripting for this true ‘actor’s piece’ of a film. The noir structure infuses the story with a concealed dark suspense and he creates a space for actors to work. The economy of the dialogue is staggering and each actor has powerful wordless moments where they’re required to deliver wonderfully nuanced gestural performances.
Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham is oppressed. His life’s been sanitized by the soul-killing day job and the superficial façade of suburban perfection. Annette Bening’s Carolyn is a real estate agent that’s been co-opted by self-help methodology, desperately clinging to maintaining their ‘good life’ in the eyes of the people who observe. Annette Bening is fractured perfection as Carolyn – she reeks of desperation and repression waiting to burst. While Spacey traverses the spectrum of a life is bookend by the fundamental bullshit of the corporate environment, and then his wife echoes those sentiments at home, and contrasts it with the sardonic and ‘fuck you’ transition to a complete nihilism and characteristic mid-life crisis. Instead of becoming a character that you hate, he’s a character that you love and anchor yourself to.
Thora Birch’s Jane is understated and feels authentically insecure when she’s comparing herself to Angela (Mena Suvari). Suvari captures the slutty, verbose and over sexualised cheerleader and ultimately insecure.
Wes Bentley’s Ricky Fitts is one of the most unique and interesting characters that I can remember. His camera obsessed, semi-professional drug dealer is calculating, organized and emotionally economical – rarely get past his centered and minimalist performance. He compliments the astonishing performances of his parents ex-military man and bigot Col. Frank Fitts played by Chris Cooper and the perpetually catatonic homemaker Barbara played by Alison Janney.
American Beauty was a deserving best picture and Lester’s rich existential journey and social commentary of modern America peels away the inauthentic and superficial to reveal the epic allure in a bleak suburbia.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman