American Beauty (1999)

Sam Mendes directs Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening and Thora Birch in this Oscar winning comedy about a suburban mid-life crisis that takes triumphant and tragic turns.

Ah, look at all the lonely people!” The awards darling for the crazy, marvellous year where Hollywood lost the plot and gave the keys to the kingdom to bunch of indie mavericks and disruptive outsiders. Being John Malkovich. Three Kings. Fight Club. Magnolia. Election. The Virgin Suicides. Office Space. Election. Dogma. Go. The Green Mile. Ride With the Devil. South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. Somehow all greenlit by major studios or bankrolled and distributed by their boutique arms. While stalwart auteurs Kubrick, Stone, Allen, Lucas and Burton produced declining work, a new breed made challenging, well funded cinema that filled the multiplexes. December ‘99 / January ‘00 you couldn’t find a screen in London or Edinburgh showing mass market, formulaic product. So when American Beauty (a directorial debut, satirically combative, formally acerbic, preternaturally crafted) swept the board, the adulation dried up and a backlash soon formed.

Why has the tarnish emerged on this fine film over the last two decades? Even I, on a revisit a decade ago, was less impressed. Its top ranking in a Premiere article about the most overrated “classics” did not help. The fact it feels formally conservative now compared to still groundbreaking peers Being John Malkovich or Fight Club. The generational shift in sexual and representation politics – these days the rebellion and desires of a middle class, middle aged white man feel like the least essential or vital voice in the room. The unexciting eventual careers of the stand-out teen performers… after this Hollywood was there for Birch, Wes Bentley and Mena Suvari’s taking. Bad choices and Hollywood politics smothered their prospects making you question the obvious promise on display here. Mendes’ follow-up projects all proved too automatically respectable and prestigious… only the recent 1917 has arrived as mould breaking and visually eager as his debut. The fact that Alan Ball’s scabrous and hilarious way with dialogue and characters now no longer feels revolutionary after Six Feet Under and imitators worked the once fresh formula into redundancy.

…And then there’s the fall of Kevin Spacey. Coming off the back of a series of surprise villain stand-outs, this confirmed him as one of THE greatest actors. His current reputation pulls at his Lester Burnham awkwardly. Reshaping the wonderful performance. The sad sack letch who abandons the lie of his married life to lust after young women and attract closet gay men these days rubs uncomfortably with the real life accusations of predatory behaviour and his own unsurprising “coming out” as an ineffective defence.

Even if the new light in which you review his powerhouse lead here is disregardable, it still is a powerhouse. He slam dunks every line, eviscerates every victory. I’m the same age as Lester Burnham now and, while I live a very different lifestyle with far less paedophilic fantasies, I can appreciate his waking up, lashing out and short sighted triumphs. The moments where Spacey rejects a surprising advance from a neighbour or finally catches on that his hard-on for his daughter’s bratty friend is just goddamn awful are delivered with a tender humanity, at odds but somehow still truthful to the sophisticated comedy that houses them. If you cannot get over the star’s personal life then Thora Birch, Chris Cooper and Annette Bening all knock their jaded humans out of the park too.

Then there is Thomas Newman’s conspiratorial, jaunty yet mournful score. Conrad Hall’s dead centre, magisterially clean cinematography. Mendes understands the eroticism of the everyday. A cheerleading show turns Fosse striptease, a hand reaching for a beer becomes a tactile loop of fulfilled seduction. A balding, hairy, paunchy man working out shirtless in his window has all the reality shattering allure of an indecent proposal. Mendes and Ball take their lightning-in-a-bottle cast to create a horny prosecution of middle class values that has the same wit and impact and damning emptiness as the finest work of Billy Wilder, Mike Nichols or Robert Altman. This is still a classic, the iconic rose petals and carrier bag prove far hardier than current tastes and shifting fashions. I fully expect American Beauty to be reappraised over the coming years and return to pantheon of indisputably great movies.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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