“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”
1999 was a brilliant year for films: Fight Club, The Matrix, Eyes Wide Shut, Toy Story 2, The Blair Witch Project, Dogma, American Pie, Magnolia, Boys Don’t Cry and Being John Malkovich. Amazingly, none of these were even NOMINATED for Best Picture at the Oscars the following year. And yet, whisper it quietly, the Academy may have got it right for once when American Beauty won the Oscar. Sam Mendes rightly drew praise for his brilliant directing and with Skyfall in cinemas this week the timing of this review is quite purposeful. However, it is writer Alan Ball and his Oscar winning script that I will seek to concentrate on.
At its heart American Beauty is a darkly comic study of suburban America. Our preconceptions often get the better of us as one person may be a successful in their career but a horrible person in their home life while the other may seem a failure in their career but a wonderful person in their home life but as Ball says, ‘the truth is somewhere in between.’ The mundane nature of these characters’ lives is such that we wouldn’t normally think about caring about them because we all know people who are like them. The subtlety of the work is in making us care.
The piece is a character driven marvel as each of the five (sorry Colonel Frank, Buddy, Barbara and the Jims) principal players begin a journey – which always invokes memories of cheap talent show tricks in my mind but please bear with me – that takes them from one spectrum of our expectation and beliefs right through to the opposite side. The best way to examine this film is, perhaps, by studying how each major personality changes.
Lester Burnham – the main protagonist who embodies the film. He begins the film in narration by warning us of his impending death, ‘I’m 42 years old. In less than a year I’ll be dead…of course I don’t know that yet. And in a way, I’m dead already’. A perfect way to start a film. It’s not a whodunnit by any means and yet by the end of the film we can see why all of the characters may want to kill him.
Lester himself begins as a man without a cause, “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up”. His despair at his job leads to a midlife crisis of epic proportions encapsulated by his early remarks to Buddy, ‘Oh, it’s ok I wouldn’t remember me either.’ He becomes selfish and ego driven but ‘happy’ alienating his family to the point where Lester’s obsession with his daughter Jane’s friend Angela leads to her derision and hatred. His life implodes and everyone hates him. There is of course a call back to his conversation with Buddy when he says, ‘we’ve met before but something tells me this time you’ll remember me’, after catching Buddy and Carolyn having an affair at the drive-thru. This happiness was a mere facade and by the end Lester realises true happiness was Jane and Carolyn.
Carolyn Burnham – a woman who seems to have everything perfectly under control. Fantastic salesman, loving wife and mother with a perfect house. Underneath the surface, however, she is in turmoil, ‘I refuse to be a victim!’ She is not the best salesman and seeks solace with The Real Estate King, Buddy Kane, who becomes her illicit lover in comically aggressive sex scenes. The repetitive dinner scenes are representative of her life in microcosm as she likes everything to be what she wants until eventually her husband and daughter snap and her life disintegrates. Eventually Lester persuades her with passion but her unwillingness to allow Lester to potentially ruin her sofa brings it to an abrupt halt indicative of her nature, ‘This is a $4,000 sofa, upholstered in Italian silk. This is not just a couch.’ She cannot change her nature but all of her family change and her lack of control drives her to despair and potentially desperate actions against her husband. Her selfishness is another factor in her daughter’s voyage, ‘Honey, I’m so proud of you. I watched you very closely, and you didn’t screw up once!’ This drives Jane on towards leaving.
Jane Burnham – she begins by hating herself, her family and the ‘freak’ across the road but her journey is almost the entire basis of the film. She discovers beauty in the form of love and happiness. She claims to hate it when her parents attend her cheerleading, ‘My parents are coming tonight. They’re trying to, you know, take an active interest in me’ and yet this is the attention that she yearns for. They, though, are too interested in their own feelings (Carolyn) or Jane’s friend Angela (Lester).This is the void that Ricky fills. The scene where Ricky, her neighbour, films her undressing should be disturbing as she is underage and he is essentially a voyeur, and yet it seems beautiful. She learns not to care about what others may think of her because she is beautiful and there is someone who recognises it. Her relationship with Angela throughout is also indicative of this approach as Angela tells her once more that Ricky is a freak, ‘Then so am I! And we’ll always be freaks and we’ll never be like other people and you’ll never be a freak because you’re just too… perfect!’ However, Angela is envious of what Jane has.
Angela Hayes – ‘There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary’ says Angela, perhaps conscious of the fact that that is exactly what she is. And yet, this is not a conclusion reached for a long time during this film. She is the object of Lester’s desire. ‘Spec-tac-ular’ says Burnham as he daydreams of Angela, covered in roses. The use of vivid red imagery is striking throughout this film where the colour is often used to enhance the scripts more surreal and critical moments, such as the roses, the blood and the plastic bag. Angela portrays herself as the experienced grown up, desired by all around her and yet her journey is one of introspection. However, she is plagued by self-doubt and the genuine interest of Lester in her merely gives her real confidence and allows her to confide in him. She reverts from fake grown up to real school girl in what may seem like a horribly tragic regression but is shown by Ball to be magical and inspirational. As well as Lester’s obvious influence on Angela this is largely caused by Jane’s complex beau, Ricky Fitts.
Ricky Fitts – possibly the most interesting role in the entire film is Ricky Fitts. A young man who has serious problems and seems to most outsiders to be beyond repair. He has been thrown out of school and his parents have given up on him to point where when he and Jane are considering running away Jane muses, ‘My parents will try to find me’, Ricky replies, ‘Mine won’t’. And yet he is, in some ways, the heart of this film as he sees beauty all around. He films Jane because she is beautiful and not in a sycophantic teenage caricatured style but a genuine belief underpinned by his other actions. He films a dead bird due to this and, of course, a plastic bag in one of cinemas most famous scenes saying, ‘it was one of those days where it was a minute away from snowing and…this bag was just, dancing with me…’ Ricky is the fulcrum for four main characters. He does not change his views or outlook but his actions and influence change Lester, Angela, Jane and Colonel Frank Fitts.
You are probably wondering why I have not highlighted the influence of Colonel Frank Fitts since he plays such an important role. Well, I find him the least interesting and complex person in the piece. Even his moniker of Colonel makes it fairly obvious he is an authoritarian presence in counterpoint to his browbeaten, depressed wife and they are more there to highlight why Ricky has become the man he is.
Alan Ball says, ‘It is about searching for meaning in your lives.’ This is achieved by all of the individual characters going on a voyage of self discovery which converge at the same time. The other nominations for Best Picture in 2000 were: The Insider, The Cider House Rules, The Sixth Sense and The Green Mile in addition to those well-known movies mentioned earlier. Other movies from 1999 may have had more unusual and grander ideas than this list the Academy chose. However, when you look back at American Beauty it does not seem dated because it resonates so markedly with anyone and everyone at almost any time in the last 30 years and will continue to do so. Ultimately, the film is about beauty. This film is there to prove that beauty is all around us. From a young girl who hates her body, to a boy who can film a plastic bag. Those who can’t see it may have it staring them in the face and realise it all too late.
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