Defend This $#!%: American Beauty (1999)
The Academy Awards recognizes the best Hollywood has to offer every year, an annual highlight of the film industry's achievements, highlighting significant cultural events worth of their place in the canon of all time great films.
Except for when they don’t.
Sometimes, films lose esteem that is related to their initial release and awards hype; other times they are outside of critical consensus, or out of step to larger cultural conversations of importance for the time they were released and the period that followed. But we here at Talk Film Society feel that some of these unpopular winners hold up to their initial acclaim, and are here to Defend This $#!%.
1999 is considered one of the greatest movie years. Epic auteur dramas like Magnolia, Any Given Sunday, Three Kings and Eyes Wide Shut; independent releases with wide appeal like The Blair Witch Project, Being John Malkovich and Boys Don’t Cry; and innovative blockbusters from The Matrix to The Sixth Sense. Even relative bombs have become cult classics with huge appeal - Fight Club, Office Space and The Iron Giant are now hugely important films to wide audiences.
With all these beloved films on the slate, derision and outright disgust often come out when discussing that years Winner for Best Picture, American Beauty. ‘Look how wrong The Academy got it! They are so out of touch with what was really innovative and memorable!’. But the question is … were they?
American Beauty, for those of you that may have skipped it or avoided revisiting it, was the story of a family on the verge of a breakdown. Lester (Kevin Spacey, in an Academy Award winning performance) is a mid level executive at an advertising agency who is bored with his career, and feels beaten down by his family. His wife, Caroyln (Annette Benning) is a high strung realtor trying to make her space in a market dominated by Buddy Kane, ‘The King’ (Peter Gallagher). Their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is a teenager who feels outcast due to her best friend’s (Mena Suvari) more popular status and career as a teenage model. The Fitts moves in next door, with former Marine Colonel Frank (Chris Cooper), his wife Barbara (Allison Janney) and their pot dealing son Ricky (Wes Bentley). Ricky develops a friendship with Lester that inspires him to quit his job, and this impulsive behavior causes a riff with Caroyln that leads her to Buddy’s bed. The cast of characters intertwines, and a series of events leads to a faithful night for the Burnham family.
American Beauty dominated to a win in a field that included blockbuster critical successes The Green Mile and The Sixth Sense; the faux-independent Harvey Weinstein-backed Oscar bait The Cider House Rules, and Michael Mann’s fictional adaptation of tobacco industry whistleblowers The Insider. In a time when there were only 5 nominees, there was a billion dollars in box office success with American Beauty pulling in over 300 million of that total. In the years following Titanic’s success, a compilation of artistic vision, box office results and critical acclaim were dominant in the nominee fields. I concede that in a field of 8 or more nominees, with Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, and Magnolia being the most likely films from the year to be included in that batch, American Beauty faces a harder road to a win.
The question is: does American Beauty still work? Dealing with questions of personal identity and fulfillment, it touched on themes that were common in other films of the year. It wrapped these ideas in a glossy concept with a tidy runtime that made them slightly more accessible than the oddball Being John Malkovich or the heavy length of PTA’s Magnolia. It’s well acted from top to bottom, not wasting a performance from Spacey and Bening as the leads to Scott Bakula as the other neighbor. It’s discordant score is groundbreaking, echoing themes that would become dominant in the work of Diasterpiece (It Follows) and Mica Levi (Jackie and Under The Skin). The cinematography is helmed by Conrad Hall, a previous winner for 1970’s Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and a leading visual composer for many of the best films of the late 60’s’ New Hollywood’ period. The content of American Beauty and the craftspeople responsible are of high caliber that holds up to this day - and if you accept that, the question turns to the politics of Oscar campaigns.
Within any award season, the campaigning is paramount to the final result. American Beauty featured performers who were hungry for wins. It had a director in Mendes who owned his movie from page to screen; and a narrative around Mendes at a forefront of a ‘Youth Movement’ with fellow directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze in the nominee field. It’s hard to look at The Cider House Rules as a nominee that holds up well; having recently shepherded Shakespeare In Love to a wealth of nominations and a Best Picture win, it seems like a Harvey Weinstein backlash that The Cider House Rules walks away empty handed (but also, it’s hard to spot the CiderHeads out there holding up their case for it’s continued esteem). Being backed by a young studio looking for a win, Dreamworks marched out the American Beauty team to any and every media experience they could, and this market saturation really stuck with Oscar voters and movie fans.
Besides the arguments of American Beauty as a subpar work of art compared to the innovations of The Matrix or Magnolia, or it being the result of a broken campaign system, a frequent knock against it is how frivolous it feels. The events of history weren’t kind to American Beauty; by late 2001, upper middle class disaffection seemed inessential in a world shocked by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Immediately meaningful artwork tended to focus on films whose sentiment echoed heroics and the steadfast resolution of the American spirit. The complexities and imperfections of modern American life are still mostly avoided by Oscar voters, with Alexander Payne’s The Descendants being the next movie that closest echoes that unflinching look at unsatisfied family life. It’s unflattering anthropology of the pre-housing crisis bourgeois - a way of American life all at once so far gone and yet in need of cinematic preservation.
American Beauty doesn’t inspire the kind of passionate fan adoration of other films from 1999, and in a year considered one of the best of all time, it’s easy to cast a light on it’s flaws and imperfections. But American Beauty persists as an unafraid portrait of suburbia’s deadly sins, with influential tendrils that trace from it’s release to this year's list of Oscar nominees. It’s influences live on not just in style, but in release and campaign strategies. American Beauty should be celebrated for a kind of hard R, dramatic adult film we don’t see a lot of anymore, and how those films were able to be critical financial successes. American Beauty is an aspirational film for film lovers and filmmakers, worthy of your time as a subject to study or a film to adore.