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There’s something about the notion of the perfect American family living in the perfect American suburb that has made it be the regular focus of plays and novels and films. Blue Velvet, Happiness, Revolutionary Road, The Stepford Wives, Safe, even The ‘burbs… they all proffer the idea of suburban living as something unsettling, a fragile veneer covering a dark secret, that there’s something ugly beneath that perfectly manicured lawn. Well, what happens when the people living there simply can’t take it anymore? In 1999, writer Alan Ball and first time director Sam Mendes had their crack at the subject with American Beauty.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a depressed suburban father who is completely ignored by his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch). When Lester enters a mid-life crisis, brought on by feelings for his daughter’s friend, he decides to turn his life around and try to recapture whatever it was he lost in his life.
I’m a big fan of Alan Ball, and I would feel pretty happy saying that even if all I’d seen of his work was True Blood. Working in sitcoms through the 90s, American Beauty was his first feature film script, and it is an excellent start. It’s a black comedy that’s really very funny, it’s a poignant drama musing on the human spirit, it’s a satire with elements of a mystery, and it’s a love story. Several, in fact. Far from being an unfocused story, swinging wildly at multiple genres for lack of real structure, it’s also incredibly concise and literate. There is so much that can be drawn from or discussed in the film - the apparently hollow nature of suburban life; the crushing sense of being trapped in one’s job or life; the meaning of beauty; the benefits of crime; the importance of conformity; the implications of sexual repression. These are classic themes and, to those that know his work, pure Alan Ball. The characters are also treated with great care, free from judgement or any crude lack of depth. One of the film’s great strengths is the courage it has to let the characters be alone. Seriously, have a look at just how often they are just left by themselves doing nothing, where they can let their mask slip away. It’s a less common practice than you might think.
Like Alan Ball, this was Sam Mendes’ first film. Already a very well-respected theatre director, he took great care in selecting the script for his debut. American Beauty was his selection and he directs it with a superb visual style and a great sense of meaning. Mendes was clearly very aware of the subtext of the piece, and brings them to life with ease. For example, just look at the first time we see Lester at work. Look at the drab surroundings, recognisable to all of those who have worked in an office. Then there’s a shot showing Lester reflected in his computer screen, where the columns of numbers seem to create an image of Lester behind bars. Then there’s the moments when he’s in Brad’s office, with Brad the supervisor appearing giant and powerful and Lester looking positively tiny in his chair. There is an absolutely superb level of dexterity going here and throughout. The sense of colour in the film is also excellent, where bland walls and furniture of greys and whites are punctured by small shards of red or blue or green, inviting you to notice the small glimpses of life in the lifeless world. Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography here is equally rich and solid.
I’m also a big fan of Thomas Newman’s music. He’s got a very distinctive sound, and always manages to capture a kind of soft ache, a longing wistfulness in his work. Here, his echoing piano, gentle woodwind and eerie strings beautifully capture the nuanced play of the characters and overall feel of the film. Just listening to it on its own is enough to lull you into an introspective mood.
Performances throughout are excellent. Kevin Spacey is on top form. His face is one that just exudes the kind of humour and sadness and disappointment that characterises Lester. The look on his face when he looks across the room at a party to his wife laughing wildly at a joke just encompasses everything he’s feeling about her, himself, this party, their life. He also has, and this is kind of important, a particular smile that creeps in at specific moments as Lester rediscovers his old self. Annette Bening is superb as Carolyn, who has invested so much of herself in an image that she finds it difficult to live up to and tries so hard not to let the cracks show. Her reaction to another day of an unsold house is both heart-rending and a little unnerving. There’s great support from elsewhere in the cast, too. Mena Suvari brings out every inch of the moderately Lolita-esque nature of Angela Hayes. She’s vampy and trampy, but she is so clearly still a child covering a supreme level of low self-esteem. Thora Birch and Wes Bentley give wonderfully understated performances as Jane Burnham and Ricky Fitts, respectively. Jane begins so placid, so used to being ignored, but slowly comes out of herself as the film goes on. Ricky is equally unassuming, but it’s an affect grounded in a great self-confidence. He knows how to handle himself, illustrated by his manner of dealing with authority, especially his father. Listen to the way he says what his dad wants him to say, firm and yet without conviction. He says it because he knows it’ll get his dad off his back. Speaking of Fitts Senior, Chris Cooper is a menacing presence in the role, an overbearing bully, tough and severe. His is a way of discipline, doled out by force if necessary. Allison Janney’s Barbara Fitts is perhaps the most saddening character of all. Someone so utterly strangled of life that she is a ghost in her own home. Janney is more familiar to many in more vibrant and outgoing roles (she is superb in The West Wing), so to see her smothered like this gives a real glimpse as to how worn down the character really is.
American Beauty actually reminds me a great deal of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called Filling Station. It’s a wonderfully vivid description of an ordinary filling station that Bishop once happened upon. She describes the dirt and oil that marks it all, the rather dull visage it makes, the overall lacklustre effect of its initial impression… but then she notes the small details that stand out from it - an individual plant, a single doily, a small taboret, the specific arrangement of the oil cans. From these peculiarly delicate additions to the otherwise gruff and boring surroundings, Bishop notices the small graces that someone has put into the scene to make it more pleasant for others. It may be an ordinary and rather dreary place, but if you look closer, you’ll see the little glimpses of beauty and heart in it. This is exactly what rests at the heart of American Beauty. It’s not about simply looking into the American Dream and satirising it for its iniquity and spiritual malaise. It does see these things, but it goes that extra step and sees through even that to the flashes of life and colour and love that rest beneath that. Other films are content with showing the life of the suburban family as being secretly dark, ugly, or even crazy; American Beauty wants to show what lies beneath even that.
For all of its moments of tension, cynicism and frustrated anguish, American Beauty really is a gorgeous, gentle and rather uplifting film. It’s a wonderfully subtle blending of genres, both sad and funny, and carries itself with a superb artistry and elegance. It doesn’t shy itself from elements of bitter darkness and despair, but it ultimately rests with its firm and sincere belief that there is just too much beauty in the world to ignore.