The Steady Cultural Demise Of ‘American Beauty’

“For The Love Of 1999” is a weeklong series offering some totally bangin’ essays and analysis of some hot — or not — TV, music, movies and celebrities of 1999. Keep checking back this week for more sweet content.

When “American Beauty” nabbed the Oscar for Best Picture in March 2000, its win seemed forward-thinking. The movie “dealt with sex and drugs, blackmail, homophobia, infidelity and suburban dysfunction,” producer Dan Jinks proclaimed during his acceptance speech. “And in the middle of all this was a character named Ricky Fitts, who at one point says, ‘Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it,’ and everyone in the audience knew exactly what he meant.” 

For the better part of two decades, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had mostly handed its top prize to traditional period pieces with a sweeping dramatic scale: “Chariots of Fire,” “Gandhi,” “Schindler’s List,” “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic,” the list goes on. But “American Beauty”? That was different. A satire about contemporary domesticity that ended with a bitter gunshot didn’t offer the same uplift as, say, “Forrest Gump” and “Shakespeare in Love.” Its rose petals were spiked with thorns, an apt reflection of the country’s ethos after Y2K paranoia and the Columbine shootings. 

Today, “American Beauty” is, by and large, seen as anything but forward-thinking. In the 20 years since it debuted to rapturous reviews and a global $356 million intake, the film’s reputation has tumbled precipitously. What was once a provocative masterstroke now looks like retrograde hooey. Plenty of classics undergo cultural reappraisals as time amends our ideas about what constitutes valuable storytelling, but few have turned into such a widespread punchline.

How “American Beauty” declined is complex, and why it declined will vary based on whose perspective you hear. That’s often the case when something’s prestige shifts without a common denominator to unite the so-called backlash. But this isn’t a routine example of internet hot takes demanding retroactive wokeness, even if the movie raises questionable suggestions about pedophilia, queerness and violence. Nor we can lay the about-face at Kevin Spacey’s feet, even though the actor’s numerous sexual assault allegations color how one might see his character’s rapey proclivities. 

If we look closer, as the movie’s tagline requests, apprehension around “American Beauty” set in fairly quickly, through parodies and national tragedies and many a late-night joke. 

“American Beauty” is the story of Lester Burnham (Spacey), an affluent magazine executive fed up with his corporate career and sexless marriage to an image-conscious real estate agent (Annette Bening). Cue the midlife crisis. Lester quits his job, buys his dream car and develops an infatuation with his teenage daughter’s (Thora Birch) blond cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari) — textbook man-child conduct. Meanwhile, the Burnhams’ new neighbors are a repressed family led by retired Marine Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), whose wife (Allison Janney) is nearly catatonic and whose aforementioned son (Wes Bentley) is a brooding, voyeuristic weed dealer. As their lives intersect, melodrama unfolds.

Alan Ball, who’d written for the sitcoms “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill,” found inspiration for his screenplay in the Amy Fisher scandal, a plastic bag he’d seen blowing in the wind outside the World Trade Center, the six-feet-under narration from “Sunset Boulevard” and his experiences growing up in residential Georgia. DreamWorks, co-founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, bought Ball’s script in April 1998 after a bidding war with rival studios, giving the project instant clout. At the time, Hollywood was drunk on tart suburban satires about white America, from “Edward Scissorhands” and “Serial Mom” to “Pleasantville,” “The Ice Storm” and “The Truman Show.” The following December, cameras were rolling — a fast turnaround by industry standards. First-time film director Sam Mendes, who had recently won acclaim for his Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” sat at the helm. 

By the time “American Beauty” premiered in September 1999 at the Toronto International Film Festival — a key awards-season springboard — the buzz was electric. This was the hot property of the fall, and DreamWorks kept the momentum alive by releasing it in theaters the next month, when it could still ride the festival wave. Worried such dark subject matter wouldn’t play well in heartland malls, the studio initially expected the movie to hit 700 screens. (For comparison, “The Sixth Sense,” released two months earlier, maxed out at approximately 2,800.) But “Beauty” exceeded expectations, climbing to more than 1,500 screens and cementing a position as the year’s Oscar front-runner. 

Most critics gushed over the film, rightly praising Mendes’ sleek pacing and Thomas Newman’s hypnotic score, among other hallmarks. But in revisiting those reviews from the more socially enlightened vantage of 2019, it’s striking how few challenged its dodgy ideas about gender, class and sexuality, given that “American Beauty” would hardly survive the think-piece cycle that now monopolizes pop culture.

First, there’s the Angela Hayes of it all. Angela is the Suvari character, introduced through a gymnasium pom-pom routine that morphs into 42-year-old Lester’s sick fantasy: a striptease ending with rose petals flowing from her chest. Multiple reviews likened Angela to Lolita — she of the famed Vladimir Nabokov novel, told from the voice of an unreliable narrator persuing the titular 12-year-old — but they didn’t treat Lester’s lust as anything more than a personal dilemma. In practice, Angela’s supposed sex appeal galvanizes Lester’s midlife crisis, becoming a device mined for both humor and sensuality. He starts pumping iron to impress her and seeking out juvenile luxuries that defy his wife’s best interest. “American Beauty” doesn’t endorse Lester’s behavior, but it also doesn’t shy away from eroticizing Angela in the name of character development. 

“Is it wrong for a man in his 40s to lust after a teenage girl?” Roger Ebert wrote. “Any honest man understands what a complicated question this is. Wrong morally, certainly, and legally. But as every woman knows, men are born with wiring that goes directly from their eyes to their genitals, bypassing the higher centers of thought. They can disapprove of their thoughts, but they cannot stop themselves from having them.”

Then, there’s Frank Fitts. Presented as a virulent homophobe who fetishizes guns, Frank is revealed at the 11th hour — following a series of misunderstandings that Ebert likened to a “screwball comedy” — to be a closeted gay man. (Ball, who is openly gay, created Frank out of suspicions that his own father was suppressing his homosexuality.)

The denouement of “American Beauty” hinges on this plot twist. Frank, who falsely assumed Lester was having sex with his son, Ricky, attempts to kiss Lester during a rainstorm, only to be rebuffed. Rattled, Lester then decides not to sleep with Angela, a gambit that’s meant to redeem him. When Angela reveals she’s a virgin, he finally sees her as a child instead of a carnal object. She is, in other words, a Freudian tool for a middle-aged loser’s self-discovery. Glimpsing a photo of his family nearby, Lester finally realizes that his life is actually pretty swell. 

But Frank, reveling in his late-breaking self-hatred, sneaks in and kills Lester. All of Lester’s supposed growth was for naught. 

Hardly anyone has sorted out their problems, yet Lester ends the film with pseudo-enlightenment from the afterlife. “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world,” he coos. 

Ball and Mendes were attempting to criticize the materialistic facades that upper-class Americans adopt to preserve manicured reputations. But their ideas about overcoming pedophilia are reductive, and their treatment of gayness as a fatal revelation underlines how much “American Beauty” is a product of its time. 

Even with a bushel of Oscars, including trophies for Ball and Spacey, it quickly became evident that some of the movie’s intended commentary ran skin-deep.

In April 2000, the viewer-voted MTV Movie Awards nominated Spacey and Suvari for Best Kiss, apparently paying no mind to the icky implications of said kiss. Even DreamWorks knew it was a step too far. The studio declined to provide a corresponding clip for the broadcast, not wanting to glorify a plot point that “American Beauty” sought to condemn. MTV subsequently revoked the nomination. (Tellingly, the network’s viewers had nominated a “Lolita” adaptation in the same category the previous year.)

It’s impossible to declare the MTV Movie Awards, of all things, the source of the film’s lapse, but it’s as good a place as any to start. From there, we seemed to gradually accept — to the nebulous extent that any piece of wisdom in a mass-media society can be universal — that “American Beauty” was pretentious, misguided or worse. 

A more robust audit landed in 2001, when “Family Guy” parodied “Beauty” twice during the same season. In one episode, the patriarch Peter is capturing his son with a camcorder when he’s suddenly beguiled by a plastic bag fluttering in the breeze, much like the one Ricky films and obsesses over. Echoing Ricky’s words, Peter says, faux-poetically, “There’s so much beauty in the world it makes my heart burst.” Six episodes later, Peter fantasizes about a blond cheerleader at a sporting event who performs a dance mirroring that of Angela. Her jacket opens, and instead of rose petals, chicken legs soar out. 

An animated TV parody and a minor MTV controversy were enough to plant seeds of discontent, but the downturn’s roots run deeper than anything so ephemeral. In between those two “Family Guy” episodes, Sept. 11 happened. Overnight, we saw the entire world differently. The profound ideas at which “American Beauty” grasped now seemed passé at best and clueless at worst. Here was a saga about blue bloods, whose wealth, education and good looks had bored them to the point of crisis. The class depiction at the center seemed more like low-hanging snark than trenchant analysis. In a roundabout way, Sept. 11 was the beginning of the end for this sort of movie, much like the Vietnam War luring 1970s Hollywood away from the once-prolific Western genre. 

In 2003, with the terrorist attacks’ aftereffects in full swing, Jay Leno hinted at the creeping discomfort of “American Beauty” in a “Tonight Show” monologue, joking that it’s Bill Clinton’s favorite movie. “Isn’t that odd?” Leno asked. “A distinguished president like Bill Clinton, his favorite film is about a guy trapped in a loveless marriage who’s obsessed with having sex with a young girl.” (In fact, Clinton did at least once publicly express admiration for “American Beauty,” calling it “amazing” in a 2000 interview with Ebert, when the Monica Lewinsky uproar was still fresh. He failed to see his own irony.)



Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in “American Beauty.”

In 2005, Premiere magazine listed “Beauty” as one of the 20 most overrated American movies of all time. Even in a pre-Twitter era, the list was clearly designed to be contrarian, considering “The Wizard of Oz,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Nashville” were among its selections. Nonetheless, the tide had officially shifted. People were looking closer. Amid the 2008 recession, when the intersection of capitalism and culture rewrote Hollywood’s norms for better and worse, its obsoletion intensified. 

In the years since, everyone has joined the “American Beauty” backlash bandwagon. At least that’s how it feels. Everyone, that is, except Katy Perry, who earnestly invoked the movie when she sang “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” on her 2010 megahit “Firework.” Perry hadn’t gotten the message, but “Broad City” and “Inside Amy Schumer” did. Both shows lightly mocked the overwrought bag scene during their respective debut seasons. 

Years after critics had professed their love, the media fully reversed course. A 2012 list published on the website Complex called it one of the 10 “most heavy-handed message movies.” In 2014, IndieWire wrote, “A victim, perhaps, of its own overhyping, Sam Mendes’ film is by no means bad, it’s just hard to remember now quite what — aside from Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening’s caustically toxic performances and a terrific, often overlooked Chris Cooper — we all collectively lost our shit over.” The same year, Entertainment Weekly published a piece headlined “Examining ‘American Beauty’ at 15: A masterpiece, or a farce?” A 2015 episode of the podcast The Canon found critics Amy Nicholson and Devin Faraci excoriating the film. 

As deeper understandings of sexual abuse, income inequality and gender imbalances have come to dominate the national consciousness, “American Beauty” has been stamped out in conjunction. When actor Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of sexually harassing him at age 14, the Lester Burnham parallels were glaring. And when other Hollywood men were exposed as power-hungry deviants who preyed on young women, the image of Angela as one guy’s private reverie became a token of unchecked ghoulishness. Art faded to artifice. 

On top of all that discourse, time has shown just how wonderful 1999 was for movies. (Truly: The book “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen,” by Brian Rafferty, came out this past April.) In a period with “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” The Sixth Sense,” “The Matrix,” “Election,” “Magnolia,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “The Best Man,” “The Blair Witch Project” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” it’s hard to call “American Beauty” superior. Handing Best Picture to something whose biggest cinematic impact involves snickering and divisiveness now looks like a fool’s errand. “Election,” for instance, has more to say about suburban ennui and male folly; “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is far more astute when it comes to wealth mobility. 

Still, there’s something compelling about the trajectory of the “American Beauty” backlash that inadvertently makes the movie more worthwhile, too. Most significant cultural reconsiderations in the 21st century ferment online, often in relation to scandals. But this one started on television, in magazines, around water coolers, throughout the ethos. The entertainment landscape is more splintered than ever, yet we can somehow rally behind this film’s changed legacy. Audiences may have known exactly what Ricky Fitts meant in 1999, but they also know exactly what he means ― and what he doesn’t ― today.