Movies & TV

The Troubled Legacy of American Beauty, 20 Years On

Society has changed since 1999, and with it our notions of what constitutes daring, clever or even acceptable.

American Beauty opens with Kevin Spacey masturbating in the shower. “This will be the high point of my day,” he tells us from beyond the grave. “It’s all downhill from here.”

Twenty years on from the release of a film that charmed viewers, critics and awards boards in equal measure, it’s possible to read those few short seconds as the movie—and its subsequent fall from grace—in microcosm. At the time, it was a wryly funny, edgy dissection of masculinity in crisis. These days, it looks suspiciously like the story of a middle-aged pervert indulging his crudest instincts, wallowing in self-pity and, at the end of it all, being granted heartwarming redemption.


Over the past two decades, it’s fair to say that the consensus on American Beauty has undergone something of a U-turn—and not just because of the disgraced reputation of its star. When it was released, it was prized for its bold fusion of poignancy and cynical humor. "Intelligent, exhilarating, effervescent film-making" was the Guardian’s verdict that went on to hoover up a glittering array of Golden Globes, Baftas and Oscars (14 in total) in the best year for Hollywood film-making since the 70s golden age. More recently, though, it has tended to be filed alongside Driving Miss Daisy and Crash on the list of cringe-inducing Academy darlings: soap-opera trash masquerading as serious cinema, its script populated by paper-thin characters who wouldn’t know plausibility if it parked in their immaculately graveled driveway. And from the vantage point of 2019, it’s a film with Hollywood’s worst tendencies all in evidence: predatory sexual behavior, gay panic, an all-white cast—and the irresistible urge to pat itself on the back for being so damn smart. Right?


Certainly society has changed since 1999, and with it our notions of what constitutes daring, clever or even acceptable. But is American Beauty really now exempt from all those categories? Do its merits not still count for something? Should we be ashamed of ever liking it in the first place?

What’s certain is that, in the time-honored sleeper-hit tradition, the film succeeded because it captured a moment in the zeitgeist. Even better, it did so in two ways. First, it capped a spate of dark satires—coming after Happiness, Election, Office Space and Fight Club – on how the cheery aspirationalism of America’s baby-boomers had borne a generation of self-loathing losers. (In that regard the film is something of a quaint relic: in that brief window between the second gulf war and 9/11, the moneyed misery of suburbanites qualified as an urgent national crisis.)

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Getty Images.

And second, coming out at the same year as The Sopranos started, it presaged a decade-and-a-half stretch where the brooding male antihero was the height of pop-culture profundity. Whether it was disgruntled mafia bosses, drug-dealing schoolteachers, philandering ad execs or—in Lester Burnham’s case—dope-smoking office workers, these guys were all terrified of the same emasculating thing: midlife domesticity. They were angry, confused and morally compromised, an antidote to the clean-cut hero of years past. We lapped it up.

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Recent events have given us reason to rethink the importance of all that. Having since seen the crippling poverty caused by cavalier bankers, the endless harrowing testimonies of the MeToo movement and—yes—the rise to power of Donald Trump, it’s become fairly clear that there are bigger problems in the world than the bruised ego of a lecherous middle-aged white guy.

Yet that doesn't mean the film’s themes are redundant now, nor even misread at the time. Lester’s lusting after his teenage daughter’s schoolmate might these days inspire a slightly higher level of nausea, but it was never meant to be an innocent pursuit. That was kind of the point. In fact, watch the film today and its most glaring weaknesses—the ripe-for-parody twinkly score, the faux-profound narration, the screwball misconstrual that leads to Lester’s murder—are all things that should have looked silly at the time. Likewise, its better elements, namely the scenery-chewing performances of Spacey and Annette Bening, are just as good as they ever were, even if it's not quite as nice to admit it.

It’s true that a film which was instantly labeled a modern classic now looks neither very modern nor much of a classic. “Look closer” was the film’s tagline and in hindsight, it perhaps encapsulated its flaws, too: a bit too smug, a bit too pretentious, hinting at a depth that wasn’t really there. But on a more basic level, the movie is much like the white-picket neighborhood in which it’s set: perfectly presentable—even if the dazzling hype of the time does now look a bit overblown. What’s indisputable is that Spacey got it spot-on all those years ago: it was all downhill from there.


This story originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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