Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
What did we do to deserve a year in film as excellent as 1999? By this point, most cinephiles and critics are at consensus that the final year of the 1990s is one of the finest when it comes to consistent cinematic output. Just ask a group of movie buffs what their ‘99 favorite is and you’ll likely end up with a variety of laudable choices. With available titles like Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix and Being John Malkovich, among a list of plenty of worthy contenders that could fill the rest of this column, there really are no wrong answers. However, one answer has been seemingly grown more “wrong” in the 20 years since it took home Best Picture: Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.
By the time the 72nd Academy Awards arrived in March of 2000, the film was a critical and commercial hit, grossing over $350 million worldwide against a $15 million budget and scoring rave reviews in the process. It was a heavy favorite to take home the majority of the 8 awards for which it was nominated and indeed that came to pass, as it won in 5 categories including the top prize. When you look at the rest of the Best Picture field that year (The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense), it’s not difficult to see how a film like American Beauty would stand apart. In a group of films helmed by seasoned directors, with Shyamalan as a notable exception, it was the rabble-rousing new kid on the block that Academy voters were eager to champion.
So what’s become of American Beauty’s legacy since then? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the cultural conversation turned against its favor, aside from its initial detractors. As early as 2005, Premiere Magazine cited it as one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time,” even though that list also included truly unimpeachable offerings like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantasia. Since then, social media has allowed for a total relitigation of the film, years removed from the rapturous response from revered film critics like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. It also goes without saying that after September 11th, the Great Recession and the country’s continuing political polarization, American Beauty’s concerns may read as trivial in retrospect.
But aside from the cataclysmic cultural shifts that have transpired, perhaps the most damning contribution to American Beauty’s decline has been the 2017 sexual misconduct allegations against Best Actor winner Kevin Spacey. With 15 accusers in counting, 3 of whom were victims of suicide last year alone, the assertions are troubling to say the very least. This along with a pair of confounding YouTube videos, in which Spacey gives cryptic advice as his House of Cards character Frank Underwood, has all but guaranteed that Spacey will never work in Hollywood again. Ridley Scott even scrubbed Spacey entirely from his 2017 film All The Money In The World, replacing him with Christopher Plummer merely a month before the release date.
These revelations about Spacey’s conduct make the film more difficult to revisit, especially given that much of the plot centers around Spacey’s Lester lusting after an underage girl. Recently rewatching the film for the first time in many years, I did my best to set the current context aside and watch as if it were 1999. In doing so, I was quite surprised with how much of American Beauty does hold up 20 years after its release. In his first screenplay for a feature film, Alan Ball shrewdly etches each of the main characters with a sardonic humor that still gives each of them their own unique voice and perspective. Its takes on middle-age malaise and suburban strife may not seem especially novel today but few films were investigating these themes as boldly as this one at the time of its release.
In his feature debut, Sam Mendes (who won Best Director back in 2000 and will likely do so again for 1917 on Sunday) showcases an impressive command of the form in the film’s opening moments. He lays out the plight of his put-upon protagonist along with his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane with cutting cynicism and economical editing. I was struck with just how much Mendes juggles thematically in this film, between the exploration of sexuality, materialism, homophobia, loss of identity and mortality. These are obviously touchy subjects for American cinema and Mendes pulls off the balance even better than I remembered.
Even if Mendes’ tale of middle class ennui doesn’t resonate with viewers, there’s enough technical prowess behind the camera to keep one engaged throughout. Thomas Newman’s still iconic musical score utilizes sensitive tuned percussion and lilting piano to counteract the dispassionate and glib tone of the film. In one of his last films before his passing in 2003, cinematographer Conrad Hall does career-best work with beautiful shot compositions and a sedate color palette that allows the color red to pop. He also throws in clever visual metaphors, as when Lester’s computer monitor at work captures his reflection against lines of code that resemble bars of a jail cell.
From Fight Club to Office Space, corporate imprisonment and subsequent liberation was a popular theme among 1999 films and it’s not difficult to see why. We were at the brink of a new millennium, with a host of new fears and anxieties at our doorstep. Y2K put us on high alert and in some ways, it feels like we never came down from it. The only escape, the film posits, is finding purpose and beauty in this world, even if its in observing an innocuous plastic bag dancing in the wind. Perhaps American Beauty is more pretentious in investigating this philosophy than some would like but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a closer look.