American_Beauty_posterI put off watching this movie for a while – I won’t lie. A movie I deeply loved when it came out and several times subsequently. It was quite honestly daunting and disturbing to me to think about sitting down to watch a film in which Kevin Spacey, an actor we now know (through the bravery of fifteen people and counting) to have sexually assaulted and violated people in their teens and early twenties throughout his career, lusts after a teenager.

In the era of #MeToo, silences are being broken and people are feeling less afraid to name behavior many of us as survivors have known for decades. People in positions of powerful often abuse that power and prey on others. #MeToo and #TimesUp are helping to shed light where it has been desperately needed.

This cultural moment sadly made me remember all the experiences of sexual assault and abuse I’ve had, particularly as a woman who ran a label and played in bands for years. I am heartbroken to say that more than once I have been sexually assaulted or abused by men within the world of music I have treasured so completely. I know what power imbalances look like. I’ve been public in some cases, and kept it quieter in others. Hearing all of the people currently coming forward has flooded me with memories – and in some cases I’ve chosen to revisit some of those past violations with those who perpetrated them. I often feel like it is a wonder I wasn’t run off from music completely – and I know I am not the only one.

As you can imagine, I might not be in the mood to watch Spacey drool over his teenage daughter’s friend amidst the tedium of his life in the suburbs. Drab and gray, his character Lester Burnham hasn’t felt alive in years in this film until he encounters his teenage daughter Jane’s friend Angela. Annette Bening is Spacey’s co-star in the film, playing his materialistic, Type A wife Carolyn. Their marriage has become miserable and loveless at the outset of this depiction, directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball.

Yes, Kevin Spacey has recently been revealed as a real life creep, even creepier than the creep he portrays in this movie. So yet again we have another guy who is long on talent, short on decency. Apart from distaste of the lead actor, and how the ickier aspects of his character mirror his actual misdeeds, I’ve been looking forward to rewatching this for a while. I’ve heard it pointed at as a movie whose luster has worn away with the passing years. I’ve seen it on some “most overrated” lists and the hosts of The Canon podcast were savage in their assessment, calling it “an art film for the mall” and a relic of a pre-9-11 time when our greatest fear was that we’d be bored at work. I remember being so thrilled with it during its theatrical run. Was it dazzling only to the callow eyes of youth? Is it time for a reassessment?

Where do I come down close to two decades later? Somewhere in the middle. There is a theatrical staginess that often comes across as stiff and artificial. If three characters sit down for a meal, they will seat themselves in a horseshoe formation facing the fourth wall. And, at least during the exposition phase, the people seem more like wooden caricatures. In some scenes the actors don’t ever appear in the frame together, which I get is supposed to highlight their alienation, but it makes me wonder if they actually filmed their lines at the same time. It just feels…like I said, stiff and artificial. Then there are the famous fantasy sequences. With their lingering slow motion and reverse cuts, they just struck me as comical- unintentionally so, I think.

The second half is where American Beauty seems to find its legs. At some point, the characters seem more fully realized, and the movie stops feeling like it’s making an intentional effort to be something. That’s when it becomes more like the movie I remember experiencing, one that is engrossing and at times very funny.

I think this is a good moment to mention I put out a record on my label Exotic Fever of a band called Rickyfitts, named for one of the seminal characters in the movie. Ricky is the next door neighbor weirdo, the strange guy who keeps recording Jane in her room. Angela mocks him for being a freak, but Jane is fascinated with him. It turns out that he is thoughtful and kind, and looks at the world in all its pain and beauty. She feels more seen and alive with him than she does anywhere else in her life, and the two start dating.

Meanwhile, Lester also admires Ricky and comes to life in his presence. He also enjoys some weed with him and from him. Lester is inspired by the fact that Ricky says and does whatever he wants, and lives his life on his own terms. Lester’s work makes him miserable, as does his marriage. He is trapped in a hell of his own making, and he decides – after spending time with free spirit Ricky – to break out of that hell and live more of his truth.

Ricky’s father, however, catches wind of their burgeoning friendship and is much less happy with it – additionally, he seems to misunderstand the nature of it entirely. He is a Marine Corps captain who is rigid and violent with Ricky, often volleying insults like “faggot” at his son. He is full of rage and his own pain – and we learn at the movie’s end a bit more about why. I don’t want to ruin the film for anyone who might watch it, but I will say that Ricky’s dad is one of the most realistic characters I have ever seen depicted in a film. Sad, but real.

Discussing Wes Bentley’s Ricky brings me back to my initial viewing. Watching the young cast of American Beauty, we thought we were looking at the next generation of big stars. In retrospect not so much, just career mismanagement, substance abuse and American Pie movies. But Bentley really does play Ricky with a perfect balance of empathy and unnerving intensity.  

Within the space of about a year there were a cluster of movies that shared similar thematic material, not to mention a few plot elements. American Beauty, Fight Club and Office Space all feature white male protagonists dissatisfied with their white-collar careers. The stories diverge wildly, but all three share a scene wherein the protagonist vicariously fulfills the fantasy of every cubicle worker by dramatically quitting their job, consequences be damned. Where was this white man (this blogger) while all this was going on? I was in the process of aging out of school and being fed by the conveyor belt into the workforce. I didn’t know what it would be like, but was pretty certain it would be boring and demoralizing, so these stories of middle class ennui had a real resonance for me.

Welp, I certainly hope I don’t resemble Lester’s wife Carolyn, then, Mouse!!! I think I had forgotten that there was any kind of American Pie connection here. That is unfortunate for sure. I would also say there is a bit of a Donnie Darko feel to this film, particularly as concerns Bentley and his portrayal of Ricky.

The final montage of the film is really beautiful to me, even though I struggled to stomach Spacey. The bag spinning in the wind is, of course, indelible. I don’t know why it makes you feel things. I don’t know if Ricky Fitts himself knew – but it does. Boy, it does.

All these years later, I still don’t know if Ricky is a sensitive young man profoundly affected by the aesthetics of his surroundings or if he is so burnt he fixates on blowing trash. He does deliver a wonderful speech, though. The scene where the movie comes together for me is the scene where Angela does a sexy dance in Jane’s bedroom window to tease Ricky, and Ricky zooms him camera past her, to Jane’s face in a mirror. His obsessive watching is not just sleazy voyeurism, but an earnest search for beauty.

And no, Katy, there’s no comparing you to the distant and materialistic Carolyn (wait, you’re not comparing me to Lester?!?!). The person I was dating in 1999 wasn’t anything like Carolyn either, no she was caring and decent. I sincerely hope I am not like Lester, but I did relate to his dissatisfied sense of discomfort in the world, an outlook my then-partner never really grasped. Not for lack of trying, it just wasn’t were she was. As dissimilar as we were from the characters in this movie, there was a sense of distance and resultant resentment there that I could absolutely see as a part of my own possible future. Anyway, that’s why I married another punk.

A lot of people had a hard time with this movie, being understandably turned off by Lester’s character (and Spacey’s real-life behavior has not helped). Yes, he comes disturbingly close to doing a bad thing, and but for Angela’s admission of sexual inexperience he likely would have. But to me that’s what drama is: fortuitous events occur in the plot which guide the character to develop through their arc. In no way do I want to present Lester Burnham as admirable. But I do find the culmination of his story- when he seems to reach a level of self-understanding and ultimately rejects the worst parts of himself- as satisfying in the context of the film. So even if American Beauty isn’t the Great American Movie we’d wanted it to be, I enjoyed it enough this time around to make it worth rewatching.

Also nominated in 1999:
The Cider House Rules
The Green Mile
The Insider
The Sixth Sense

Next film: UNFORGIVEN (1992)

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