The Best Picture Winners: American Beauty (1999)

| January 29, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 32 days and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

When I began working on this project six-months ago, I had no way to know that by the time I arrived at American Beauty – the millennium’s last Best Picture winner – that it would be so acutely uncomfortable for the time in which its number came up.  But, here it is, a movie about a 40 year-old man suffering a mid-life crisis capped by a raging lust for one of his daughter’s 17 year-old classmates, and it just happens to land on this Best Picture project at the very moment that the careers and reputations of many of Hollywood’s producers and leading men are falling like dominoes under allegations of sexual misconduct.  Added to that, the lustful man is played by . . . Kevin Spacey.

How do I deal with this movie critically?  I’m not in the business of throwing a movie to the dogs because time has made a fool of its subject matter.  But I have to acknowledge that in revisiting the film for this project, I approached it feeling reasonably uncomfortable.  Can I separate this film made 19 years ago from the current situation in Hollywood?  Yes, but it isn’t easy.

American Beauty was actually more appropriate for the times in which it was made.  Here was a movie coming out at the end of the century that portrayed the American family with the tenderness of a rock fight; of people who are selfish and out of step with themselves and their world.  It would seem to have been a by-product of the Me Generation, a portrait of people who are so lost in their own heads that they can’t see the chaos reigning around them.  There is the wife (Annette Bening) whose career aspirations are robbing her of any sense of external pride.  There’s the rebellious daughter (Thora Birch) who wants breast implants despite the fact that she clearly doesn’t need them.  And there is the neo-Nazi next door (Chris Cooper) whose allegiance is a cover for an even darker secret.

All of these elements work well but the elephant in the room is still present.  Spacey was extremely  popular at the moment and would remain so for the next decade and a half, but how does one approach this film in the awake of a scandal so close to the film’s subject matter.  The only way that I can deal with that is to suggest letting time be the judge.  The wound in Spacey’s career – and the careers of many men in Hollywood – are in question.  It may be wise to come back in another decade and see were we are.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.