Look closer: 15 years of ‘American Beauty’

Hunter Goddard

“American Beauty” movie poster

Uploaded onto Netflix this month, Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty,” turned 15 years old this past year. It earned Steven Spielberg’s then-fledgling DreamWorks Pictures their first Academy Award for Best Picture, and it was the most praised film of 1999.

However, in 2005, “Premiere” listed it among the 20 most overrated movies of all time.


Both sides of the debate are extreme, but both have a point.

You may have heard of “American Beauty” in Mac Miller’s featured verse on Ariana Grande’s “The Way.” Miller’s namedropping of the film implies that it is a romantic comedy. It is certainly not romantic, and, though it is satirical, it is more tragic than comedic.

Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning, pre-“House of Cards” role, plays Lester Burnham, an unhappy, middle-aged suburbanite who develops an obsession with a teenage girl (Mena Suvari).

Meanwhile, Lester’s wife, Carolyn (Annette Benning), has an affair, and Lester’s angst-ridden daughter, Jane (a 16-year-old Thora Birch), falls in love with their mysterious neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley, before his scene-stealing “Hunger Games” beard).

The film’s strengths lie in Thomas Newman’s heavenly musical score, Alan Ball’s Greek tragedy of a screenplay and Spacey’s performance. His final line, spoken in voice-over narration when the film cuts to black, is simply haunting.

As for Mendes, his background in directing for the stage has lent to his meticulous mise-en-scène. His passion for the subject matter is clear, having gone on to direct a similar film in 2008: “Revolutionary Road,” with then-wife Kate Winslet and “Titanic” costar Leonardo DiCaprio.

The cinematography by “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” cinematographer Conrad Hall, is nothing short of stunning, and resulted in WatchMojo ranking it on their top 10 list of most beautiful non-CGI films.

Now, all that being said, “American Beauty” is not without its flaws. Although Lester is a complex character who forces you to sympathize with him despite his pedophilic tendencies, Carolyn is the stereotypically uptight, overworked, control freak real estate agent.

All her problems are solved by having sex with another man, one of several problematic gender representations in this film. Ricky, who films Jane from his bedroom window without her consent, still gets the girl at the end.

Though the ending is not necessarily happy, it is at odds with the cynical tone behind Ball’s script, inspired by the 1992 “Long Island Lolita” trial of then 17-year-old Amy Fisher for the attempted murder of her lover’s wife.


Between the reception of this film and AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” midlife crisis narratives appear to have quite the niche in Hollywood, perhaps symptomatic of a cultural industry dominated by old, white men.

Like all beautiful things, “American Beauty” is flawed. Like the rose for which it is named, it has its thorns.

We turn to entertainment when we need to reminding that there is beauty in the world, and, aesthetically and spiritually, “American Beauty” reminds us, if only for a little while.

Collegian A&E Writer Hunter Goddard can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @hunter_gaga.