Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #50
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: September 17, 1999
Genre: Character Study
Country: United States
Box Office: $356,296,601
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Sam Mendes
Producers: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks
Screenplay: Alan Ball
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Score: Thomas Newman
Editing: Tariq Anwar, Christopher Greenbury
Studio: Jinks/Cohen Company
Distributor: Dream Works Pictures
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards, Barry Del Sherman
Suggested Audio Candy:
1. Thomas Newman “Dead Already
2. “Thomas Newman “Arose
3. “Thomas Newman “American Beauty”
What is the first thing you think of when you wake up each morning? I can’t actually supply you with an answer to that poser as, until that first shot of caffeine passes my lips, I’m little more than a lobotomized lab monkey. However, if you were to inform me the night previous that the next day would be my last on earth, then I haven’t the faintest concept of how that would feel. A day can pass pretty fast by the time you reach middle age, so how those final few hours would be spent is also a mystery to me. I’m fairly assured that I would knock up a 24-hour bucket list and attempt to cram as much activity into that time as humanly possible. However, as those last few grains of sand filter through the hourglass and I prepare myself for come what may, I think I’d just want to slow down and take in the beauty all around me. That is easier said than done when the world appears to be full of pain and anguish but, when the small hand approaches that final hour, I don’t think it would present such a challenge.
Today is a particularly special day, not because it’s my last (or if it is then nobody has informed me), but because this represents my fiftieth appraisal as Keeper of The Crimson Quill. I pondered long and hard on which film to plump for to mark the occasion and knew that it had to be something that resonates with me on a deep personal level. Moreover, it had to be a piece of art that defined its genre, a real showstopper. When it finally came to me, I knew in an instant that there could be no other film better suited to my first checkpoint beacon. You see, films like Sam Mendes’s American Beauty arrive at sparing junctures in your existence. While it may be an American-made film about an American family, something resonates profoundly with this particular Englishman and I believe it transcends its Americanized roots to appeal to anybody in possession of human insight.
Screenwriter Alan Ball is a man whom I would gladly donate the shirt from my back as this beautiful mind provided me the most stirring piece of creative fiction ever committed to celluloid in my opinion – the mercurial Six Feet Under. The long running series broke a whole barrel-load of taboos and I have one to hand right now. I had always felt uneasy about the sight of two men kissing but, through not treating it any different to a normal heterosexual relationship, he challenged me to accept it. This, in turn, made me question my stance and broke down a particularly stubborn barrier of my own construction. Ball writes what most of us can’t or won’t even accept in ourselves and I believe it takes a writer truly comfortable in their membrane to successfully achieve this.
By the turn of the new millennium, things were beginning to change. Folk were ready to sit up and listen and Ball seized his chance with tenacity. There is so much narrow-mindedness and singularity in the world we inhabit and knowing that an author like Ball can cut through the bullshit and tell it with such unwavering honesty helps me rest easy in my bed each night. When Mendes held his pitch-perfect screenplay in his clammy hands, he must’ve felt as though he’d been entrusted with a holy grail of sorts although he really needn’t have concerned himself as he translates the words to screen quite beautifully. American Beauty is one of those rare exceptional pieces of art that faultlessly encapsulates the sense of life passing you by and the realization that the ones in your life that you treasure most are becoming more alienated with you with every passing day.
It focuses on suburbanite Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a fairly unexceptional middle-aged man arriving at a distinct crossroads in his transience. Working for a boss he loathes in a profession that kills a little more of his spirit every day, matrimonially paired with a woman who appears to have misplaced her passion for both life and him, and with an insubordinate daughter who resents both of her parents equally – Lester is feeling exceptionally alone, regardless of how many people are around him at any given time.
Chronicling a handful of days, he begins his overture in the shower with one hand pressed against the wall, strangulating his member . No Bad Lieutenant-style chanting, just one man and his cock, going hell for leather. Today is not like a normal day for Lester as his desire is for this particular day to differ from the slew of carbon copies recently passed. It just so happens that he desires to start today with ejaculate and, fair play to him, as convenient drainage saves time. This spirited solo act leaves him feeling invigorated like he’s wanked out his burden and I know of said burden only too well.
Men often find it difficult to face up to their expressive side. We don’t face our demons naturally and, instead, we compartmentalize them. Indeed, I sleepwalked through the past twenty years of my own mortality so at this early juncture we connected. It doesn’t take long for me to tune into another soul if its frequency is in tune with my own and, barely a minute in, I already spotted much in Lester that I could relate to myself. I prefer to refer to it as the gift of insight although, like Roddy Piper’s shades, it can reveal more than you bargained for.
Ball opts against focusing on Lester’s melancholy and instead shows him revitalized as he progressively regresses back to a carefree teenager. He smokes weed, quits his job in favor of a part-time post in a fast food restaurant and starts working on his guns in an attempt to halt the slide. This infuriates his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) who suggests that he has his head in the clouds and also his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) who, like any adolescent teenager, finds it all very disheartening that her father is revisiting his childhood when he should know better. However, Lester feels positively buoyant and there is a reason for his eagerness.
You see, he has become infatuated with Jane’s narcissistic cheerleader friend Angela (Mena Suvari) and developed a school boy crush on the young girl after watching her perform a dance routine at a high school basketball game. Moreover, his new-found self-assurance enables him to flirt with her outrageously at every available opportunity, much to his daughter’s disgust. Egotistical in the extreme and seemingly brimming with self-assurance, Angela delivers him back to a place where his whole life was ahead of him.
While Angela is grateful for his attentiveness, she is also secretly covetous of Jane’s flowering bond with neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) and more than aware of how this needles her “best friend”. To Lester’s delight, she welcomes his every advance and the sexual magnetism continues to build between them. Ball tackles this potentially thorny topic respectfully and their exchanges are handled with great sensitivity. At no point do his actions come across as even the least bit sinister, and the moment where he learns of her well-disguised naivety, Lester disregards his inner pubescence and acts both dutifully and compassionately.
Indeed, every character portrayed here is a little lost and none more so than Ricky. He is a multifaceted and profoundly troubled young man, living under an oppressive dictatorship run by his totalitarian father Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) and adhered to by his introverted wife Barbara (Allison Janney). While understated, her silence speaks volumes and, of all the characters explored, hers is perhaps the most tragic non-life depiction. Barbara has long since given up on her own aspirations and resigned herself to an existence, nothing more. Meanwhile, Frank’s hard-line approach to running a tight ship masks his own self-contempt and is just as well realized.
While Ricky’s regimented home life is far from charmed, he finds himself when behind the lens of a camera and his voyeurism is not perverse but stirring. Knowing his inner anguish, it is simple to empathize with him. Intoxicated by the natural beauty around him, Ricky is comfortable in his skin and remains largely muted throughout as he prefers to observe rather than articulate. This fascinates Jane who, brimming with suppressed angst, finds herself drawn to his gentle soul. Consequently, their scenes together are full of sexual yearning but also genuine warmth.
However, her relationship with her father is another matter entirely. Not quite beyond renovation, it is undoubtedly fragmented and she feels forsaken by her one-time role model. As her body has developed, she has felt increasingly misunderstood and father and daughter have long since become estranged, which tears Lester up inside more than anything else as he is desperate to regain her affection. He is not alone as her relationship with her mother is fractured too and Carolyn is an altogether different kettle of fish.
She has lost her spark and become seduced by material goods and a shallow existence offered by a man whose eyebrows are far too dense to trust, successful rival realtor Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Carolyn is a far cry from the care-free girl who Lester fell in love with. That said, whilst a million miles from her significant other, she is undertaking her own journey to reclaim it just as he is. Repeatedly misunderstood to be the villain of the piece, she is actually anything but and, when backs are turned, still possesses the exuberance and vitality that is seen to be sorely lacking.
Every one of these souls is lost and, while all threads dangle independently, they are each inexplicably linked. This is where Ball’s insightful writing comes to the forefront as he refuses to single out any one character as beyond redemption. Some we can identify with effortlessly, others less so, but none are presented to us purely in black and white. Even the most contemptible unfurl their petals at some point, while the most fragrant reveal thorns when we lean in to inspect them further. This is tied in exquisitely with the emblematic roses that are a recurring theme throughout.
While the performers breathe life into their characters universally, make no mistake, it is our narrator who possesses the most beautifully earth-shattering perspective. With great conviction and wearing a winning smile that lights up the screen like a raver’s glow stick, Spacey simply oozes Lester and is fully deserving of the Best Actor Oscar that the role earned him. On a personal level, I see much of myself in his character as I’ve been on a prescribed anti-depressant for the past seven months now, designed to top up my brain’s deficient Serotonin levels and this has left me feeling more numb than ever. I love my family dearly but have started to feel like an apparition slowly fading into insignificance. However, when I spare a thought for Lester Burnham, I realize that I still have time.
There are so many reasons why this film resonates with me aside from Ball’s perceptive screenplay and the profound performances of the cast. Director of photography Conrad Hall captures each beauty and breakdown meticulously and works with Mendes to breathe life into an expansive suburban setting that is, in turn, both homely and unwelcoming. Meanwhile, Thomas Newman’s score is truly second to none and there simply aren’t enough words to chronicle its impact. Sparse, flourishing, stimulating, sobering, hopeful, shattering – his arrangements wrap around the visuals like a fine mink glove and, without them, it just wouldn’t be the same.
American Beauty has the ability to make you laugh from the pit of your stomach whilst feeling a twinge of pain in your hub in the precise same moment. While I have felt a personal attachment to many films, few have whisked me away so effortlessly and Mendes succeeds in elucidating every solitary word from Ball’s draft stunningly. Together this patchwork of broken dreams manages to touch its addressee’s core and for reasons individual to each of us. I urge anyone approaching the perfidious forties, nay any age, to explore this rose-strewn wonder of a motion picture. From its sturdy stem to its magnificent unfurling buds, it is a thing of pure American Beauty.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Keeper of the Crimson Quill
Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2016)