Monday, 6 May 2013

1999 Blog Series - American Beauty

How appropriate that the poster for American Beauty invited audiences to "look closer."  



This picture is simply a classic sexual tease that really catches the eye of the voyeur searching for something illicit, but there is much more.  Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty, is that voyeur.  As a baby boomer he was raised on sexual liberation and the carefree days of free love, but for Lester those days are far in the past.  Burnham longs for something more in his life and turns to lust to fill it.  Lester hasn't expereinced any sort of intimacy with his wife for a very long time and turns to a high school girl to help him fulfill some of his emptiness.

The rose petals throughout the story always come back to the innocence and purity of the cheerleader
Oscar winning screen writer Alan Ball Purposely provoked audiences, saying, " A Puritan would look at his visions of angels and go, 'Oh, that's disgusting, a middle-aged man lusting over a young girl like that.' I look at that and I go, 'You know, here's a man who hasn't felt anything for years, and all of a sudden he's feeling something.  That's not disgusting.  His choice not to follow through with it redeems him, because she's not really the goal, she's the knock on the door.  And I didn't even know that myself when I wrote the first draft of the script."

"Look closer" also suggests peering behind the "perfect" families populating the world around us.  The white picket fence just disguise the dissatisfaction rumbling between husband and wife, parents and child and brother and sister.  Certainly, next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts suffers in silence like his mute mother.  Both are constantly living in fear of his military father, Colonel Frank Fitts. Alan Ball recalls, "I grew up in a household with a somewhat troubled father figure and somewhat sutdown mother figure, so Ricky's household certainly resembles mine in ways."

This is a role Chris Cooper plays to perfection
 What really lifts American Beauty from the disturbing and often ugly forefront is Ricky Fitt's ability to "look closer."  Ricky celebrates a fragile beauty in a broken world.  His videotaping allows him to see the world beyond the horror of his family life.  He shows Jane the most beautiful thing he has ever captured on tape.  The random freedom of a plastic bag blowing effortlessly in the wind serves as reason for him to carry on.


American Beauty did not win best picture because it was satire.  In fact, director Sam Mendes actually had to trim down the original satirical bite in Ball's original screenplay.  Mendes made American Beauty a meditation on truth, beauty and transcendence.  Everyday it seems new tragedy and new heartache befall us.  Yet we are in a generation who continues to find beauty amidst tragedy, like the runners who immediately ran to the hospital to donate blood following the Boston Marathon bombings.  Daily we are able to see the depths of human compassion dive straight into the tragedies of the day sometimes to see the beauty all we have to do is "look closer."