20 Years Later, How "American Beauty" lost the title of 1999’s best movie
Given the wealth of great movies that were released back in 1999 and the general 1990s-era tastes of the Academy Awards, it was probably inevitable that the year’s Best Picture winner wouldn’t work as a satisfying long-term historical record of excellence. But it still feels galling that one of the best movie years of the past few decades somehow wound up with the darkly comic, semi-satirical suburban-angst drama American Beauty as its representative. In the year of The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, and Magnolia, among others, the Oscar goes to a movie about how a cartoonishly put-upon suburban dad gets a new lease on life when he realizes he wants to fuck his teenage daughter’s best friend? Another classic Academy blunder!share
Most contemporary Oscar backlashes, though, are well underway by the time the nominations are announced; American Beauty seems to have taken a bit longer to curdle in the minds of film lovers. Its current also-ran status is striking because back at the end of 1999 and into early 2000 when the awards were held, American Beauty was, if anything, a hip year-end choice, at least relative to the options given. It followed many years of period-piece winners (the first fully present-set Best Picture since Silence Of The Lambs); it was the feature debut for director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball; its closest competition was generally considered to be The Cider House Rules, a movie that could make just about anything look fresh and exciting by comparison.
Released as it was before a relative youthquake in the field of film criticism, American Beauty wasn’t just a hit and an award-winner. It was a critical favorite, too. Roger Ebert awarded it four stars; plenty of other smart critics were similarly moved. I wasn’t a professional critic back then, much less part of any awards-giving body. But I can testify that as a movie-obsessed list-maker, I was moved, too, enough to see American Beauty four times in the theater and place it way up on the year-end list that I composed solely for the purposes of emailing to friends and family. Suffice to say that when I made a new top 15 for the A.V. Club’s 1999 Week, American Beauty didn’t make the cut.
Even setting aside the 1999 movies I missed at the time and those that grew further in my esteem since then, there are plenty of reasons to omit American Beauty 20 years later. There’s the superficial discomfort of watching Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) lust after a teenage girl—not because it is behavior the movie endorses, but because Spacey himself has since been alleged to have preyed upon teenagers. That storyline, like so many others in the film, is rendered with a heavy hand, lingering on Lester’s rose-petal-filled reveries over Angela (Mena Suvari), and chased with genuine sexism in the way that Lester receives depth and shading not afforded to his even more caricatured wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening). This leads smoothly into the movie’s parade of sometimes-smug suburban-reversal clichés: The cheerful wife is a status-driven careerist hanging by a thread; the girl who presents as slutty is actually a virgin; homophobes are secretly gay.
These are some cues among many that American Beauty’s entire orientation is very 1999, especially in the way that we’re meant to feel empathy for the emasculated, ennui-stricken middle-aged white man. The audience is supposed to cheer him on for happily taking the kind of low-wage job that other people need just to make ends meet—not to mention for cathartically chewing out his materialist wife. (Especially insidious is the fact that Spacey, whatever his personal faults, is a peerless issuer of condescending tell-offs, even when the writing itself is second-rate.)
In a time of relative prosperity in America (or at least, a time when the extent of widening wage gaps had not been fully absorbed into popular narratives), these moments felt, at least to some, plugged into the zeitgeist; plenty of “important” movies of 1999 were expressing a similarly brewing anxiety that anticipated certain cultural divisions but now looks, honestly, a little frivolous. (This is why you’re mad? Because your wife doesn’t want you to spill beer on a couch?) American Beauty was released just about a month before Fight Club, which has similar concerns, sharing that disdain for furniture along with a strikingly similar fantasy of white-dude corporate rebuke: Both Lester and Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator blackmail their soulless white-collar employers for a year’s salary, situations calibrated to provide both plot-expedient comfort and smug moral superiority.