American Beauty Post Spacey


Back in 1999, during post-production of his Oscar winning American Beauty, Sam Mendes showed the final cut to legendary director Stephen  Spielberg. As it ended, with tears in his eyes, Spielberg turned to Mendes and proclaimed:

“You’ve created an American masterpiece…”

Twenty years later, with the disgrace of lead actor Kevin Spacey, Spielberg’s words fall remarkably flat. What now comes across when watching the film is how patronising and creepy it is.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a frustrated middle aged man in a dead end job and a broken marriage, living a fake life in a suburban show house with a wife (Annette Benning) and daughter (Thora Birch) who hate him.

Working out a way to blackmail his boss for a small fortune, Lester begins to fight back against the anomie of suburbia. One night at a function for his wife’s despised Real Estate job, she cosies up to a rival Estate Agent while Lester scores weed off the weird kid (Wes Bentley) who’s just moved next door. He sorts out a trade deal, then begins to work out with a gay couple who live nearby. His lack of threat by working out with homosexuals may be wishful thinking on the part of Oscar winning gay writer Alan Ball, but Pauline Kael did comment upon initial release:

“Can’t educated liberals see it sucks up to them at every turn?”

The target for his new sexual body, ripped arms and constant masturbation is the slutty and beautiful teenage friend of his daughter played by Mena Suvari who appears to him in sexually charged weed enhanced visions.

Made at the close of Bill Clinton’s shabby, sleazy presidency, and one of the first of a wave of American movies to attempt to comment on the ghost of Columbine, many things now feel dated, or, like the teen nudity, unnecessary.

The world in 2019 has moved on dramatically from American Beauty. Social media and smartphone technology render suburban isolation at the core of the film completely obsolete.

Spacey has never been nastier; in a career playing serial killers and Satanic-like gangsters, Lester Burnham really is the role for him. With his slavering jowls and dead, shark eyes, he spends the entirety of the movie lusting after a teenager only to find (unbelievably) the girl is a virgin. Of course this happens after she has revealed her breasts to both him and the audience.

The film symbolically rewards the Hollywood elite with both fresh meat and a neatly packaged moral message as Spacey chivalrously refuses to devirginize the nervous, half naked girl.

When his head is blown off at the climax of the film, Spacey’s  dead eyes are in a dreamy daze, same as when they were resting on a teenager’s breasts only moments before. The expression seems to say:

Tits don’t count.

A presumably widely held belief amongst the casting couch parties and backrooms of Weinstein era Hollywood in which the movie was made, and widely lauded.

For any fans of the movie who think I’m being a killjoy, can anybody now really buy that a plastic bag floating in the wind “was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” rather than nowadays simply garnering a pity like on Instagram.

Western Culture has changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and Hollywood in the nineties seems a wasteland of sleaze and abuse. The producers pressed the talent for flesh, and congratulated themselves on their self restraint with a shower of Oscars.

Just so long as we could see the tits.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction