A movie title is an important insight to what a movie is about. Sometimes it is taken from a catchphrase or a song, other times it represents the feel or the theme of the film. In most Hollywood movies today the title may be determined by focus group testing, the studio marketing department or other elements unrelated to the artistic vision of the filmmaker. American Beauty is not one of those films.
Instead, the beauty may refer to the red roses Carolyn Burnham grows in her front garden, or the beauty Mena Suvari’s Angela Hayes character represents to the protagonist Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, or possibly the happiness Wes Bentley’s eccentric character Ricky Fitts sees in Lester’s dead eyes at the end of the film. More likely it is all of those things collectively representing the beauty in American Beauty. American Beauty is influenced by many different genres; comedy, the family melodrama, a coming of age and ultimately the tragedy.
With the infusion of so many elements it is a fantastic accomplishment that Sam Mendes, a first time film director from the U. K. , was able to weave the half dozen or so complex characters into a tale that spoke so clearly to the American public, winning numerous Academy awards for best director, best original screenplay, best lead actor and of course best film. What prompted an Englishman to tell this revealing story about American suburbia? It had to be the message the film told.
The ideology of American Beauty has a message that goes beyond borders and resonates with American sentiment of the end of the twentieth century. The simple ideology is: ‘to be happy you must be yourself. ‘ As trite as that ideology seems, it is only with the skilled writing of Alan Ball, the subtle direction of Sam Mendes and exceptional acting by the superb cast that they are able to keep American Beauty from turning into a movie-of-the-week. Lester Burnham’s journey to self-enlightenment is a positive affirmation of this ideology.
While all the characters change throughout the movie, some for better and others for worse, it is Lester whose change in life values creates a ripple effect among the rest of the characters. His voiceover in the beginning of the movie tells the viewer ‘that he’ll be dead within a year… in some ways he is already dead,’ and because of this statement we immediately empathize with him. While he does not cheat death, he does cheat his living death. The death we see in him in the beginning of the movie as Lester curls up asleep in the backseat of the car as his wife belittles him and his daughter thinks he’s a fool.
American Beauty is Lester Burnham’s story, but without the colorful characters for him to interact with the story isn’t nearly as effective. While Lester is a great example character of the film’s ‘be-yourself’ ideology, another examination of the pitfalls of not following that ideology can be seen in each of the different marital relationships in the film. At first it may appear that no other relationship is as flawed as Lester and Carolyn’s, with her henpecking and Lester sleepwalking through life.
Then we learn what real family dysfunction is when we meet the Fitts’. Chris Cooper’s Colonel Frank Fitts is a tyrant who rules his family with an iron fist. When Ricky comes home to find his mother and father sitting on the couch watching an old military movie from the fifties, the viewer can see that the Fitts are still living in the fifties. The father is the master of the house and the mother is in a constant coma-like state keeping the house clean and orderly, but never questioning that father knows best.
She represents what Lester Burnham is on his way to becoming – a mindless drone following the orders of a dominant spouse. Even though we do not see any physical abuse by Col. Fitts upon his wife, the audience can infer the physical abuse by what they see in the abusive relationship between Col. Fitts and his son Ricky. Two other marital relationships that we get a glimpse of are that of Buddy Kane, the real estate king and Christy, his angry and distant wife; and the Burnham’s neighbors, the homosexual couple Jim Olmeyer and Jim Berkley.
Despite Carolyn thinking that Buddy and his wife looked so happy together, it is clear that as a couple they were being true to the Be-Yourself ideology that the filmmaker tries to project and we find out that they are soon to be divorced. On the opposite end of the spectrum the only truly happy couple we meet in the movie is Jim and Jim. While their relationship doesn’t get as much screen time as the Burnham’s or even the Fitts’, we see by the way they interact, finishing each others thoughts, that they have the healthiest relationship of all the couples in the movie.
The scene where they give the welcome basket to the Fitts’ is a perfect example of their marital harmony. A complete reversal of that scene is Lester and Carolyn’s conversation at her real estate party. Lester is introduced to Buddy for the third time and still Buddy does not remember him. When Lester says he wouldn’t remember him either Carolyn tells him not to be weird. The whole interaction between the Lester and Carolyn is uncomfortable to watch and is brilliantly concluded when Lester kisses her passionately.