The narrative of American Beauty represents what is under the surface of the American dream. It strips away the falsities by delving deeper and heading behind the closed doors of those white-picket-fenced suburban American homes. For Kevin Spacey this role was one of his most important.
At a point in his career where he felt slightly stagnant, when asked about the role of Lester Burnham on In the Actors Studio, Spacey said: ‘in a strange way Lester and I met at the right moment. I was ready for him’. Lester Burnham is a tired journalist, bored of his mundane married life to over-ambitious realtor Carolyn. Lester typifies the reality of thousands of frustrated American men who experience a mid-life crisis, radically changing their beings beyond the recognition of their families. The struggle to maintain the thrill of youth – buying a new car, crushing on your daughters friend and smoking weed – yet, unknowingly affecting the lives of those around you, is encapsulated in Spacey’s Burnham through his characteristic, provocative wit. Not only does American Beauty strip away the veil of the American Dream, it also addresses the suppression of homosexuality. Lester Burnham is at the centre of a microcosm of homophobia, and struggles with identity, motifs of which underline the entire movie.
The Burnhams’ next door neighbours, the Fitts family, are directly affected by Lester’s crisis. Colonol Fitts’ character suppresses his own homosexuality to the extent that he represents the drastic homophobia prevalent in the military. His character represents the struggles of many young men suppressing homosexuality on the inside, so much so that they are then expressing extreme homophobia on the surface. Colonel Fitts’ homophobia begins with his confrontational attitude to his neighbours, the Jims. Seemingly confused by their ‘partnership’, he later persecutes them for being ‘faggots that rub it in your face’. Instead of confronting the suppression of his own homosexuality, he takes his tensions out on those around him. He violently beats his son Ricky for supposedly having gay sex, and murders Lester Burnham for rejecting his homosexual advances.
It is these moments that shock the viewer into addressing what occurs behind closed doors. The upkeep of a perfect family image is the aim for Lester’s wife Carolyn, yet her unhappiness with Lester leads to adultery and murderous intent. With the movie’s end, every character is able to release this tension of trying to cover up what’s wrong and be somebody else. For some characters, their tensions come to blow through the release of pent up aggression. Carolyn plans to kill Lester but only comes to realise someone has got there first, shocking her into questioning her murderous intent. Instead of addressing his homosexuality, Colonel Fitts shoots Lester in the epic final moments of the movie. However, for some of the characters, the ending demonstrates coming of age and an understanding of the farce of being perfect. For example Jane, Lester’s daughter, finally finds love and happiness away from teenage angst and struggles with body image. Angela realises that there is more to life than sex and looking good when she confronts her virginity. And Lester, despite his death, is brought back to reality in his encounter with Angela. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Angela asks him how he is, Lester replies with ‘it’s been a long time since anybody asked me that. I’m great’. This sums up his realisation of ‘gratitude for every single moment of [his]stupid little life’, as Lester, the narrator, says in the closing lines of the movie.
American Beauty tears apart the farce of the American dream and addresses some deep concerns about homosexuality and body image. With Spacey’s stunning portrayal of Lester Burnham alongside an amazing cast, and superb director in Sam Mendes, American Beauty teaches a lesson that a lot of people don’t want to learn.