American Beauty, was first released in the US on 17th September 1999, 16 years ago today. Written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, the film has since remained a timeless classic and is often regarded as one of the best films of the 1990’s.
Kevin Spacey stars as a middle-aged office worker named Lester, who appears to be living a typically happy, middle-class life in suburban America. However, behind closed doors, his materialistic wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) treat him with disdain. When Lester meets Jane’s vain but beautiful friend Angela (Mena Suvari) – who wants to become a model and revels in getting attention from men – he soon becomes infatuated with her and instigates a new lease of life for himself.
From this moment, we can see the life of this suburban father unravel, as he begins doing whatever he wants; He quits his job, blackmails his boss out of $60,000, and even begins buying marijuana from his teenage neighbour, Ricky (Wes Bentley). We also watch as Ricky awkwardly establishes a happy relationship with Jane, in spite of his troubled home life.
In 2000, American Beauty won five Oscars, (including Best Picture and Best Actor), six BAFTAs, and three Golden Globe awards. At the time, there was some criticism about the film’s common setting of a family in suburban America, with publications such as The New York Times arguing that the film “takes aim at targets that are none too fresh” and that “Lester is not the first super-bland suburban paragon to drop out with a vengeance.” Generally, however, the film was positively received by critics and audiences alike and grossed over $356 million (£227 million) at the worldwide box office.
Throughout the satirical film runs several themes of sexuality, beauty and liberation, as well as redemption. Above all there is the unavoidable message that things are not always as they seem; even the tagline of the film suggests we “…look closer”. Lester summarises this perfectly when he describes his marriage as “a commercial for how normal we are, when we’re anything but.” The imagery of perfect red roses is used from start to finish as a running motif, and the title itself refers to a specific type of rose that, although classically beautiful, is prone to rot at the branches and roots. Thus, beneath the surface of this apparently perfect life, we can find decaying roots and dark secrets.
Years later, with it’s heavily accomplished cast and fascinating character studies, American Beauty may still be one of the best films ever made. Watch the trailer below.