Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” (1999)

Notable Festivals: Toronto

Academy Award Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay

Some directors share their development with the public over the course of a lifetime.  More rare, however, is the director who arrives on the scene fully formed, seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Sam Mendes is just such a director, and in twelve short years, he has already cultivated an impressive body of work that will live on in the cinematic consciousness for quite some time.

My first experience with a Mendes film was 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION.  I sought out the film after seeing a trailer for it in the theatre, having been incredibly compelled by its imagery and tone.  I remember being enamored by the artistry and mastery of craft on display, and had no idea it was only Mendes’ second feature.  My awareness of Mendes as a director wouldn’t mature until college, when a freshman creative writing class had 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY on the syllabus.  It was only after seeing that film that I realized Mendes was a significant force to be reckoned with in cinema.

Filmmaking comes as something of a second career for Mendes, who already had an impressive body of work under his belt in the English theater scene.  A graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge, Mendes became known as an accomplished stage director, helming productions like CABARET, OLIVER!, and GYPSY, while attracting seasoned and highly-respected stars of the stage and screen.  It was only a matter of time until cinema came knocking.

Due to his background in the theater, there’s a distinct “stage”-y character to his film direction, as if the edges of the frame were just another proscenium wall.  Character and story are front-and-center, with the immediacy of theater’s live performance, but with none of the showboating or exaggeration.  His films are intensely personal, subtle, and delicate, yet strong in their convictions and dramaturgy.  It’s hard to discern exactly who his cinematic influences are, if only because it’s clear that he draws on a entirely different set of influences from another medium to inform his direction.  Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols seem like safe bets, but only because he draws from them almost unilaterally for very specific projects.  His own style is more formalist, understated, and classical.  Like Kubrick, Mendes is very precise and economical.  Like Nichols, he revels in character and the natural humorous moments that occur, in addition to the serious stuff.

Mendes is one of the lucky few filmmakers who was lauded with the highest industry honors on his first time out.  He had previous experience in directing for the screen, helming television adaptions for CABARET (1993), and COMPANY (1996), but 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY was his first legitimately cinematic excursion.

Springing from the mind of screenwriter Alan Ball, AMERICAN BEAUTY is many things.  It’s a phenomenon hailing from humble beginnings.  It’s a dark satire on American suburban ennui.  It’s a coming-of-age story about the loss of innocence.  It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of temptation.  It’s a brooding murder mystery.  There’s a lot of themes at work, but Mendes masterfully blends it all together into a tone that’s appropriate and cohesive.  For me, the most resonant theme in the film is the regression of traditional masculinity.  The film was part of a growing chorus that bemoaned the cultural castration of man during the late 90’s; films like David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB (1999) and Mike Judge’s OFFICE SPACE(1999) featured similar working stiffs experiencing a radical reawakening of manhood.  The threat to conventional notions of what it means to be a man are present everywhere in the story: a sexless marriage, repressed homosexual desires, the impotence that comes with having to be a role model, the gay couple just trying to live a normal life next door.  AMERICAN BEAUTY , for me personally, is about the loss and reclamation of masculinity in all its forms.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has been in a state of sedation for as long as he can remember.  The highlight of his day is his daily masturbation session in the shower.  The quality of his day spirals downward from there, from his soul-crushingly bland sales job, to his increasing invisibility to his wife and daughter at home.  He sleepwalks through life, having accepted the fact that this is his life now, and his best days are behind him.  However, he experiences a radical midlife rejuvenation through his sexual fantasies about his daughter’s seductive friend (Mena Suvari), and the freedom he feels after being fired from his job.  The story is framed by Lester’s voiceover narration, which provides a wry commentary on the proceedings as well as gives the film its narrative urgency when he announces that he’ll be dead in a year.

Indeed, it’s the post-death point of view that is one of the film’s most striking and soulful elements.  The film strives for a realization of the beauty that exists just beyond the veil of reality, beyond what we can see.  It’s hinted at in one of the film’s most infamous sequences: video footage of a plastic bag dancing in the wind while a young man remarks at how it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.  Sure, it’s been mocked within an inch of its life in the 10+ years since its release, but it’s hard not to be haunted by the quiet intensity of the moment.  This invisible, yet tangible, grace and order to the seemingly chaotic universe is the heart of the story, evidenced by the film’s tagline: “look closer…”

Mendes is known for getting career-best performances from his actors, and AMERICAN BEAUTY starts off very strongly in that regard.  As the emasculated, burnt-out Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey took home the Oscar for Best Actor.  The character is very much a Willy Loman, DEATH OF A SALESMAN-type who expresses regret over the life he’s lived.  His redemption lies in a recapturing of youth and all its trappings: rebellion, sexual obsession, drug use, etc.  Lester’s journey is incredibly compelling to watch, and Spacey’s performance is one for the cinematic history books.  As Lester’s wife, Carolyn, Annette Bening is the spitting image of the frustrated suburban housewife.  As the family’s primary breadwinner, she feels a lot of pressure to succeed in her job as a real estate agent.  Every inch of her, from her pantsuits to her Hilary Clinton-style haircut, exudes the powerful late-90’s woman image.  However, despite her projections of success, she has incredible doubts about herself that have taken a terrible toll on her marriage.  Bening makes Carolyn sympathetic, despite a role that frequently calls for her to be “the bad guy”.

The supporting cast is filled out with veteran character actors who all threaten to steal the show in their own right.  As Lester and Carolyn’s teenage daughter Jane, former child actress Thora Birch is adolescent anxiety incarnate.  This was her first real “grown-up” role, and she embraces it entirely by laying herself bare before the audience (sometimes literally).  Wes Bentley is haunting as the reclusive, aggressively insightful Ricky Fitts.  His role is crucial to the movie, as it is the fulcrum on which both Jane and Lester’s character arcs pivot.  He is also the conduit for the film’s central theme of “beauty inherent in the mundane”, and monologues that can potentially come off as pretentious are performed with a wide-eyed wonder.  As the seductress Angela, Mena Suvari gives herself entirely to the admittedly silly sexual fantasies Lester has about her.  She pulls off a balanced blend of the naive innocent and conceited sexual manipulator.  She’s clearly living in an overcompensating fantasy of her own making, but even she reclaims her innocence in the end.  (And in a strange connection to 1999’s AMERICAN PIE, which Suvari starred in, look for a silent cameo appearance by a pre-fame John Chu as a prospective house buyer.)

Any film with Peter Gallagher in the cast is a blessing, and AMERICAN BEAUTY features this exquisite lion of a man in spades.  As the silver fox “Real Estate King”, Buddy Kane, Gallagher effortlessly captures the confident masculinity that Lester had been so desperately grasping for.  His hysterical sex scene with Bening is one of the standout moments of the film, but underlying the humor of his character is the very real notion that oftentimes the image and projection of success belies a very empty, unrewarding core.  That said, Gallagher’s Buddy Kane is probably my favorite character in the entire film.

Of course, any discussion about AMERICAN BEAUTY’s cast wouldn’t be complete without the powerful turn by Chris Cooper as Colonel Frank Fitz, a hardass military man with repressed homosexual longings.  His character is fascinating to watch, as he at first literally trembles with a vitriolic hate towards gays.  We’re quick to write him off as another homophobic right-wing dinosaur, but like the film’s tagline implores, when we look closer at him, we find that his homophobic rantings are an expression of the crippling shame he feels towards his own urges.  His character arc is compellingly rendered in a vulnerable moment with Lester– a moment that will have fatal consequences for them both.  It was a career-making performance for Cooper, and he continues to be one of the most compelling character actors working today.

Despite such a strong cast delivering career-best performances, the star of the show here really is Mendes.  With a subtle, understated direction evoking the dark corners of a Norman Rockwell painting, Mendes crafts a haunting experience that lingers in the mind.  Working with legendary Director of Photography Conrad Hall, Mendes conjures up a midcentury aesthetic in the trappings of modern culture (it could be argued that the suburbs as an institution are an idyllic distillation of 1950’s sentiments about lifestyle and the American Dream).  The filmic, Anamorphic image utilizes a natural level of contrast, with even, neutral tones and a saturated color palette.  The color red is used to striking effect throughout the film, acting as a visual metaphor for vitality and passion.  This can be seen in the roses around the house, in Lester’s fantasies about Angela, Carolyn’s dress in the final scene, the garage lights, and finally, in the blood dripping from the bullet wound in Lester’s head.    It should be noted that the film’s title refers to a specific breed of rose famous for its bold, alluring color as well as its tendency to reveal an underlying rot upon closer inspection.  It’s a fantastic metaphor for the suburbs as a dramatically relevant setting, as well as the crippling decay underneath fake smiles and friendly waves.

However, Mendes and Hall don’t stick exclusively to this visual look.  Lester’s fantasy sequences are rendered in a more stylized contrast, with natural lighting that’s slightly more intense, and colors that are slightly more concentrated.  These sequences allow the film to revel in some truly arresting imagery, like Suvari lying naked amongst a bed of roses on the ceiling.  The film also switches to black and white towards the end, as Lester reminisces on happier times in his life that have long since past.  It’s a poetic, evocative rendering of that old “life flashing before your eyes” yarn, and strengthens the emotional catharsis of the film’s denouement.

The camerawork is precise and mechanical, observing the action with an objective gaze that places the focus on the performances.  Mendes and Hall keep the camera confined to a tripod, mainly utilizing a dolly whenever the camera is moved.  The dolly shots are well thought-out and gracefully executed, bringing a subtle power to the subjects of the shot.  Composition is traditional, balanced, and artful– at many times, evoking a proscenium-style staging (such as the dinner scenes).  Mendes utilizes composition as an overt, as well as subtle, storytelling tool throughout.  The scene where Lester is fired comes to mind– Mendes frames the shots as a way to silently communicate power dynamics.  Lester’s boss is shot close-up and from below, giving him an authoritative presence, while Lester is seen from above, almost dwarfed by the scale of the room.  No flashy techniques here, just good, old-fashioned visual storytelling.

It should be noted that the camera only goes handheld during certain instances– namely, when Ricky’s video footage is cut into the story.  Thankfully, Mendes uses actual, interlaced video and embraces the flaws of the format to make the presentation more realistic.  The film opens with such a sequence, throwing the film into mystery when Thora Birch’s character addresses her desire to kill Lester to the camera.  Of course, we later learn that in the context of the moment, she was joking playfully, but it’s a compelling way to start a film and shows a great degree of confidence on Mendes’ part.

The music of the film is as iconic as its story and performances.  Composing legend Thomas Newman provides a minimalist, percussive score that’s extremely haunting in its simplicity.  Working primarily with xylophones and piano chords, Newman allows the music to complement the visuals without ever overpowering them, yet at the same time creates compositions that linger in the mind.  During the film’s fantasy sequences,  Newman utilizes an arrhythmic clash of cymbals to create a seductive, otherworldly-aura.  AMERICAN BEAUTY also includes a variety of source music that reads like a survey of popular twentieth century music.  Carolyn is defined by her love for Frank Sinatra and his ilk, which she plays repeatedly during family dinner time in a bid to project some semblance of wealth, success, and sophistication.  Conversely, Lester experiences his reawakening to the sounds of classic 80’s rock like Rick Springfield.  The film closes with Elliot Smith covering The Beatles’ “Because”, which brings everything full circle in a contemplative tone.

When AMERICAN BEAUTY was released in 1999, it was showered with accolades, most notably the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.  Twelve years on, the film has aged well, despite it being firmly rooted in the post-corporate, dotcom boom days of the late 90’s.  Alan Ball’s dialogue comes off as on the nose at many points, but it can be argued that it works within his satirical intentions.  Indeed, the film is very, darkly funny in both overt and subtle ways.  For instance, Carolyn drives an SUV– but why?  She only has one kid, and driving around the suburbs isn’t exactly “off-roading”.  It’s a great jab at that late 90’s/early aught’s notion that driving a big SUV projected success and status.  I saw it firsthand myself when I was growing up, as even my own family fell prey to the SUV hysteria.  Ball’s satirical intentions are also present in Angela’s character-summarizing line: “There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary”.  In theory, I agree with the sentiment, but the film is about finding the extraordinary within the ordinary; Angela is too focused on surface beauty to see it.

Understandably, it’s obscenely rare to knock a masterpiece out of the park on your first time at bat, but Mendes has managed to do just that.  AMERICAN BEAUTY is the kind of film that many directors work their entire life towards making, and most never even come close.  Mendes’ debut is a bold character piece that implores its audience to actively engage in the philosophical debate at the heart of the story.  It hooks us with the lurid promise of a murder mystery, but its objective is something else entirely.  In the wake of AMERICAN BEAUTY’s success, Mendes emerged as a masterful artist poised to deliver some of the most compelling films of our time.

AMERICAN BEAUTY is available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount.