Analysis of “American Beauty” – Part 1 of Several
My impression of the 1999 film American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, and written by Alan Ball, was that we are being presented with a story that is all about suffering from depression, with a healthy portion of denial on top.The main characters all find themselves stuck in some kind of rut that is particular to them. Everybody has a certain part of themselves that they have either lost touch with, or never developed a relationship with at all. The characters don’t understand why these things aren’t right in their lives, and try to cope with a range of crazy behaviours.
Lester Burnham, the main character, for example, never learned how to be responsible, and tries to be irresponsible to make himself feel better. Angela Hayes, the sexy blonde cheerleader, has forgotten how to be vulnerable, and acts completely fearlessly to try and cope. Jane Burnham has family issues; Carolyn Burnham and Colonel Fitts don’t understand how to fail gracefully; and etcetera.
Essentially I’m saying, the common linkage between the characters is that they are all bloody miserable! The story is about their coping mechanisms causing a raft of horrible outcomes for everybody (i.e. Lester is murdered, families ripped apart). I think it is very valuable to look at the film from this point of view – imaging ourselves to be psychologists, perhaps. It helps highlight the huge role that inner turmoil plays in our lives, whether we want to accept it or not. When I adopted this psychologist’s approach to interpretation, I found the film so very meaningful and beautiful, that I can’t help but feel it is the correct one!
I want to just make it clear at the start that I have drawn on no reference material at all other than the film itself in the writing of this essay. I have subsequently watched Sam Mendes and Alan Ball’s director’s and writer’s commentary and found them in accord with me, which to say the least is very gratifying. If they ever happen to search for an analysis and stumble upon this page, I would like to extend my thanks to them for their incredible dissertation on human nature that continues to enrich me, and assure them that I am available to consult on their next screenplays at their earliest possible convenience!
My analysis essay will come in three parts. To begin with in Part 1, I will just talk about Lester Burnham and Angela Hayes, as their sexually-charged, perverse storyline together is the most the most startling in the film and demanding of explanation. Part 2 will deal with every other character in the story; except for Carolyn, who I find so complex that she deserves an entire essay of her own, which will be Part 3.
So, let’s get started.
Image via Wikipedia
Lester Burnham is our main character, and our narrator. He undergoes the greatest emotional change. He starts off extremely depressed, goes through a distinct phase of self-gratification like a second adolescence, and finally, at the very end of the film, realises how to live his life happily, as a responsible father.
From his first words in the film, a dreary sounding voice-over about “this is my boring life” etc., we easily infer that the excitement has long been absent from his life – probably since he was a teenager. He describes first how he wishes he could tell his daughter Jane that depression passes as you grow older, but he can’t because he would be lying; and also that his entire career consists of sitting in his featureless cubicle, in a featureless job, having to write newspaper features, and pander to assholes on the phone. His day, he tells us, is all down-hill from masturbating in the shower every morning. The greatest sexual highs of his life have become utterly meaningless parts of his daily routine. The very tone of his voice for the whole introduction is featureless, reflecting an utterly featureless life. This is Lester. “In a way, I’m dead already”.
We also see how his wife Carolyn exercises total control over every tiny aspect of his life, like their house furnishings, dinner music, morning schedules and transport to school and work, his prospects for promotion, and even down to colour-coordinating their gardening implements! It is no wonder that Lester’s behaviour is predictable and dull in the beginning of the film, as he has had no opportunity in the entire span of his marriage to explore his own personality.
He is also presented to us as a character who is being “screwed over by The Man!” and as such wins our immediate sympathy. This sympathy develops into outright cheerleading when later on he starts “sticking it to The Man!” and retaking control of his life with a hell of an attitude. Presently, I will explain how misplaced is our support for him.
It is only once Lester realises he has hit rock-bottom, telling his boss he “has nothing to lose [anymore]”, that he drops his deathly fear of consequences, and his normal, joyless behaviour. Spurred on by the humiliation of having to play the ‘Happy Husband’ at his wife’s real estate party, coupled with the inspiration of witnessing Ricky Fitts’ bold resignation from his job, Lester suddenly decides that it’s time to take back control of his own life.
He begins by blackmailing his contemptible, slick, double-talking boss for sixty thousand dollars; by ‘winning’ his first argument with Carolyn in their entire marriage; and by smoking a joint in the car and getting unhealthy junk food. Lester realises that he doesn’t actually have to live as though he were dead inside after all – he “still has the ability to surprise himself”. It’s no coincidence that Lester is driving around singing loudly the defiant 1970 rock song American Woman:
American woman, get away from me,
American woman, momma let me be,
Don’t come hanging around my door,
I don’t wanna see your shadow no more,
Got more important things to do,
Than spend my time hanging round with you.
I leave it to personal interpretation whether the audience believes he is singing that song directly about his wife, since she does in fact embody the American Dream in her ruthless quest for power and achievement and accumulation of possessions, as well as represent the major oppressive force in his life. But he could be singing about depression, his job, or just about everything dragging him down in general. Whatever the referent object of his singing may be, it is undeniable that this song represents a declaration of self-worth.
Also, I find it fascinating that he says “ability to surprise yourself”, since his rebellious behaviour is only a surprise to the audience. It is no surprise to Lester himself, who is actually reverting to old behaviours, that should rather be familiar.
Lester’s reflection in the monitor is intended to resemble a man in a jail cell, evoking the director’s intended theme of imprisonment and escape from imprisonment. (Image via Wikipedia)
From the immediate and positive consequences of his initial acts of self-empowerment, he begins a personal crusade to regain control and enjoy himself. Unfortunately, he is over-compensating with no thought for the risks. This leads us directly to the perverted, borderline pedophilic, overt sexual flirting with his daughter’s 16 year old best friend Angela, that seems to take place in a series of extremely bad, twisted 1970’s porno films. Allow me to explain why Lester constantly fantasises about Angela as some kind of porn goddess quite literally swimming in rose petals, slow motion film, steamy lighting, and cheesy, cheesy pick up lines that should never see the light of day…
I had always thought it was a completely reasonable assumption that Lester has not been happy since around the time he went to college in Summer 1973. I say this primarily because he mentions to Ricky that this is the last time he smoked a joint. His look of nostalgia also returns when he mentions that “it was the best time of my life, all I did was party and get laid”. We also know that he and Carolyn used to frequent college frat parties, where she pretended to have seizures for entertainment purposes.
We can put two and two together and assume this scenario: that after the summer of 1973 he went to college and met Carolyn who began to ‘clean herself up’ so to speak, and him too, so that they would be able to “project an image of success” as per her obsession, [or maybe Carolyn got pregnant and this was what brought on her obsession with getting serious about building the ‘perfect’ life – more to come on Carolyn in Part 3 of this long essay]. Being a general teenage slob who flipped burgers, drank beer, smoked pot, and got laid with other college girls, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that as part of that slob lifestyle, Lester also used to watch porno movies back in the 70s, before Carolyn began to purge his bad habits. Therefore, his only concept of how a seductive and sexually empowered woman behaves is from those extremely cheesy, stereotypical 70s porno movies. In his recurring fantasies about Angela, she is simply projected into the placeholder pornstar role. Mystery solved.. though it’s still a very disturbing mystery, of course.
This point about Lester is absolutely essential to understand the entire film: he never figured out how to grow up. He was told to do it, and was never happy about it.
For most of the movie he behaves as a child stuck in the life of an adult, getting more and more depressed that grown-up life isn’t turning out to be all that much fun. That is why he buys his Pontiac Fire Bird – it’s loud and has red racing stripes, and as such represents a very childish and simple type of fun. That’s why he regresses to his drug, alcohol, and sexual habits that were the high points [read: most rebellious points] of his happy, pre-college, and pre-Carolyn life. That’s why he smashes Carolyn’s [no doubt highly expensive, colour coordinated bone china] dinner plates and uses a display of strength to get ‘Mom’s’ attention, instead of talking about the problem with a human on an equal level, [the words “equal level” represent a whole other analysis in itself: you can read a bit about them here and here]. Quite obviously from the grin observable on his face, fun is why he sits on his couch wreaking havoc with an RC car. Fun is why he becomes best friends with the next-door kid Ricky. When he applies for a job at the McSmiley’s fast food restraunt, the youthful manager tries to turn down his application saying “you wouldn’t fit in here”, when in fact, this is exactly where Lester last fitted in, decades ago. Finally, I can’t think of a more infantile, teenaged-boy thing to do than pumping iron in his garage for weeks on end trying to impress the most popular girl in high school, instead of simply talking to her and getting to know her! Lester begins to thrive on the reactions he gets by contradicting every expectation put upon him to be an adult. Being irresponsible, doing whatever you want, is fun.
-You are in sooo much trouble for realising your own personality, young man!
-Lester isn’t here, Mrs Torrence
[Image via Mutant Reviewers]
In case you missed this extremely important point, let me state that again: Lester. Is. A. Child.
And yet! Lester’s journey from depression to self-empowerment helps him finally learn what it means to be an adult and a parent. That it may very well not be all pointless fun and partying, but that responsibility is pretty cool and enjoyable too. Adult responsibility is the part of himself that Lester never formed a relationship with, since Carolyn was always in charge of running everything according to her outrageously-high standards. So it is only natural that when he wants to start feeling like himself again, he seeks out situations where he can have “the least possible amount of responsibility” that help him reconnect with his familiar past…as a career slob.
Lester’s journey comes to a head [pun intended] when he finally has the opportunity to be alone with Angela, the prime focus of his life, who has been unmistakably reciprocating his sexual advances throughout the film. The rain falls outside and the room is darkened; a very predictable setting for the intercourse that Lester believes is going to occur. There is a visible chill in the air, the light is drained from the scene and the audience can sense that all the warmth remaining in the world seems to be emanating from these two lovers, longing to embrace and be unified. For the teenager in complete control of Lester Burnham, it is everything in the world he wants to achieve. We know this because quite simply he says to Angela, “I want you!”, in his big wide eyes, imagining she is a woman of the world, aching to show him filthy, pleasurable things about the birds and the bees. Carolyn will be home any minute, and Jane and Ricky are just upstairs and could walk in on them, but Lester is taking no responsibility for that at all. Teenaged Lester is doing whatever he wants. Pun intended.
[Remember how he doesn’t really want to achieve anything meaningful in his life, saying “I’m looking for the least possible responsibility”? That’s because he was thinking with his penis like a teenaged boy again. He said that because his penis has no career or life ambitions beyond scoring Miss Perfect Cheerleader, and he wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of that super number one priority. Tangentially, it’s interesting to note that Carolyn’s un-PC seizure behaviour notwithstanding, there is still probably no way in hell she would have ever been a cheerleader and allowed herself to become objectified. Thus Lester has been repressing his specific desires to hook up with cheerleaders for decades, making his lust for Angela all the more potent and consuming].
Lester is about to go down on Angela and fulfill all his dreams and ambitions in a magical moment of fireworks. It is just at the second before he touches her that she speaks up and reveals she is a virgin, and is actually quite intimidated by him. And in an instant Lester is snapped out of it. In an instant he grows up.
Lester sees Angela as Pornstar Barbie
[Image via Fazeteen]
The movement of the scene stops dead, the warmth of the lovers vanishes, and the room suddenly looks cold and dark [symbolic of the moral ‘dungeon’ their perverse behaviour had been leading them into, perhaps?]. Lester freezes for a few moments after Angela tells him it’ll be her first time with a man. He is processing a dramatic change; in these few seconds the teenager in Lester finally relinquishes control to the adult Lester for good. You can almost hear the comical sound of his crest falling [read: penis drooping] in disappointment, as a look of wonder and delight spreads over his face. He sees Angela before him – no longer as the porno queen of his fantasies, but as a frightened child in need of a parent [more to come on Angela’s vast DADDY ISSUES soon]. I found it quite poignant that as he embraces Angela in a warm blanket he also embraces the adult Lester. She needs a comforting hug to adjust to the situation, but so too does he. He tells her everything’s OK. And he isn’t just saying it because he thinks that’s the way to talk to a teenaged girl [more on his miscommunication with his daughter in Part 2]. He really means it. He has grown up and accepted his responsibility. He is delighted to see her needing a father because he realises that HE CAN DO IT! He has a new reason to live that isn’t something as hollow as beer and pot. He can give the love and comfort and validation that he wants to receive and finally feels powerful. Everything is OK. The next time we see them, Angela is wrapped up in the kitchen, while Lester makes her grilled cheese – the ultimate homely comfort food – and the are finally conversing happily in normal sentences instead of innuendo, [Angela previously had a problem with even “ordinary” conversations]. Lester at last realises and reveals a genuine, unaffected fatherly concern for his daughter Jane, and even regret and longing for her.
How Lester sees Angela now, following his epiphany
[Image via Classic Horror]
Get rid of that image…
Conclusions: Lester Burnham has appeared throughout the film to be a bit of a loser, with an extremely convoluted moral compass. But suddenly, he arrives at the end of his growth journey out of his depression, and seems like a pretty great guy that any of us would like to have as a Dad. It is therefore a real shame that he dies within minutes of his ultimate realisation of maturity – before he had the chance to make amends with Jane. It is also very ironic that his last spoken words are “she would die before she told me [how she was feeling].” He is in fact the one who dies before revealing his feelings.
Look, I have one more point to impact into your brains: not only is Lester a child but LESTER IS ALSO AN ASSHOLE!!
I have read a lot of people’s reactions to the Lester Burnham character, and for some reason they all appear to say “hooray for him for sticking up for himself!” This attitude is totally incorrect. Lester is not to be admired for any of the things he does to ‘stick it to the man!’ It’s absolutely crazy that people seem to miss that point – this is the entire point of the film. He acts without any responsibility for the consequences. His behaviour is nothing but disruptive and hurtful to everyone around him:
His daughter wants to run away and never speak to him again.
If his neighbour hadn’t murdered him first, his wife was about to.
His only friend is a fucked up 16 year old neighbour kid.
He drives while high and makes Carolyn pay an entire mortgage.
He steals from his company and blackmails his boss.
He very nearly rapes a girl.
Lester Burnham is NOT enlightened – far from it! Until the very last moments of the film we should feel disgusted in his behaviour, if it weren’t for Kevin Spacey being so goddam entrancing to watch in everything he does. To follow Lester’s life-changing example would harm those you love. Do not worship this man! If you want to emulate the behaviour of a character in a midlife crisis, I can strongly recommend Julia Roberts in the 2010 film Eat, Pray Love, whom maturely finds inner peace with the world crushing her hopes and dreams. Seriously, go watch it, forget Lester and get on board with Liz.
Rant over, let’s move onto another interesting character, Angela Hayes, aka Lester’ playboy bunny for morning shower fantasies.
Angela and Lester, eye-fucking each other. Interesting to observe that just like the way porno films are shot, the woman in center-frame is set up as “the object”, while the male is faceless and can be imagined to be anyone. Or so I am led to believe.
[Image via Hot Flick]
Angela Hayes, the best friend of Lester’s daughter Jane Burnham, is a pretty fucked up character. I argue that she doesn’t like to feel vulnerable. She bemoans the horrible fate that awaits anybody who is ordinary, who might at some point have to deal with like, problems, and insecurities, and wants to live a life of glamour and sensation, which are her ways of denying and coping with this depression. The biggest manifestation of this is her completely and utterly fabricated stories about an active sex life, that she spiels to all who will listen for the sake of being controversial and attracting attention. Let us try and extrapolate reasons why she would be so twisted at such a young age, from the very few clues we are given about her. Why on earth would she be depressed and hyper-sexualised?
Let’s examine her parents. There are only two overt references to them: “–I hate when my Mom takes an interest in my activities”, and “we used to go out for family meals at a lobster restaurant when my Dad was still here” [Both quotes are slightly paraphrased. Move on.] So it seems then, her Dad is gone and she has been raised by her mother since adolescence [specifically, 12 years old, when she mentions she began to enjoy acting sexy and noticing “men wanted to fuck me” [paraphrased; lots of paraphrasing but you have watched the movie so you know what quote I’m talking about], which I suspect any father would try and put a stop to if he was around!] Why would her father be gone? Either he was a deadbeat who ditched his wife and daughter, or alternatively, her mother kicked him out. I tend to lean towards the second explanation.
I suspect that Angela’s mother married someone rich [read: someone not ordinary], and then divorced him and took half his money, and raised Angela on her own. I say this for several reasons. Firstly we see Angela driving around in her own personal car which happens to be a top of the line gorgeous white convertible; and secondly that she has never been hard-done-by [“you’re going to walk home?”, she protests, “But that’s like, nearly a mile!”] This would definitely be in keeping with the shallow view of the world that Angela has, which again I suspect comes directly from her mother’s influence on her development. Angela’s catch-phrase from this film is that “there’s nothing worse in this life than being ordinary!”, as though it is something she has heard a thousand times, from her mother. I believe, if we ever saw her mother in the film, she would be an even worse, more concentrated version of Angela [for clarity’s sake I will refer to this unseen character I am positing with the ironic title of “Super Model Mom”], and that Angela’s skewed world-view is merely an imprint of her mother’s. In fact I also believe that Angela would have gotten very little attention from Super Model Mom unless she was doing something ‘special’ like modelling, or winning beauty pageants like her mother, or being a good little girl and leaving mommy alone so she can have quiet time with her magazines or get her nails done. Even the name Angela implies that she was probably called an “Angel”, which immediately imposes an expectation of physical beauty to live up to. For anyone, that is a lot of pressure. She would feel very vulnerable and ‘not enough’ in this situation.
My hobbies? Um, cheerleading. Cheerleading and gardening. You know, the usual Angel stuff.
[Image via Emanuel Levy]
Despite a lack of exposition about Angela, I believe we can postulate the following picture of her life:
- Angela is an ordinary kid, with a supermodel mother, who married someone rich and powerful [at a guess I would say her father was a photographer and her mother was one of his models, since Angela seems obsessed with photoshoots and the industry in general]. Probably, Super Model Mother was sleeping with the photographer, and accidentally became pregnant [see comments section].
- But around the time Angela is 10 to 12 years old, her mother kicks out her father, probably thinking to herself that she isn’t an ordinary person, and only an ordinary person would be foolish enough to marry for love. That would be like, so cliched! That would be way too ordinary for Super Model Mom to live with. Super Model Mom only settles for the best. Super Model Mom will raise that daughter to be just like her, because that will stick it to her father.
- Thereupon, like any ordinary child, Angela is upset about losing her daddy [I think we can safely infer from her uber-feminine act that he has been no part of her life since]. Her parent’s separation is the cause of her depression – the usual story about feeling somehow responsible, etc.
- Attention makes her feel valued again, and becomes her coping mechanism. She feels happy when she notices that men look at her and want to fuck her, and since this is so common she starts to forget what it means to be vulnerable. She begins to believe that the world is full of people who want her. The love story that Super Model Mom told her about how her parents met only reinforces the validity of her belief. She begins to believe that her feelings of vulnerability and grief were only her imagination. She grows up too fast and gladly forgets that at one point earlier in her life, she felt ordinary and insufficiently worthy to make her parents stay together as a family. She forgets that the one man she desperately wanted to look at her and see beauty has left for good.
Can you imagine that Angela’s mother, the glamorous, yet emotionally shallow supermodel, would really give her vulnerable daughter the emotional reassurance she needs while she is going through a divorce she can’t handle herself? Or even, the equivalent emotional reassurance of TWO parents since the father is absent? Well, Super Model Mom doesn’t even pick up her daughter from school, so my guess is…nope.
I think instead of love and attention, Angela’s mother simply gave her a cellphone [this was 1999, remember!], a sports car, and let her smoke cigarettes and act as sexy as she could, in order to make her into a ‘grown up’, and thereby remove the burden of caring for a child from her delicate, scrawny, supermodel shoulders.
Another aspect to this is that I imagine that Super Model Mom would totally resent when Angela acted like a child, because it reminded her that having gotten pregnant ruined her perfect slim supermodel figure and set back her career by a good long while. That’s why Angela is of course an only-child. Angela would have been on the receiving end of a lot of hostility and guilt that she didn’t understand, and as a result ‘appears’ to be/acts like one of the most wizened kids at her school, giving lectures to her friends on sex, business, and “the way things are”. But she almost bursts into tears with Lester when she dares to speak to him uninhibitedly as a frightened child, having been conditioned all her life that she should somehow be ashamed of it.
Well, if I can’t have my own Daddy back, I’ll just seduce someone else’s
[Image via Insansanat]
And so, this is where we find Angela in the film.
She has discovered that her inherited natural good looks win her some male attention to replace that of her father, starting from age 12. She begins to enjoy it because “if people I don’t even know look at me and want to fuck me, it means I really have a shot at being a model”, which is all she can think of doing that will provide life’s luxuries like cars, and fashion accessories. Fast forward a few years and all of her issues have snowballed into a giant inferiority complex. Angela seems to be the sluttiest girl in school, bringing sex into every conversation she has with her friends to try to distinguish herself [which as we recall loses her the respect of her two friends that she screams “CUNT!” after as they ditch her]. Angela’s pathological need for attention has never actually been met, as she is of course terrified to even get anywhere NEAR a male after the trauma of losing her father. Not only is she still a virgin, she is also scared witless about it, and as Ricky Fitts says, “she knows it”. Ricky Fitts knows denial when he sees it. She tries to abuse him; she lashes out whenever anyone makes her feel vulnerable, or, as it appears to us, whenever anyone tries to be real with her. She responds by acting even more slutty than ever, with no limits. She graphically teases Jane about giving Lester a blowjob. Much like Lester, Angela’s sexy over-compensating for past wrongs done to her is her coping mechanism, and the two of them together tempt and encourage each other into a spiraling, perverse moral downfall.
[Well, nearly. I guess they stop just before it technically becomes a felony].
Conclusions: Angela Hayes is completely fixated on sex, despite being too scared to ever actually really be in the company of a man…or indeed, anybody who might be truly honest with her. She relies on her physical beauty for popularity and attention, but practically defines the saying: “beauty is only skin-deep”, since she teases Jane and deliberately ignores her best friend’s emotions and heart-wrenching sobs, of “just, don’t fuck my Dad!!!!!! Please!!!!” She puts on her seduction act so effectively that she captures Lester… and then has absolutely no idea what to do with him. To her it was all about the act, not the outcome. Generally, she acts like a despicable, shallow person, which she learned from growing up too fast with a supermodel mother. Despite having very little about her ever explained to us, we can construct likely scenarios and infer too that her F.U.B.A.R behaviour is also a coping mechanism for unresolved childhood abandonment issues relating to her father. It is therefore gratifying to see her being comforted like the little girl that she is inside by Lester in his penultimate moments. She is finally back in the arms of a surrogate father, who is genuinely interested in her as a person, instead of merely her physical beauty. She has never been more glad to be out of her sexy pants and into a shapeless, but warm and snugly blanket, with a parent figure taking care of her.
As a brief after-note on Angela, I found it interesting that being glamorous, and a supermodel, and not ‘ordinary’, is all of course just another way to “project an image of success at all times.”, another key quote in this film. As I have been arguing, this is the major theme of the story: that sometimes when people have emotions they don’t understand or want to accept, they respond by keeping things repressed and/or misrepresenting themselves both inwardly and outwardly.
But not knowing or accepting who you truly are inside can have dramatic repercussions. In the film, Lester is murdered, and it is implied that Jane and Ricky are convicted on the weight of the video evidence from the opening scene of the film. Carolyn has lost her husband and her daughter, and her dream of a facsimile of a successful life is shattered. Colonel Fitts gets away with murder, and I suppose continues to emotionally abuse his catatonic wife. The director leaves us with a happy, or at least, enlightened ending, but the story is in many ways a tragic one.
But the reason this film is such a winner is because it teaches us this lesson: Know thyself. Know what the hell it is that you are doing. Don’t go fucking up other people’s lives. There is a time and place for both fun and responsibility. And don’t forget to stay in touch with the part of you that appreciates great beauty.
Closing Notes: When (unfortunately it may be a case of if) I get cracking on Part 2, I will be writing about:
Jane Burnham’s ordinary-ness being her coping mechanism;
Ricky Fitts’ tripped out but “totally mellow” adoration of all things ordinary making them the perfect match;
Col. Frank Fitts’ inability to handle FAILURE, MARINE! causing death and misery for all [not to mention the whole thing about being in the closet! Like Ricky says, “never underestimate the power of denial”];
And finally, the coup-de-whatever, a detailed analysis of Carolyn Burnham: her fucked up motivations for all the fucked up things she does and says [and because she represses things to the violent extreme, also what she refuses to say or do]. I think I can do another 5000 words on her.. because Jesus Christ, she is messed up.
THANK YOU FOR READING!
I invite you to rip my analysis to shreds, and reduce the resulting particulate chaos to tears, using the comment form directly below here. Cheers for now.
Further Reading: this quick guide to the use of the colour red in the film and how it ties all the stories together.
JANUARY 2014 REVISION:
-Restated the thesis to include the “the characters aren’t in touch with a part of themselves” aspect. Edited the whole page to shift the focus away from “depression and denial” thesis and towards the “inner conflict” thesis.
-Style: rewrote most of the paragraphs to be more readable, and less colloquial. Removed label of Angela’s mother as a “slut” as this word is problematic in today’s polite internet society, though I do believe it is possible to think of her as an archetype. Added the introduction and conclusion sections to round off a wider discussion about what this film can teach us about ourselves.
-Mirrored all the images on my own server to prevent broken links in future. Credit is still provided for every single image used. Hover your mouse over or click. Please let me know in future if you think the page isn’t being displayed properly.
Update. Part 2 is being drafted! Patience is a virtue.
Happiness exists in American Beauty as a myth, as a goal, and as a disguise. All of the characters are engaged in the pursuit of happiness, although they have very different ideas about what happiness is and how to find it. This is one of the qualities that truly make American Beauty a film about the modern American experience: if being American means having the intrinsic right to the pursuit of happiness, why is the "typical" American so deeply unhappy? At the beginning of the film, Lester Burnham realizes that despite the dire nature of his current state, it is still possible for him to become happy once again. Slowly - and then with growing intensity - he begins to pursue happiness by paying close attention to his true desires, and ignoring the screeching dictates of society (as embodied by his wife, Carolyn). At the close of the film, Lester finally realizes that he has found true happiness...and in the most unlikely way. What makes this film so unique is that Lester pursues happiness in a manner that runs directly counter to the ideals of "respectable" society: he does drugs, takes a meaningless job, and pursues a sexual affair with a fifteen-year-old girl. Lester has become so blinded by his willingness to walk the straight and narrow that he must return to a fundamental - and arguably juvenile - state in order to recapture the happiness that he once enjoyed.
Meanwhile, Carolyn Burnham represents the commonly-held belief that happiness is about perception: she is happy if she seems pulled together, confident, and successful - in other words, she is happy if others think that she is happy. She believes that by pursuing success she is pursuing happiness, but in reality she is merely attempting to dampen her own misery over the wreckage of her marriage and the narrowness of her life. Her daughter Jane, in contrast, is completely immersed in her misery. She displays it for all to see, from the clothes she wears to the company she keeps. Jane is so used to living in a state of perpetual unhappiness that when she meets Ricky she continues to obsess about her terrible home life despite the fact that Ricky's situation is clearly far worse.
Ultimately, American Beauty endorses the pursuit of happiness as the only thing worth living for. At the end of the film, Lester's murder seems almost inconsequential; how can Lester's end be viewed as a tragedy when he was lucky enough to know true happiness in the months before he died, and when so many others never know it at all?
Many of the characters' problems stem from their failure to develop or maintain a coherent identity. Lester finds happiness by separating his sense of self-worth from his job and his home life. He learns that even though his boss and wife treat him as though he's worthless, that doesn't mean that he is. Angela believes that her identity is founded entirely on her sexuality. She fears being "ordinary" because she has confused ordinariness with physical plainness, and has confused physical plainness with having no identity. Carolyn Burnham is one of the film's most tragic characters because she has literally replaced her identity as a person with a collection of material things. Carolyn Burnham has a perfect suit, an expensive couch, and a new car, but she has lost the vivacious personality that Lester Burnham fell in love with. When he attempts to remind her of how she once was, she viciously defends her current state, thus protecting her belief that her priorities are in order and that she is successful because she possesses the "important" things in life. Ricky is the one character who does not fall victim to this problem of identity: his awe-inspiring strength comes from his ability to retain a clear sense of self despite constant abuse from his father. Even when he discovers that his father's love is truly conditional, Ricky is able to fearlessly pursue Jane's love and acceptance.
The power of identity is underscored by Lester Burnham's death. Colonel Fitts kills Lester because he has revealed his true self to him, and cannot bear the idea that some part of himself - a part that he has always tried to keep hidden - has been exposed. In killing Lester, the Colonel preserves an identity that he can live with, albeit a false one.
From its title to its allusions to several iconic American texts, American Beauty explores different aspects of American culture and American identity. The title refers to three different symbols of American culture: American Beauty roses (a popular variety), Angela as a representative of youthful, innocent, "American" loveliness, and the American aesthetic of beauty, as represented by Ricky's films. Lester Burnham has distinct similarities to Willy Loman, the everyman protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Lester, cognizant of his situation, reinvents his life in order to save himself from a similar end. Carolyn Burnham represents American consumerism and the unfortunate belief that things can replace relationships. Lester's job at a fast-food restaurant and Jane's participation on the cheerleading team (both "typical" American roles) inject a humorous note into Mendes' discussion of American culture. All the same, American Beauty forces the viewer to consider whether there is anything worth saving at the root of this culture. When American Beauty was released abroad, many critics were surprised that Americans responded so positively to a film that seemed so critical of traditional American values. Americans, it seems, were ready to question these values much as Lester does in the film, and move towards a more satisfying, emotionally fulfilling existence.
It is the absence - rather than the presence - of love that is most noticeable in the first half of American Beauty. The Burnham family dinners simmer with anger and awkwardness: these are people who have fundamentally forgotten how to love each other. One of the saddest moments of the film occurs at the end, when Carolyn, faced with her husband's death, realizes that she will never again have the chance to love him. One of Ricky's most astounding characteristics is his apparent belief that his father loves him despite how he treats him, and that the beatings and the lack of trust are simply his unique way of showing this love. Ricky's ability to love Jane stems from this remarkable ability to trust in the inherent goodness of others.
On the whole, Mendes seems to portray love as unexpected, miraculous, fragile...and incredibly, incredibly important. Lester finds happiness not only because he learns to love himself, but because in loving himself he falls in love with life all over again. His newfound appreciation for the world around him enables him to look at Carolyn's face, lined with years of frustration and bitterness, hear the horrible things she says to him, and still smile at the memory of the happy, funny, lively woman he once knew. Once he has found all of that love inside him, Lester finds it impossible to hate.
Freedom, of course, is another fundamental American ideal. While happiness is a more overt theme in American Beauty, the theme of freedom is significant precisely because free will is so rare and difficult to locate. One of the unifying characteristics in the film is that so many of the characters seem trapped: trapped by their lives, their jobs, themselves, their parents, and their fears. Many of the characters (e.g. Colonel Fitts and his wife, Barbara Fitts) end the film just as trapped as they were when it began, and some, such as Carolyn Burnham, only begin to free themselves from the circumstances that bind them in the moments just before the credits roll. A few characters seem to grasp that freedom is literally there for the taking, and that the only thing holding them back is themselves. When Jane and Ricky agree to go to New York, Jane warns Ricky that her parents will look for her, while Ricky confides that his won't. Ricky has freedom thrust upon him, but seems determined to make it his own nonetheless, while Jane sees its possibilities but isn't entirely sure that she's ready to embrace them. Only Lester entirely ignores his fears and embraces his free will. In the end, Lester realizes that taking advantage of one's freedom doesn't necessarily go hand-in-hand with abandoning one's responsibilities. Ultimately, freedom has more to do with taking responsibility than anything else. In order to be free, Lester must stop blaming others for his unhappiness and take control of his own life.
There are several different kinds of families in American Beauty. Each is struggling and disjointed, yet each is relatively functional for at least part of the film. Mendes takes a unique view of family in that he seems to question the idea that one must simply accept the members of one's family and love them unconditionally. Jane's desire to get away from her parents, though unrealistic, is certainly understandable. Ricky's desire to stick by his broken mother and angry father is touching in its impossibility. Ironically, the over-the-top antics of the Burnham and Fitts families almost overshadow one of the more interesting questions of the film: where is Angela's family? Where, for example, are Angela's parents during the rally at the gym? Why does Angela always stay at Jane's house, instead of offering her miserable friend a refuge? There is no clear answer, but perhaps Mendes is suggesting that no matter how bad your family may be, it is always preferable to have them there (lest you end up like Angela: a confused, sad, lonely girl). Given the careful, precise nature of the script, it seems likely that this omission was fully intended to underscore the importance of family to an individual's character and development.
On the one hand, American Beauty seems to be a film uniquely comfortable with sexuality. Mendes handles nudity, masturbation, and even extramarital sex with a masterful combination of sensuality and deft irony. At the same time, the film depicts a stunning variety of problematic sexual relationships. Angela lies about terrible sexual experiences in order to make people believe that she is much more sophisticated than she really is. Jane exposes herself through a bedroom window as a sign of trust, and is almost caught by Ricky's father. Carolyn has a torrid affair with Buddy Kane, yet both participants seem more aroused by Buddy's status than by anything else. Lester's newfound freedom is perfectly symbolized by his decision to masturbate in bed, next to his wife, rather than in his usual locale: the shower, where any "dirty" associations are literally washed away. Sex is one of the ways in which the characters' multiple dysfunctions are expressed; thus sex is rarely "just" sex. When Colonel Fitts sees Ricky and Lester together in Lester's house and mistakenly believes they are engaging in a sexual encounter, this perversion of the truth represents Colonel Fitts' suspicion and need for total control. When Lester refrains from having sex with Angela, his decision indicates his awareness that freedom does not equate with irresponsibility. Mendes seems to choose sex as a consistent metaphor not because of its associations with America, but rather because of its associations with modernity. In the contemporary age, sex serves as a unique expression of freedom and individuality, and is thus an ideal lens through which to view each character's progression.