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The Steady Cultural Demise Of 'American Beauty'

“For The Love Of 1999” is a weeklong series offering some totally bangin’ essays and analysis of some hot — or not — TV, music, movies and celebrities of 1999. Keep checking back this week for more sweet content.

When “American Beauty” nabbed the Oscar for Best Picture in March 2000, its win seemed forward-thinking. The movie “dealt with sex and drugs, blackmail, homophobia, infidelity and suburban dysfunction,” producer Dan Jinks proclaimed during his acceptance speech. “And in the middle of all this was a character named Ricky Fitts, who at one point says, ‘Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it,’ and everyone in the audience knew exactly what he meant.” 

For the better part of two decades, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had mostly handed its top prize to traditional period pieces with a sweeping dramatic scale: “Chariots of Fire,” “Gandhi,” “Schindler’s List,” “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic,” the list goes on. But “American Beauty”? That was different. A satire about contemporary domesticity that ended with a bitter gunshot didn’t offer the same uplift as, say, “Forrest Gump” and “Shakespeare in Love.” Its rose petals were spiked with thorns, an apt reflection of the country’s ethos after Y2K paranoia and the Columbine shootings. 

Today, “American Beauty” is, by and large, seen as anything but forward-thinking. In the 20 years since it debuted to rapturous reviews and a global $356 million intake, the film’s reputation has tumbled precipitously. What was once a provocative masterstroke now looks like retrograde hooey. Plenty of classics undergo cultural reappraisals as time amends our ideas about what constitutes valuable storytelling, but few have turned into such a widespread punchline.

How “American Beauty” declined is complex, and why it declined will vary based on whose perspective you hear. That’s often the case when something’s prestige shifts without a common denominator to unite the so-called backlash. But this isn’t a routine example of internet hot takes demanding retroactive wokeness, even if the movie raises questionable suggestions about pedophilia, queerness and violence. Nor we can lay the about-face at Kevin Spacey’s feet, even though the actor’s numerous sexual assault allegations color how one might see his character’s rapey proclivities. 

If we look closer, as the movie’s tagline requests, apprehension around “American Beauty” set in fairly quickly, through parodies and national tragedies and many a late-night joke. 

“American Beauty” is the story of Lester Burnham (Spacey), an affluent magazine executive fed up with his corporate career and sexless marriage to an image-conscious real estate agent (Annette Bening). Cue the midlife crisis. Lester quits his job, buys his dream car and develops an infatuation with his teenage daughter’s (Thora Birch) blond cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari) — textbook man-child conduct. Meanwhile, the Burnhams’ new neighbors are a repressed family led by retired Marine Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), whose wife (Allison Janney) is nearly catatonic and whose aforementioned son (Wes Bentley) is a brooding, voyeuristic weed dealer. As their lives intersect, melodrama unfolds.

Alan Ball, who’d written for the sitcoms “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill,” found inspiration for his screenplay in the Amy Fisher scandal, a plastic bag he’d seen blowing in the wind outside the World Trade Center, the six-feet-under narration from “Sunset Boulevard” and his experiences growing up in residential Georgia. DreamWorks, co-founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, bought Ball’s script in April 1998 after a bidding war with rival studios, giving the project instant clout. At the time, Hollywood was drunk on tart suburban satires about white America, from “Edward Scissorhands” and “Serial Mom” to “Pleasantville,” “The Ice Storm” and “The Truman Show.” The following December, cameras were rolling — a fast turnaround by industry standards. First-time film director Sam Mendes, who had recently won acclaim for his Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” sat at the helm. 

By the time “American Beauty” premiered in September 1999 at the Toronto International Film Festival — a key awards-season springboard — the buzz was electric. This was the hot property of the fall, and DreamWorks kept the momentum alive by releasing it in theaters the next month, when it could still ride the festival wave. Worried such dark subject matter wouldn’t play well in heartland malls, the studio initially expected the movie to hit 700 screens. (For comparison, “The Sixth Sense,” released two months earlier, maxed out at approximately 2,800.) But “Beauty” exceeded expectations, climbing to more than 1,500 screens and cementing a position as the year’s Oscar front-runner. 

Most critics gushed over the film, rightly praising Mendes’ sleek pacing and Thomas Newman’s hypnotic score, among other hallmarks. But in revisiting those reviews from the more socially enlightened vantage of 2019, it’s striking how few challenged its dodgy ideas about gender, class and sexuality, given that “American Beauty” would hardly survive the think-piece cycle that now monopolizes pop culture.

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