American Beauty

American Beauty won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1999, and four others: Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball) and Best Cinematography (Conrad Hall). The Nebula that year went to The Sixth Sense, and the Hugo and the next year’s Nebula to Galaxy Quest.

I have not seen any of the other four Oscar nominees, which were The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider and Hugo-winner The Sixth Sense. IMDB users have it 4th on one ranking and 8th on the other, respectable enough, with Fight Club, The Matrix and The Green Mile ahead of it on both.

1999 was the year that our second child was born, and I saw very few films. One of them, oddly enough, was American Beauty, which I caught in early 2000 on a visit to Budapest. It’s one of very few Oscar winners that I saw in a cinema soon after original release – the others are Chariots of Fire, Gandhi and The Return of the King. The other films from that year that I have seen are The Matrix, American Pie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Cruel Intentions, Sunshine and Never Been Kissed. I will admit that American Beauty is a well-made film, but I probably like it the least of the lot. Here’s a trailer.


I normally start off these reviews by listing the actors who have been in earlier Oscar-winning or Hugo/Nebula-winning films, or in Doctor Who. This time there aren’t any. Amused to see Alison Janney, shortly before her breakthrough as C.J. in The West Wing, as the traumatised Mrs Fitts, and Scott Bakula, of Quantum Leap and Enterprise, as one of the two Jims.

As I said, I will admit that American Beauty is a well-made film, but I just don’t like it very much. All of the (100% white) characters are just awful people, with the exception of the central characters’ daughter Jane Burnham, who (rightly) hates her parents, and the two neighbouring Jims, whose healthy relationship is a bitter contrast with the heterosexual couples at the centre of the story. The script tries to make us sympathise with Lester Burnham as he goes through a mid-life crisis, but really he generates a lot of his own misfortunes, and we are invited to share his very creepy male gaze; though admittedly it’s hardly his fault that the next door neighbours are all psychopaths.

When almost every character is so awful, it’s difficult to be interested in what happens to them. The cinematography almost pulls this off, but I wasn’t really fooled when first watching it in Budapest in 2000 and I was even less fooled this time. I’m putting it very low down my list, only just shy of the bottom ten, below Mutiny on the Bounty, which is also about awful people but at least has good scenery, and above Braveheart for not taking its dreadful protagonist quite as seriously.

But the cinematography is very good, and the music also compelling. The theme tune is particularly haunting.


But the whole thing left me feeling rather icky.

IMDB trivia points out that this was only the second Oscar winner of the 1990s to have a contemporary setting (after The Silence of the Lambs). It’s closer in spirit to the winners of twenty years before, Kramer vs Kramer and Ordinary People (which I didn’t like) and Terms of Endearment (which I did).

Next up is Gladiator, of which I know nothing except the title. But before that, I look forward to watching The Sixth Sense and Galaxy Quest, and seeing what Hugo and Nebula voters thought was better than The Matrix, which is my favourite of the 1999 films that I have seen.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011)

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