The Best Picture Project – American Beauty (1999)

Poster image of a woman's belly with her hand holding a rose against it.Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Alan Ball

Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Mena Suvari, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher and Scott Bakula

I love American Beauty and couldn’t be more pleased it was chosen as Best Picture, especially since it represents the one time in the last fifteen years where the Academy was really tempted to hang it’s hat on another picture – one that was less abrasive, less divisive, had less murder, drugs, Lolita storylines, and infidelity – and chose instead to honor the more challenging film.

In 1999, American Beauty faced its stiffest competition from two films: The Cider House Rules and The Sixth SenseThe Cider House Rules was more of the critical favorite, having at its back the Miramax prestige machine, and if there’s one thing the Academy loves, it’s critical acclaim.  On the other hand, The Sixth Sense made piles of money, and if there’s one thing Hollywood loves more than critical acclaim, its money.

In hindsight, The Cider House Rules seems a safe choice, almost milquetoast – notwithstanding it’s abortion storyline – while The Sixth Sense seems increasingly a fluke by it’s director, one that benefited from a gimmick that, if excised, left behind a rather dull story.  In the end, either film would have been the safe choice for Best Picture and that neither took the trophy is a testament to the fact that the Academy occasionally gets it right.

And in my opinion, the Academy got it more than right.  In American Beauty they honored a film with easily the best acting of the year – the cast, top to bottom, is pitch-perfect.  The direction is imaginative, with wonderful flourishes, but does not overly call attention to itself.  The cinematography is magnificent.  The music is fantastic.  And the script is ideal, with the right combination of darkness, wit and depth of character.

Given how good the movie is, it’s strange to think it was the debut film of director Sam Mendes, who makes a film that doesn’t scream debut at all.  Perhaps part of that was coming to the film with an extensive theater background, where he was used to working with actors and had to have a certain amount of visual sense in order to be successful.  Perhaps part of that was wisely employing veteran cameraman Conrad Hall – a winner her for his cinematography.  Perhaps it’s just luck – after all, Mendes has yet to reach the same dizzying heights again, so some measure of good fortune had to smile upon him.  Whatever it is, the film is very assured, full of touches that lesser directors would omit, such as the Bob Fosse-esque routine by the cheerleaders, and the subtle, yet prominent use of the color red.

Despite my rampant appreciation for the film, every time I watch it, one glaring flaw of logic jumps right out at me.  No, it’s not placing Annette Bening in the lead actress category when she rightfully should have been in the supporting race, where she surely would have won.  Rather, it’s a major flaw that is unexplainable and, if corrected, would likely have altered the movie itself, even if it doesn’t change the ending.

In the film, on the last night of Lester’s (Spacey’s) life, Jane (Birch) has her friend Angela (Suvari) over.  At some point Ricky (Bentley) comes over and the three argue.  Angela, rather than leaving and going home – she has her own car and easily could – sits downstairs in the dark, listening to music.  Eventually Lester comes in and they nearly have sex.  Shortly thereafter, Lester is shot.

My quibble with the scene should be obvious from my description of it: Angela does not go home.  After engaging in a very venomous argument with Jane and Ricky, during which point it becomes clear that the very underpinnings of their friendship has been compromised, Angela does not go home.  Having a car, there is nothing to stop her going home, and from my experience with teen girls, that’s exactly what she should have done.  But she doesn’t, she just goes downstairs, sits in the dark.  I’m sure some would argue she stayed was laying in wait for Lester, that she planned to screw him as revenge against Jane, but if that’s what she was doing, that plan was flawed too: she had no way of knowing he’d ever come through and check on her.  In other words, her staying in the house is completely against all logic, is only done because a plot-point needed to be met and even if her staying or going wouldn’t change that Lester takes a bullet in the head, it’s always yanked me out of the film a bit – in the same way that Jack drowning at the end of Titanic drags me out of that one.

Nevertheless, flaw or not, the Academy got one right with American Beauty and must be applauded for it’s courage – or, what it does that seems courageous.  However, given they couldn’t recognize the score in any way and criminally overlooked Chris Cooper for his truly magnificent performance, I’m tempted to take my applause back.

Trivia

Hey, was that Jon Cho, of Harold and Kumar fame, looking at the house Annette Bening is trying to sell?  Why yes, it is.

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

 

 

 

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