‘American Beauty’ 20th Anniversary: What’s Still Beautiful and What’s Turned Ugly?

20 years ago on September 15, American Beauty blew the lid off the suburban illusion. Everybody’s trying to fit the same image and it’s making them miserable in unique ways. That ground would be covered again five years later on TV’s Desperate Housewives, which seems to have left a larger cultural footprint, although to be fair, it was around for eight seasons and American Beauty in theaters less than one year.

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in American Beauty | DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images

The most difficult part of revisiting American Beauty may be remembering a time before Anthony Rapp and others brought allegations against Kevin Spacey. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who didn’t want to see a Kevin Spacey movie today, but I want to look back at what American Beauty meant and what has changed in 20 years.

I eventually caught up to ‘American Beauty’

Lester Burnham (Spacey) is 42 in American Beauty. 20 years ago that seemed like an unfathomable future. Now he’s only one year older than me. He’s already been married long enough to have a teenage daughter. I haven’t even begun a marriage so maybe I’m more than a year away from Lester’s midlife crisis. 

His lust for a teenage cheerleader was wrong then but today it probably wouldn’t even be explored in a movie. They just wouldn’t go there, especially not with Kevin Spacey. Maybe that’s for the best. Even if American Beauty comes down on the right side, women don’t need to be vehicles for middle aged men to fix their lives.

American Beauty
Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in American Beauty | DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images

The film slut shames Angela (Mena Suvari) for being promiscuous. The intention is good. The film is saying Angela identifies the wrong things as her value. I think we’ve evolved to where we can show teenage girls there’s more to them than their looks without over-sexualizing them or shaming them for having sexuality. Thora Birch’s parents signed off on her having a topless scene at 17. Thinking about a teenager being naked on film forever, even an artistic film like American Beauty, just doesn’t seem necessary.

Where I relate to Lester, and where I don’t

Lester leaves his magazine writing job (remember magazines?) to work in fast food like he did in high school. As I was approaching 40 I found myself nostalgic for my high school and college job working at a movie theater. What I do now, Interviewing actors and directors is way more exciting, but those were good times selling tickets and getting theaters ready for the next show. 

American Beauty
Kevin Spacey in American Beauty | DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images

I wouldn’t go back and I couldn’t support myself on minimum wage. I was also living with my parents then. It’s way better to have my own place as an adult, but I relate to that part of American Beauty now. Lester also likes pot. I don’t like pot so I still don’t relate to that.

Otherwise, his whole empowerment is just to become smug and condescending. I can see how that appealed to me at 21 but now I don’t think we should celebrate that behavior either. 

I empathize more to Carolyn now

When I first saw American Beauty, it was immediately apparent to me that the facade Carolyn (Annette Bening) was putting on wasn’t working. It wasn’t making her happy or successful, and it was alienating her husband and daughter Jane (Birch). Even at work, putting on a professional act that doesn’t work because she can’t sell enough houses and she can’t make anyone else behave the way she wants.

American Beauty
Annette Bening in American Beauty | DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images

I have a bit more sympathy for Carolyn now. I’m rather impressed that I recognized the futility of her act so young. Now I’m aware how society sells people that they have to present success and it will follow. A lot of people face crisis when they realize it doesn’t work with nothing underneath. If American Beauty were made now, Carolyn would have to maintain a perfect Instagram presence.

American Beauty is really proud of Lester telling her off though. I don’t think that’s fair. He’s been repressed for years and it’s her fault for holding him back? No, she deserved a proactive husband all those years. If she overcompensated, it takes two to tango.

Thora Birch and Wes Bentley

Thora Birch should have become a huge star off this. It was her brilliant transition from wonderful childhood roles in Hocus Pocus and Monkey Trouble. The look she gives when Carolyn slaps her says it all. “You have to resort to physical violence because you’re weak and you can’t control me.”

American Beauty
Thora Birch in American Beauty | Getty Images

Birch had Ghost World, but her father was managing her career and made it difficult. I remember dealing with Jack Birch to try to set up an interview for American Beauty (the offer still stands if we can make it happen 20 years later!) so I can imagine him making it impossible to sign her for a movie. She eventually distanced herself from him but missed prime years of developing a career.

Wes Bentley has also spoken about his drug addictions that derailed the momentum he had from American Beauty. He’s doing well now with roles in big movies and Kevin Costner’s TV series Yellowstone.

That also speaks to how Hollywood welcomes men back more easily than women. Not that Bentley shouldn’t be back but Birch should too. And not replaced in the second season of Colony. Maybe The Walking Dead will give her that platform.

Wes Bentley and Thora Birch in American Beauty | DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images

Did Ricky’s shopping bag video predict YouTube? It was weird that Ricky filmed everything but he needed a video camera. Now it’s normal to film everything with your phone. Ricky saw the beauty in everything he filmed. I’ve seen people make videos of escalators so if they can see the beauty in escalators then screenwriter Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes’s core message remains true.

The neighbors of ‘American Beauty’

Homophobia is still relevant unfortunately. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) can’t imagine anything worse than being gay except for having a gay son. He’s terrified that Ricky is having an affair with Lester. In Frank’s case, he’s closeted which is the root of some homophobia, but not all. Some homophobes are just hateful.

Wes Bentley and Chris Cooper in American Beauty |DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images

Ricky’s mom (Allison Janney) is totally on the sideline, totally unaware of what her husband or son are doing. That was probably many women’s true story too, withdrawing from oppressive men and Janney represents them.

‘American Beauty’ is still fresh, but for different reasons

The theme of American Beauty was that all of these characters seemed ordinary but had all this angst under the surface. I don’t think anything is under the surface anymore. Everyone shares everything publicly on social media. We know who’s having job troubles, relationship troubles, health troubles. No one bothers to put up a front. They just vent all their feelings.

American Beauty
Wes Bentley, Thora Birch and Mena Suvari American Beauty | DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images

American Beauty 2 would have trouble finding any secrets, and I wonder if audiences seeing it for the first time would be surprised it took these people half the movie to start saying what’s on their minds. This was America in the ‘90s though and I’m sort of nostalgic for those problems. Mainly because at least I knew how to solve those.

Hopefully in 20 years I can look back on today’s problems having long since become old news.I still like American Beauty. It takes me back to where I was and where society was in 1999. It also makes me glad I’ve outgrown American Beauty and I hope we all have.