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American Beauty

Of all the Oscar winners for best picture, this one is my favorite. I saved it for last because I admire the artistry, and the pure genius behind it. We have reached the end of our run here with the movie that took home the big prize in 1999, American Beauty.

Itís hard to believe this movie got made. Imagine the pitch meeting, with someone saying they wanted to make a movie about a guy who loses his job, loses his wife, falls in love with his daughterís friend, and starts doing drugs. . . And his life gets better. I give the studio credit for giving this visionary film the green light. And what they got for taking that risk is one great movie. Sam Mendes weaves together several themes, subplots, and characters, none of which get lost in the shuffle and all come together seamlessly at the end.

First we have the "look closer" theme. Nothing is as it appears to be, from Lester and Carolynís marriage which they pretend is fine for the purposes of her business, to their daughter Jane, who pretends to be grossed out by her boyfriend Ricky videotaping her, but secretly is happy she is getting the attention instead of her friend Angela. Even Angela seems to be a skank, but turns out to be a virgin, much to Lesterís surprise.

Another major theme is, to quote Janis Joplin, "freedomís just another word for nothing left to lose." Lester loses everything, including eventually his life, and finds the process very liberating. The prospect of loss frees him from blindly going through the motions in order to satisfy social norms. Take for instance the first time he tells his wife off. He yells at her, backs her into a corner by explaining she had no grounds to file for divorce, then turns over to fall back asleep and a smile forms on his lips. He has dispensed with lying for the sake of the status quo and the truth set him free. For many characters, liberation is in ditching the status quo. Ricky turns not to honesty, but a lie to set himself free, telling his father that heís gay and in a relationship with Lester in order to get kicked out of the house. But though one uses the truth and the other a lie, the effect is the same, as they escape the constraints of their prior life.

Part of Lester escaping his old life is the scene where he tells off the efficiency expert, explaining that much of his job involves masking his contempt for his boss and masturbating in the menís room while "fantasizing about a life that less closely resembles hell," thus torpedoing his own job. It is one of two truly great scenes in movie history involving a character being honest with an efficiency expert, and both movies were released in 1999.

Thatís whatís so great about Lester Burnham. The safe route would have been to placate his boss, try to salvage his marriage, and continue the illusion of happiness despite all the misery he had to endure. He went the unsafe route and found happiness. The reason we root for him and find joy in Lesterís salvation is because he had the guts to do what most people only dream of. He takes the road less traveled and in losing everything, he finds happiness and freedom.

And others follow his lead in taking a risk, and finding happiness. Jane dates someone the cool crowd (namely Angela) doesnít approve of. Carolyn dates "that dorky prince of real estate guy." Ricky refuses to follow the life his father sets out for him. Even Colonel Fitts decides to act on his homosexuality despite being outwardly homophobic. Itís doesnít work out well for him, but contrast all those who take the risks with Angela and Rickyís mom, who never go against the grain, never take any risks, and in the end are the two most miserable characters in the movie.

The acting is great. Kevin Spacey won a very deserved Oscar for best actor (a win that got him a role in Final Days the following year, which should have won the Oscar for best live action short). Allison Janney is wonderful as the shell shocked Mrs. Fitts, where she is hardly recognizable from her role as CJ Craig in West Wing, which debuted that same year. Oddly none of the major actors have ever been in another best picture winner. Sue Casey, who plays a woman at Carolynís open house had a minor role as a backing dancer in An American in Paris. Thatís it. Thatís the list. No one else who appeared in American Beauty ever appeared in another best picture winner. Janney can break that streak if Juno wins this year, but I have to say I do not like those odds.

Also wonderful is the cinematography. Many people pay close attention to the roses, indicating Lesterís fantasy, but there is much more to it than that. The set design was wonderful, bringing the entire movie together with some vibrant colors. Even the dialogue is topnotch, with several lines that had me laughing out loud.

There were other movies released that year, but none of them were nearly as good. The Insider got a best picture nomination, and the Academy made up for the loss by giving Russell Crowe the next two. Not nominated were the extremely funny Office Space, Being John Malkovich, , and Election, as well as the ingenious Fight Club. All are good movies, but American Beauty just blows them all out of the water. It is a perfect movie, and very enjoyable, and offers a vicarious chance to tell the boss just what you think.

So here we are at the end of the road. My Year with Oscar is now complete. I hope you enjoyed the ride. I did, except for when I had to watch those 60ís musicals. And Greatest Show on Earth. And Cimarron.


comments (1) 12-31-2007

The People's Comments:

unwanted:
Good job just of making it throught the road of oscars. This best will be "No Country for Old Men". This is best movie of the year. I have not seen "Juno", but I do think it can touch me like "Old Country".

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