With the #MeToo movement in full swing, there’s been a lot of talk about separating the art from the artist and through what kind of lens we should view them, knowing the things we know now. When we watch a movie starring someone accused of abusive behavior, can we remain objective about the work in question and should we even try to? Go ahead and watch anything with Jeffrey Jones after doing a cursory internet search and feel the visceral stomach-churning as it ruins your fond memories of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
Kevin Spacey, who had an Oscar for his role in American Beauty (1999) was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017 by Anthony Rapp, who said the incident occurred when he was fourteen at the time. The fallout was swift: Spacey was booted from Netflix’s House of Cards (save for one final appearance in a bizarre in-character video he released) and then erased digitally from Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017). Spacey’s career hasn’t really recovered, and it’s certainly a far cry from the glory period, when American Beauty was garnering awards left and right. While a case against Space has recently been dropped, in which the actor was accused of groping an eighteen-year-old man at a bar in 2016, it would be hard to imagine the accusations going away any time soon.
Examining American Beauty after its twentieth anniversary is awkward for multiple reasons. It’s difficult not to wonder how many commonalities between Spacey and his character were intentional or not, perhaps providing some kind of hints as to the harassment and abuse alleged decades later. Beyond that, American Beauty came out at the tail-end of the 90s, a period in which Office Space (1999) and Fight Club (1999) also tackled white, middle-class malaise in their own ways. At a time of relative prosperity, holes were being poked in the idea of happiness with the American Dream and all the sorts of things we thought would make us happy.
American Beauty is about the dissatisfaction of one Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) who believes he’s sleepwalking through his life in bland suburbia. He narrates his miseries as well as the events leading up to his murder. Lester is middle-aged, his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) hates him, and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is unhappy with their social standing and constantly berates him. After Lester begins to lust after Jane’s best friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) in earnest and befriends the off-kilter next-door neighbor’s son Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who reintroduces Lester to the joys of pot and espouses his life philosophy, Lester begins to change his behavior.
More assertive, Lester takes charge of his life: he works out; stands up for himself; and in what seems like an eerily-accurate inside joke, blackmails his workplace into giving him a sweet severance package by threatening a sexual harassment lawsuit. It’s only one of the bevy of parallels, the most glaring of which is Lester’s inappropriate romance of the teenage Angela. This is the motivation that drives Lester’s transformation, in fact, it’s the driver of the marketing with Angela’s bare midriff gracing the film’s poster and the image of her naked body covered in rose petals still remains as iconic as ever.
In what seems like the biggest coincidence, Ricky’s father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a vehement homophobe only to turn out to be closeted himself. He attempts to kiss Lester, who gently rebuffs his advances and mistaken assumptions after he thinks him and his son are having an affair. Kevin Spacey came out after the accusations in what seemed to be a bid to downplay the severity of the incident. It could practically be a dark comedy, all Spacey needs to do is give a knowing wink to the camera like he was doing another season of House of Cards.
American Beauty purports to look at the complexity underlying the conformist veneer of suburbia, but the reality is it holds nothing but contempt for anyone other than Ricky and Lester. His wife Carolyn is nothing but a shrieking caricature of a career-focused woman, and Angela and Jane are bad people for caring about how others view them as well. Only Lester and Ricky are worthy of our respect, and anyone who doesn’t agree with their loose take on life is wrong.
Lester’s midlife crisis is presented as a reawakening when in reality it’s a regression. He acts like he did during his teenage heyday and can only appreciate Carolyn for the woman she was, not who she is now. Of course, the audience has to be on Lester’s side, he’s the narrator after all, and Spacey has always excelled at being likable while still being a sarcastic a-hole, and if anything Lester Burnham is Spacey in all of his sarcastic glory. He even manages to cut down Carolyn after finding out she’s cheating on him, transferring the shame in finding out about it. Lester was going to cheat on her with Angela, but Carolyn is terrible because she beat him to the punch.
Is it still possible to watch American Beauty without calling the controversies of Kevin Spacey to mind, separating the art from the artist? In a film about the public versus the private persona, where the faults of the main character and the actor playing them are so intertwined, it might be difficult, but not impossible. Its themes are still rich, the movie is still just as watchable, and despite Spacey’s allegations, it shouldn’t take away from what the rest of the cast and crew were trying to accomplish.