Red, White, and American Beauty: What Makes This Film so American?

So we’re about three hours into the Fourth of July, and I am stuck at work. Not just the overnight shift, but during the day tomorrow, too. And the night. Needless to say, I’m unable to honor our country’s independence by shooting off fireworks or going to the lake, but I am able to celebrate in a more subtle way: through film. I guess that’s the good thing about working hospitality on a college campus over the Fourth of July weekend—it’s pretty dead around here. So, let the movies begin.

I started with one that many may not immediately associate with Patriotism, unless you’re really focusing on its title, American Beauty. But if you’ve watched it one, two, or fifty times (like me), you may find that this movie really hits on the American experience—particularly of those who live in the burbs. But more generally, anyone teenager through mid-life crisis sufferers have something to gain from this movie. And though it came out before the turn of the century, I find that its lessons are still applicable today. So, without further ado, I present to you, in no particular order, my list of “Thirteen Things we can all Learn From American Beauty:”

1. Almost all families have a hard time communicating with each other…sometimes to the point where their members feel unloved and invisible.

I am sick and tired of being treated like I don't exist

2. They remember the good memories, too. Whether it’s your best friend from kindergarten who you had a fight with and stopped talking to long ago, or a cousin on the opposite side of a family feud, they haven’t lost the good memories either.

“Oh man, oh man.” Lester looking at a picture of his family from years ago, thinking about the fun they used to have together.

3. “It will all get better after high school” isn’t always true. (Caroline’s career struggles, Lester saying he would be lying to Jane, crappy marriages, etc.)

Trying to transform pressure into positivism...
Trying to transform pressure into positivism…
...And facing failure.
…And facing failure.
Lester reveals that adulthood isn't all it's cracked up to be for teens...
Lester reveals that adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for teens…
...And abandons his career to chase after youth.
…And abandons his career to chase after youth.

4. Sometimes, you’ll feel like you’re in this alone.

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But the good news is, other people are feeling the same way. So you’re not alone in that sense.

5. Everyone needs to blow off some steam once in a while. Carolyn shows us one way.

The movie

6. It’s never too late.

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7. Don’t lose your sense of wonder. You’ll get more out of life if you train yourself to look closer.

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8. Don’t get so caught up in materialism that you forget to live.

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When Lester Burnham wakes from his coma of a life, he sees the showy, homogenized suburbia for what it truly is: empty. At its core, American Beauty deals with the battle between belonging and setting oneself apart. Sometimes, these two opposites are mistaken for the same thing. Which bring us to number seven.

9. The pursuit of extraordinary is ordinary.

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10. Which is why it’s important to be yourself, whatever that may mean.

Rise Against song Last Chance Blueprint sampled these very lines.
Rise Against song Last Chance Blueprint sampled these very lines.

11. If you feel invisible, it will only be so much more special when someone looks close enough to see your beauty.

Ricky to Jane.
Ricky to Jane.
And when you find that someone, you'll feel like the luckiest person under the stars.
And when you find that someone, you’ll feel like the luckiest person under the stars.

12. The power of this question:

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13. Despite all its ugliness, there is so much beauty in the world.

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What makes this movie so American, and so appropriate for Independence Day? The answer is probably different for everyone, and many may disagree entirely, as this movie has taken quite a bit of heat since its release over fifteen years ago. (Some opinionated people call it “overrated,” but its credentials (five Oscar wins and a slot as IMDb’s 63rd best movie of all time) don’t seem to agree). To me, this movie is American because, despite its many messages, I think it boils down to a manifesto for individualism. Don’t seek to be extraordinary, but yourself, for being yourself is the best kind of extraordinary there is. And it’s what will make you happy.

Despite the lessons and themes I’ve pointed out, this movie has a host of talented actors, and probably one of my favorite Kevin Spacey performances. The music and cinematography is also impeccable. Even by just the aesthetics of this film, it’s no wonder the word “beauty” is in the title.


WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

I’m always one for movie trivia, so here’s a few things that you may not have known about this iconic American film, courtesy of IMDb:

The tagline and important theme of the film (“…look closer” ) can be seen in Lester’s cubicle at work. It was originally just a simple decoration that a set dresser had put in, but it caught director Sam Mendes’s eye while editing, and he suggested it be used for the posters and trailer.

Imagine, if you will, American Beauty with an entirely different cast, featuring…

  1. Jake Gyllenhaal as Ricky Fitts. He auditioned for the role but did not get the part. After seeing his creepy side in Nightcrawler, I think he could have given a performance that would almost measure up to that of Wes Bentley’s.
  2. Chevy Chase or Tom Hanks as Lester Burnham. Though Kevin Spacey was Mendes’s top choice, the part was first offered to Chase.
  3. jessica Biel as Jane Burnham. She was originally cast as Jane, but had to back out due to conflicts with 7th Heaven. The part was then given to Thora Birch.
  4. Kirsten Dunst, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brittany Murphy, or Katie Holmes as Angela Hayes. All were offered the role, but turned it down.

In the original version of the script (which was written by Alan Ball), there was a separate story that revealed Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) had a gay lover who died in Vietnam.

Also in the original script, Jane and Ricky were suppose to be charged for the murder of Lester Burnham. The movie ended with the characters going to trial, and being found guilty for the murder of Jane’s father. The movie was reviewed by a test audience that found the ending highly dissatisfying, so the movie was re-shot. Which leaves us with the ending that we all know and love, Ricky smiling and Lester Burnham’s holey head.

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday. –Lester Burnham

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