American Beauty was one of the standout dramas of 1999, and its dark themes of sexual repression, midlife dissatisfaction and conformity still resonate today.
Kevin Spacey received particular acclaim for his portrayal of frustrated advertising executive Lester Burnham who becomes infatuated by his teenage daughter’s friend.
Despite Lester’s lechery and inappropriateness, he was widely viewed to be sympathetic and even relatable in his desire to break free from the hum-drum shackles of quietly miserable suburbia.
However, Spacey’s performance and subsequent Oscar acceptance speech is now being viewed in a different light after the allegations made against him.
At the time of its release, The New York Times hailed Spacey’s turn of the millennium take-down of the American Dream as being his ‘wittiest and most agile to date’.
The late, great film critic Roger Ebert gave the following assessment of Spacey’s striking performance:
Spacey, an actor who embodies intelligence in his eyes and voice, is the right choice for Lester Burnham.
He does reckless and foolish things in this movie, but he doesn’t deceive himself; he knows he’s running wild–and chooses to, burning up the future years of an empty lifetime for a few flashes of freedom.
He may have lost everything by the end of the film, but he’s no longer a loser.
However, some viewers saw a nastier side to middle-class rebel Lester.
Film writer David Thomson made the following observation in his book, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:
Do not be fooled: Kevin Fowler [Spacey’s birth name] is and always was a chronic pretender, a naughty boy, a wicked mimic… you can see his Lester Burnham in American Beauty as the salt of the earth gone sour…
Me, I think he’s just one of Kevin’s nasty jokers. But it won him the Oscar
american beauty means so much to me, i loved kevin, he was one of my fav actors of a long time and now i've lost all respect for him
— alina (@vioIentyear) October 30, 2017
American Beauty is one of my favourite films, but now watching Kevin Spacey's character prey on an underage girl makes my skin crawl.
— Law-Abiding-Psycho (@MassCrimes) October 30, 2017
Spacey won the Oscar award for Best Actor for the part of Lester, and some people believe the choice of words in his acceptance speech to be telling:
To my friends, for pointing out my worst qualities. I know you do it because you love me, and that’s why I love playing Lester, because we got to see all of his worst qualities and we still grew to love him.
This movie to me is about how any single act by any single person put out of context is damnable.
But the joy of this movie is that it is real beauty, and we found real beauty in this extraordinary script by Alan Ball.
The ending of American Beauty is tragic, but ultimately hopeful as Lester is redeemed despite his ‘worst qualities’.
Drawing the parallels between himself and Lester have now made some people uncomfortable.
the academy awards should take away kevin spacey’s best actor award in the film american beauty considering he wasn’t acting at all
— kira (@dcsapphics) October 30, 2017
Damn, didn't realize that American Beauty would become a biopic about Kevin Spacey.
— Jaime Rebanal (@ItsJaimeHere) October 30, 2017
The story continues to unfold.
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.