I’m not going to lie—this week was a challenge. Do I revisit a movie that was dubbed the Best Picture of 1999, a movie I really liked at the time, but have since abandoned after its star’s misdeeds made watching it an incredibly uncomfortable experience? American Beauty is a difficult film to write about in the year 2022 because it’s hard to reconcile my original opinion with an ever-evolving consciousness of cinema’s impact and responsibility. Nevertheless, if I’m going to look at the year 1999, I feel like I have to look at it warts-and-all. And by warts, I mean the casual acceptance (perhaps even, glamorization) of statutory rape. Dear lord, what were we thinking?
Here’s the thing—I still believe there are some great performances in this movie. I still adore the cinematography and score. I still enjoy the critique of the suburban middle class, and the way the ending unfolds like an episode of Dateline. It leaves us guessing about what comes next, which I find exciting. If I could only watch the brilliant Annette Bening in the role of a frustrated wife, mother, and realtor, I’d be watching this on repeat without hesitation. I want her to sell that house today, and the ensuing breakdown when she fails still reflects the tiny voice inside me that screams every time the thing I desperately wanted to achieve just doesn’t work out—you weak, stupid, baby. But American Beauty isn’t a one-woman show. It also features Kevin Spacey, in a role where we, the audience, are supposed to be rooting for him to turn his boring life around by seducing his daughter’s teenage friend. It isn’t cool now, it shouldn’t have been cool then, and shame on all of us who looked through his perverted lens and couldn’t see the trauma for the rose petals. I’m amazed that it took the star’s real-life crimes to wake us up to the problems with this character, but I can only assume we were distracted by Lester Burnham’s “Great Resignation” before it was a trend.
Maybe, like me, you’re curious and want to go down this rabbit hole one more time. If so, you will need a drink. Let’s celebrate Carolyn Burnham’s prize rose collection with this simple cocktail, tailor-made for easy refills. While watching American Beauty, I recommend drinking a Rosewater Gin & Tonic.
Rosewater Gin & Tonic
2 oz London Dry Gin
6 oz Fever Tree Tonic
3-4 drops Rosewater
Rose Petal (for garnish)
Juniper berries (for garnish)
Combine ingredients in a highball glass over ice, stirring gently to combine. Garnish with a lime slice and rose petal.
I suppose this whole ordeal opens me up to thinking about my own tolerance for movies that have not stood the test of time. There are some I find easier to watch than others, and I can’t even explain why. But I think that complexity is true for a lot of us—we’re not perfect, and our understanding and reaction to painful histories is an ever-evolving process. However, I think having the space to examine things through a more critical lens, without judgment, is key to creating better content. We can’t move forward in a productive way without examining mistakes of the past. And in 1999, I’ll be the first to admit—I was wrong about American Beauty. Let’s not do this again.