Movies | 9 | American Beauty
Sam Mendes Is not your everyday director. He does not direct slapstick comedies or action-laden quests. And including the latest Skyfall Mendes only has nine titles to his credit. However, he has been awarded the Commander of the Order of British Empire and also felicitated by the Director’s Guild of Britain. One might wonder the justification of so many laurels and accolades that Mendes has won despite the short number of titles to his name. Perhaps the most fitting reply to the same is Mendes’ American Beauty – a movie which won the Golden Globe and the Oscar for the Best Picture, among other honours.
The movie is a tragic satire at the American perspective of life and a brilliant mockery to the extent of stereotypical nature that it has gradually acquired. By clearly contrasted and distinctly sharpened characters in the movie, the entire American dream and its protagonists have been brought out on the stage in front of an audience that is as much a victim of consumerism, materialism and capitalism as much as most characters in the movie.
Carolyn Burham represents the typical American today – drowned in plastic-purchases and on-the-face formalities, searching for happiness and for the fulfilment of that typical interpretation of the American Dream that the theme has come to symbolise. She strives to possess what the ‘respectable’ society has come to recognise as parameters of happiness – while forgetting that true happiness as perhaps essayed in the original American Dream, was not at all composed of the materialistic milestones that it signifies today. Her daughter Jane is her complete contrast – which is brought out by the dull clothes she wears and the dark company that she keeps. Jane is completely lost between the true meaning of happiness and her mother’s version of the same.
The conversations between the mother and daughter – floating on the theme of family in the movie – also bring out the double sidedness in the metamorphosing society. While a mother is supposed to accept her child despite all and in fact educate her about the real happiness, Carolyn calls her daughter ugly and expects her to look ‘presentable’. She expects her daughter to be happy for “the life that she has” and even later when despite all the marital troubles, her husband tries to kiss her, she stops him, lest he drop beer on the expensive couch.
Another female protagonist, Angela symbolises another facet of the American culture – the aesthetic superficial beauty. Her character is that of a blonde cheerleader – two very typical characteristics of the American society – who the male protagonist of the movie, Lester Burham falls in love with. Lester’s own character is that of a man who is tired of the shallowness in the society and chooses to no longer be bound within the frameworks of the “happy American life”. Brilliantly portrayed by Kevin Spacey, Lester’s character loosely borders on the lines of Willy Loman – the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – and in order to save himself from the fate that Loman had faced, Lester breaks free of his life to escape Loman’s fate.
Lester gives up his job, is least worried about the worldly possessions his wife is so proud of, does drugs and smokes cigarettes to spoil himself, works out – even so late in life – to evolve in his own eyes; and even falls in love with a teenager. In doing these, he defies all the statuettes of the American life – acts that show that trues happiness is perhaps beyond what is fed to the society as a promise of happiness.
Mendes has ably brought out all major themes of an ideal and of the American society and has very subtly managed to water out stark differences between the two through these themes – namely, individual identity, love, family, freedom, sexuality and happiness.