The Parallels Between Kevin Spacey and AMERICAN BEAUTY’s Lester Burnham: 20 Years Later

What We Talk About When We Talk About Kevin Spacey

For the past two years, Kevin Spacey’s name has switched from one of the most acclaimed actors of this generation to one of the most prominent names on what could be considered a modern-day blacklist. Since accusations arose two years ago of him being sexually involved with young men, we have bore witness to last-minute film replacements, the ending of one of Netflix’s most iconic shows, and one of the worst times to come out of the closet. But were the signs always there and we just weren’t paying attention?

Coincidentally enough, one of his most iconic movies that could point to evidence about his behaviours is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It’s also fitting that the tagline of the poster to that film, American Beauty, is “Look closer”.

What is American Beauty?

American Beauty (1999) – source: DreamWorks Pictures

For those who are unfamiliar, American Beauty is a drama film released in 1999 directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. It’s release was not only met with critical praise, but also praise from audiences. It made over $350 million against a $15 million budget, holds a spot in IMDb’s Top 100 films (#68 as of this date), and would go on to win five Academy Awards including Best Picture. Many movies and TV shows today have made references to the film over the last 20 years, so it’s safe to say it has a solid spot in pop culture.

The movie follows Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, as a stir crazy suburban father in an undisclosed part of America (aerial shots were filmed in Sacramento, there are shots of Lester driving through Burbank, and phone numbers have a Chicago area code, so take your pick where it is) struggling to keep his act together. He goes through a midlife crisis as he lusts after his teenage daughter’s friend Angela and changes various aspects of his own life around so he could be more appealing to her.

While other threads of the movie focus on other members of the Burnham family and how they’re affected by Lester’s midlife crisis, the movie is always sure to keep him at the center of it all. To go into detail on this article would mean to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. It’s the double-edged sword of film criticism, but spoiling the movie, I believe, will help get the point across about Spacey’s real life behaviors.

Kevin in Real Life

Spacey in 2017

In October 2017, Hollywood experienced something of a watershed moment that shook up the game like never before. Starting with prominent producer Harvey Weinstein, a series of misconduct accusations spread across the nation affecting the work of many producers, directors and actors. Among the accused was two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey. His crimes were of a slightly different nature than Weinstein’s. A young actor named Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of drunken sexual advances when the former was 14 and the latter was 26. Spacey apologized, but it didn’t stop dozens more from coming forward with accusations of varying degrees (including the son of actor Richard Dreyfuss).

To say that Spacey’s career went up in flames would be an understatement. Netflix severed all ties with him, axing a Gore Vidal biopic and canning him from House of Cards (the show would go on to air for one more season without him). He was cut out of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World after it was completed and replaced with Christopher Plummer (which would get him an Oscar nomination for the movie, which I still assert is for the last-minute work). He even posted a disturbing video in character as Frank Underwood, denying any and all allegations towards him, that got very mixed reactions.

So with all that said, can we still enjoy his work?

In the Case of American Beauty

American Beauty (1999) – source: DreamWorks Pictures

While any of his films could be discussed about separating art from artist, I decided that American Beauty was the most appropriate, given the nature of the movie’s plot and the accusations against Spacey. In American Beauty, his character of Lester Burnham makes several changes to his life in an attempt to pursue his own sense of happiness. Early on in the film, Lester says: “Both my wife and daughter think that I’m this gigantic loser and they’re right, I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.”

He loses that sedation when he meets his daughter’s friend Angela. Throughout the movie, including at the first sight of her, he has fantasies of her that involve rose petals. It could serve as an allusion to the title, which is a type of rose that can look pretty and appealing but is prone to rotting underneath its appearance, much like Lester’s suburban lifestyle. He starts working out more, smokes weed with the neighbour kid Ricky Fitts (who forms a bond with Lester’s daughter), sells one of his cars for a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, and even quits his job in a way that millions of people could only dream of doing. While these crazy changes are taking place in his own life, he feels indifference to his wife’s eventual infidelity.

Towards the end of the film, he finally makes a move on Angela, who throughout the movie has been sexually promiscuous in how she talks and presents herself. But as Lester shows her love, she confesses to him that she is, in reality, a virgin. This revelation leads to a total change of heart in Lester. He gives up his lustful ambitions and reflects on his family life.

What Could It All Mean?

American Beauty (1999) – source: DreamWorks Pictures

With all that said, I want to remind everyone that this is purely opinion, and everyone will come to their own conclusions. As for me, I’m able to separate art from artist in certain cases. American Beauty has some themes and ideas that I think people can learn from in the wake of the Weinstein accusations. It’s a shame that Spacey did what he did and I think the punishment is perfectly fitting for him. If he had done what Lester had done, and not gone through with it, maybe we could’ve seen him in All the Money in the World. Maybe he could’ve ended House of Cards on his own terms. We’ll never know.

What I am sure of is that American Beauty will never be looked at the same way again. I’ll personally watch it again if I want to, because there is a lot to like about the film. I understand if others may not be able to look at Spacey’s face again knowing what we now know about him, but we’ll always have that big debate about art vs. artist to fall back on.

Published by Doug Hemmings

Doug Hemmings is a 22 year old film enthusiast who lives in Northern New Jersey. When he's not going to the movies, he likes to play guitar and read. His favorite movies include "The Truman Show", "Whiplash", "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", and "Pleasantville"

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