They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
The 92nd Academy Awards has the potential to be a big night for Sam Mendes. The director’s latest, the “captivating and intense” World War I film 1917, is up for 10 Oscar statues this year, including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, all of which would go directly onto Mendes’ mantel. However, this wouldn’t be the first time he struck Oscar gold.
Prior to establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s elite directors, Mendes cut his teeth working in theater. It was there that he developed a reputation for his unique and dark twists on beloved classics such as Cabaret and Oliver!. After nearly a decade of success on the stage, he made the switch to the silver screen with American Beauty.
His film debut was quickly met with great success and was the big winner at the 72nd Academy Awards, racking up a total of seven nominations and taking home the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Director for Mendes. He joined Delbert Mann, Jerome Robbins, Robert Redford, James L. Brooks, and Kevin Costner as the only directors to win the prestigious award for their first film.
With this year’s show right around the corner, it’s a good time to re-visit what critics had to say when American Beauty was released back on October 1, 1999, and how those opinions may have shifted over the years.
The heavy-handed satire on American suburbia received universal praise out the gate. Critics seemed particularly impressed with the film’s willingness to push the boundaries of the “Hollywood norm” and the sharp contrast between the pleasant and happy life of small-town America and the dark secrets lingering beneath the surface.
“It’s the life behind things that American Beauty catches as Mendes whips the audience around from humor to horror to something poetic and humane,” Peter Travers wrote for Rolling Stone magazine. “The result is the kind of artful defiance that Hollywood is usually too timid to deliver: a jolting comedy that makes you laugh till it hurts.”
Similarly, CNN’s Paul Clinton described the film as “not your typical high-concept Hollywood film,” suggesting it may be a hard sell for some viewers.
In The New York Times, Janet Maslin credited this juxtaposition to Mendes, writing that he “strikes an unusually successful balance between the mordant and bright.” Maslin’s review is just one of many to praise the direction of Mendes.
Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann compared the director’s stage-to-film transition favorably to that of Mike Nichols. Guthmann described Mendes as “an abundantly gifted man,” noting his ability to work with actors and his “mastery of narrative complexity.”
Not everyone was impressed, however. Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel caught an advanced screening and expected the film to fade into obscurity. When the film started to receive critical acclaim, Boyar was shocked and declared that American Beauty would be known as “the movie that caused a lot of movie critics to lose what was left of their minds.”
Boyar didn’t pull any punches, calling the film’s targets “easy and all-too-familiar” and the equivalent of “shooting fish in a shallow dish.” Boyar continued to fire shots suggesting the movie was too on-the-nose and then launched an absolute rocket calling the film “so smug that Donald Trump, even on his worst day, would seem positively humble by comparison.”
Back in 1999, that Trump comment would sting, but two decades later, it’s downright devastating. It’s also pretty hilarious, and the perfect segue into how the film’s reputation has evolved over the years. It’s undergone reappraisal, which all films eventually face, and the results haven’t been too kind. Premiere magazine placed it on its list of the 20 most overrated movies back in 2006. E! followed suit and included it on a list of overrated Best Picture winners.
Josh Goller re-visited the film for Spectrum Culture in 2012, calling it a “literal example of trash passed off as treasure.”
In his Stereogum column, The Hunt for the Worst Movie of All Time, Gabe Delahaye went to town on American Beauty. Delahaye sarcastically breaks down every absurd notion the film wants us to believe, all of which he sums up in one perfect sentence: “The main problem with American Beauty is everything.”
The consensus on a film changing isn’t unique to American Beauty. It seems every week we’re bombarded by a new article written by some snotty millennial telling us why we’re dumb for liking some movie that was released before they were born. What makes American Beauty’s evolution unique is that it’s marred by the elephant in the room that is the film’s star, Kevin Spacey.
Spacey won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man that hates his life, quits his job, and has sexual fantasies about his teenage daughter’s underage best friend. In a word, he’s a creep.
And he was hailed as an acting god for his performance. “Spacey is brilliant with his edgy, almost psychotic creation,” wrote Kevin Lewin for the BBC. Observer critic Rex Reed called it the “performance of his life,” and Travers wrote that Spacey “nails every comic and poignant nuance in the role.” If a critic reviewed American Beauty, odds are they praised Spacey.
In October of 2017, the first of many sexual misconduct allegations against Spacey surfaced. And they paint a picture of Spacey that is eerily similar to that of Lester Burnham, making it nearly impossible to watch the film now without cringing from the first frame to the end credits.
Though one could argue it was pretty cringe-worthy pre-allegations. After all, Lester isn’t a good man wronged by society. He’s just an asshole tired of having to be an adult, so he tosses his responsibilities to the wayside and lusts after a minor — an unfortunate moment of art imitating life, even if we didn’t know it at the time.
Take the Spacey situation and couple it with the film’s pre-9/11 America vibe and exploitation and sexualization of youth, and it’s easy to see how the film’s reputation has shifted so wildly over the years. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, it’s hard not to be fascinated by American Beauty in some way. Here’s to hoping Mendes’ next Oscar success is able to carry the fascination without the controversy.