On The Suburban Satire of AMERICAN BEAUTY And The Inevitability Of Awards Season Backlash

Looking closer at Sam Mendes' Best Picture Oscar winner and our relationship with awards season.

Awards season backlash seems inevitable. The films that are the most popular, like many of the ones that go on to win Best Picture, suffer from backlash before they've even claimed their trophies. Last week I wrote about Forrest Gump, a film that remains incredibly divisive even today. It's not a film I actively dislike, but I see the issues with it now, many years later. A film that popular is going to suffer from backlash - it's not that the backlash came later, either. It was immediate, but only really felt and recognized during awards season, when it was being championed by those who adored it, and derided by those who felt it was undeserving of so many accolades and so much praise. The divide between like and dislike deepens and becomes more pronounced as time goes on, eliminating the gray areas in between, leaving only love and hate. And during this particular season, our feelings - one way or the other, as there can evidently be only two sides - are cranked up to 11. Things quickly become overrated or underrated.

Sam Mendes' American Beauty is a film that many people recall now as overrated. Anything that's popular or beloved that you don't like is immediately overrated. When you feel you're in the minority on something, it's automatically underrated. And that's just, like, your opinion, man. I still love American Beauty all these years later, regardless of the film's flaws and the criticisms lobbed against it. I understand those criticisms. I get it.

Upon reflection, I find Alan Ball's script for American Beauty to be broadly satirical of suburban life. Is this the best Alan Ball has ever been? Maybe so. It's difficult to watch American Beauty and then something like True Blood and accept that the same person delivered both. But that's sort of the genius of Sam Mendes, who tackled suburban life again (and arguably much better) many years later with Revolutionary Road. Both films ask you to look closer at the home lives of your seemingly happy neighbors, who appear to have it all, whatever it all may be: families, a nice home, a good car, careers. Both films are divisive. Both films are a bit cynical. But Revolutionary Road is perhaps remembered a bit better because the era in which it took place seemed a more appropriate setting for its themes.

There are moments in American Beauty that feel overly melodramatic, its characters reduced to cynical caricatures. Wes Bentley describing that stupid plastic bag as the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, for instance, seems absurd, almost like the sort of thing you'd expect to see in an awards bait parody. But there are lines between spoofs, parodies, and satires: a spoof is low-brow, a parody is clever, and satire is more thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, and Bentley all act so impossibly melodramatic, but isn't that how we perceive angst-ridden, younger generations? Their characters reflect the specific aesthetic and attitudes of late '90s teens, the ones who think they are more perceptive than their peers - they are already disenchanted with the prospect of becoming adults, yet they arrogantly posture themselves as such because they feel as though they're the only ones who see that their families are living a lie. These kids, like myself at that age and in that time (and like many of you, undoubtedly), see the cracks in the facade because they're living in it.

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening are so perfectly cast as Lester and Carolyn Burnham, a couple that's spent too long repressing and ignoring the problems in their marriage until they reach a boiling point. Bening's performance as Carolyn is especially delightful, as we watch a wife and mother try so hard to keep her fingers clutched tightly around everything she has. She deludes herself about the affair she's having while simultaneously justifying it to herself, willfully repressing the guilt and shame the same way she represses the dissatisfaction with her marriage. "I will sell this house today" is such a loaded mantra, and Carolyn obsessively repeats it to herself as if she can will success into existence with positive thinking while compulsively scrubbing windows and floors - it is Bening's single best moment in the film, as it defines the very attitude that has kept her locked into a marriage she doesn't want. Underneath "I will sell this house today" is the assertion that she will be a good wife and mother today, she will make her marriage work today, she will be a good person today.

Spacey's portrayal of Lester is particularly indicative of the film's satirical intentions. Here's a man who is having what is inarguably a midlife crisis, a cliche concept that is laughable, even in real life. A middle-aged man happily taking a job at a fast food restaurant, buying pot from the neighbor's son, and basking in the attention from his daughter's overtly sexual friend is some exceptionally regressive stuff.

Lester's trajectory reflects that of his daughter Jane, in that both believe they are the only ones who cynically see life for what it is: a joke. And yet they both act so insolent and condescending, as if the people around them are all idiot who indulge the lie for the pursuit of some suburban dream we're all taught to desire. It's that desire that makes us accept things we shouldn't, to settle for less than what we think we deserve - because so often what we want and think we deserve is at odds with what we've been conditioned to perceive as a satisfying and successful life. As teens, we refute the ideals of our parents because we see how unhappy they are with what should be making them happy; they gave up and settled for careers that were financially rewarding but not emotionally fulfilling, they exchanged integrity and dignity for complacency, and they settled for significant others who made them feel insignificant. They live in fear of pursuing what they truly desire because they're scared to ultimately end up alone. What they can get is better than struggling for what they really want.

If these concepts of home and car and career and family seem outdated even for 1999, that's because they are - which is why we perhaps accept Revolutionary Road's meditations on the same ideas as insightful and damning. We like to believe that we've moved beyond valuing the nice house, the perfect family, and the good career, but the truth is that these concepts are ingrained in all of us, passed down from generation to generation like genetics. We inherit them the same way we inherit good hair or blue eyes or the potential for cancer. These ideals are watered down with each passing to a new generation, as we reflect on those who came before us and strive for happiness and fulfillment over success.

American Beauty could be about my own family or the families of the people I went to high school with. At a surface glance, it's all roses and white fences, but look closer (as the film's tagline suggests) and you'll find the flaws. This isn't a revolutionary concept. Its cynical examination of suburban home life isn't particularly novel or revelatory. But viewed as a dark satire of that lifestyle, it's far more enjoyable and satisfying than interpreting it as some brilliantly poignant drama.

15 years after its release, I don't wonder if American Beauty truly deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar, but I do wonder if it deserved so much scorn, the same way some of you probably wonder if Forrest Gump deserved so much hate. The cycle of backlash is intriguing to me - when the majority of people have an overwhelmingly positive response to something early on, it's creating an expectation in our mind. We either feel predisposed to approach a film with skepticism, daring it to impress us because our minds are already made up; all these people love a movie, which makes us feel not excited, but pessimistic because there's no way it can be that great. Or we feel unreasonably excited for something, and when it doesn't live up to the hyperbole, we're disappointed. American Beauty is kind of also a movie about negative backlash - not to a film, but to life itself - which makes the concept of examining the film's backlash even more interesting.

The idea that something is nominated for an award exacerbates the negative feelings towards it. If you don't like a film (or a television show, or a musician, et al.) as much as most people do, then you'll find yourself agitated by the notion that it's been nominated for an award that could potentially make its excellence definitive. No one is immune to participating in backlash. For instance, I put off watching Birdman for months because of the extreme reactions to the film - people loved it or hated it, as if there were no areas in between. People were having the sort of passionate debates that they often do over awards season contenders, but the fact that it had so quickly escalated to a place where you could only love or hate it felt like the film's awards chances had already been cemented, and we were already arguing over whether or not it was deserving of that recognition. It was preemptive backlash, and when that sort of severe excitement and disdain surround a film, I become hesitant to engage with it.

For the record, I think Birdman is just OK. Similar to the superior Boyhood (which I think is really good, but not amazing), I feel as though many people (not all) are more enamored with the conceit than the actual film - if you remove that conceit, is it still as good or noteworthy? With Boyhood, we remove the 12-year production and it still has the potential to be a poignant experience. But if you remove that "one long take" concept from Birdman, you take the novelty away. It still has a very creative score (albeit one that's overbearing and intrusive), but the story and characters are hollow. It's a film that thinks it's more deep and thought-provoking than it actually is. It's mostly novelty - the novelty of a Michael Keaton comeback and the meta aspect of an actor who appeared in prominent superhero films playing an actor who also appeared in similarly prominent superhero films, and the novelty of presenting your movie as if it was all filmed in one long take (and the cheats are so obvious that it feels not only a little too laborious, but a little cocky).

Since I feel more negatively about Birdman than most, I am a part of this backlash which inevitably extends into awards season, and will only undoubtedly get worse if the film wins Best Director and/or Best Picture. I might even say it's overrated. Once a film enters the awards race, we succumb to reacting in extremes in an effort to express why something does or doesn't deserve recognition. We take all of our positive feelings for the films we think should have been recognized or deserve the accolades more, and we project that disappointment onto a film we didn't care for that much that did receive recognition. That disappointment becomes hate, as if the film receiving awards recognition is to blame for people not liking the thing we like as much as we do.

It's all kind of absurd, really. Did American Beauty deserve the Best Picture Oscar? Did Forrest Gump? Does Birdman? Your mileage may vary. But the idea that something winning an award can make us dislike it even more is fascinating - even people who like these films will sometimes look back years later and find that their affection has grown tepid. Winning an award is the quickest way to diminish our respect and love of something. It becomes less special because it feels so mainstream and widely adored, or if we already didn't like it very much, it makes us hate it even more. Like Lester and Jane, we look at the people around us as if they're living a lie with their strained smiles. We look at these people like they're all idiots. How could they all like this thing so much? What the fuck is wrong with them? Why am I the only one who gets it? It's OK because they're all thinking the same thing about you.