reviewed by Greta Christina
I think we're all pretty used to the Freudian-type view of sexuality, where things and events and even people stand in as symbols for sex. You know the drill; you dream about a banana, a cave, a chocolate eclair, your mother turning into Batman and flying around Grand Central Station, and your inner Freudian shrink cries, "Aha! It must be a symbol for sex!" But what about the other way around? What about the times we use sex as a symbol for other stuff? What about the times that we dream about sex and it turns out to really be about something else -- maybe not bananas or Batman, but something?
I think that's a lot of what American Beauty is about. More to the point, I think that's what almost all the sex in American Beauty is about (and there's an awful lot of sex in American Beauty). Just about all the sex in the movie, real or fantasized, solo or with others, is, to some extent, not really about sex at all. It's about something else -- escape or security, self-esteem or self-knowledge, ambition or adulthood.
A brief summary, for the five or six of you who haven't already seen this movie. (For those five or six of you -- get going! It's really quite a remarkable movie. It has its flaws and holes, but for the most part they're honest ones, stemming from the fact that it's trying to do something original and complicated.) Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is an ordinary suburban guy living that shallow-hollow-superficial suburban life that shows up in the movies so often, with a job that he loathes, a marriage that's lost everything but the house and the furniture, a wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) who actually cares about things like perfect houses and perfect furniture, and a 15-year-old daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) who hates everything and everyone, most especially her parents. "Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser," he comments. "And they're right. I have lost something." But one night, at his daughter's cheerleading exhibition, he lays eyes on Angela (Mena Suvari), his daughter's best friend and co-cheerleader. Angela is a classic American beauty -- blond, sixteen, big blue baby-doll eyes and big pouty cock-sucking lips, slim but curvey, wholesome but flirtatious, the embodiment of late-20th-century American female desirability. He immediately drops into an intense sexual fantasy, in which everyone in the gym disappears and she strips for him privately, with ripe rose petals spilling out of her sweater and pouring out towards him.
And some sort of light switch gets snapped on inside him. Later that night he says, "I feel like I've been in a coma for 20 years, and I'm just now waking up." He begins to break out of the cages in his head and his life; to stop doing the things he despises, to live for the moment and without fear. He quits his job, he starts getting high, he tells his wife what he thinks when he thinks it, he buys a bright-red 1970 Firebird. And he starts jogging and pumping iron and getting himself into shape so Angela will think he's hot and want to fuck him. His entire life, or most of it anyway, is focused on his fantasies about her and his attempts to make those fantasies come true.
The central character is Lester, and his vision of sex is the central one in the movie. As the movie opens, Lester's entire sex life consists of jerking off, in the shower or in the bathroom at work or in bed at home when his wife's asleep. And he obviously feels that this is pretty pathetic, a sign of just how unsatisfying and isolated his life is. (I have to say, I don't agree at all with his attitude towards masturbation. At the times in my life when the only sex I had was with myself, I saw it as a sign of self-reliance and sanity, the ability to recognize when I shouldn't be getting involved with other people and the willingness to take care of myself when that was the case. But then, I've never been in a years-long loveless sham-relationship with a partner who's changed beyond all recognition. So who can say.) But when he first sees Angela, the effect on him is immediate and overwhelming. For him, Angela isn't just a pretty girl that he'd like to fuck. She's a stand-in for so many things that he longs for, things he once had and lost, or things he never had and doesn't want to die without. She's youth, she's possibility, she's passion, she's playfulness, unpredictability, frivolity, hope.
There's a very telling moment that sums a lot of this up. Lester is talking with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), his daughter's drug-dealer kid-next-door boyfriend, and is telling him about the time when he was a teenager and had a job flipping burgers all summer to buy himself an eight-track. When Ricky comments on how lousy that sounds, Lester replies wistfully, "No. It was great. All I did was party and get laid. I had my whole life ahead of me." That is what he's missing; the pleasure of the moment, the feeling of a future that isn't plotted out in a narrow path ahead of him. And that is what he wants to get from Angela's pants.
But Lester isn't the whole story. The other characters also have sex lives, and they also use sex as symbols, symbols of things they want and don't have, or of things they have and don't want. For Lester's wife Carolyn, a second-rate real estate saleswoman, sex means power and ambition and success. Despite her beautiful, flawless, envy-of-the-neighbors house and garden and car and wardrobe, Carolyn lives in envy and resentment and awe of Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the local Real Estate King. "The King" is everything she wants to be -- smooth, successful, a man who actually lives and achieves her philosophy that "in order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times" -- and when he starts putting the moves on her, her resentment and envy zaps itself into intense lust. The fact that his wife left him because he was too focused on his job isn't a warning bell for Carolyn; in fact, she finds it irresistibly attractive. And when they finally tumble into bed, their sex-talk focuses in this totally weird way on his job. "You like getting nailed by The King?" "Oh, yes! Fuck me, Your Majesty!" If she can't be him, maybe she can have him. Or more to the point, maybe having him will be just the same as being him. Maybe by fucking him, she'll get what she's been missing, or what she thinks she's been missing.
Almost all the characters in American Beauty use sex, and use people sexually, in this way. When Lester and Carolyn's daughter Jane falls in love with the creepily compelling, odd-as-shit, video-artist drug-dealer boy next door, it's clear that it's a way for her to reach out and away from her parent's misery and confinement and into some sort of beauty. Boy-next-door's dad, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), sees sex, and in particular (WARNING -- BIG PLOT POINT GIVEAWAY AHEAD) his own homosexual desire, as a symbol of weakness and unmanliness and decadence. His fear gets turned into a raging hostility against any gay man, or any man that he thinks might be gay, or any man he's attracted to -- any man that stands in as a symbol for his own desire, the desire that he can't bear to look at because of all it represents. And for Angela, for the obscure object of desire herself, sex means not being ordinary. She is a beautiful girl, a girl that men have lusted after since she was twelve -- and to her, this means not being just another person who blends in with the crowd. "If people I don't even know look at me and want to have sex with me," she tells Jane smugly, "it means I have a really good shot at becoming a model." And being a model, to Angela, means more than power and success and fame. It means not being ordinary -- the thing she fears most in all the world. For her, being sexual means being special.
But if all the characters in the movie use sex as symbols for something else, where do they end up with that? How does it work or not work for them? Well, let's look at Lester again. See, while Lester is rather a charming and sympathetic character, he's also kind of an asshole. It's easy to understand why he feels trapped and desperate, and his shenanigans as he breaks out of the narrow range of his life are wildly entertaining, even wish-fulfilling. But...well, he doesn't really treat other people very well along the way. He's cruel to his wife, he loses track of his daughter, and he pursues Angela like a hunter pursues a deer, with the same persistence and slyness and essential lack of compassion. He is decent or crappy to other people based on whether they symbolize his old life that he's escaping from or his new life that he's striving towards; and as a result, he treats them pretty much like objects. His pain and his purpose make him an object of compassion, but his methods make him pretty despicable. (It's one of the strongest and best things about this movie -- its refusal to see people as simple stand-ins for virtues and vices, its insistence that you see everyone as complex and human, its ability to make you critical of the good guys and sympathetic with the assholes.)
Lester does finally redeem himself, in a pretty unexpected way. His moment of redemption comes (warning, ending giveaway imminent) when he's at the point of success. He has Angela where he's wanted her for so long, on his sofa and on her back, willing and even eager to do it with him. But just before he takes her, she confesses (yes, confesses, it's obvious that she feels it's something to be ashamed of even if the audience doesn't agree) that she's a virgin and this will be her first time. He stops immediately, the light of some sort of consciousness or conscience dawning into his face...and he draws back. She's everything he's wanted, he's been obsessing on her for weeks, he's focused his life on making himself available and desirable to her, and he's right at the point where all his dreams and fantasies will be realized. But the moment she tells him that it'll be her first time, he decides that he won't, can't, go through with it and actually fuck her.
Now, he never explains in words why exactly he does this, so I'm going to have to go out on a limb and interpret/guess his motivations. But I don't think I'm too far off base here. I don't think he had a simple, garden-variety moral attack about virginity. It didn't seem to be about that at all; I didn't get even the slightest hint about the purity or virtue or sanctity of keeping your cherry. I think that, in the moment that she told him she was a virgin, he realized that she wasn't just a symbol. He started seeing her as a human being. He realized that having sex with her wouldn't just be the satisfaction of his fantasies, wouldn't just something he would be doing. It would be something she would be doing as well. It would be an experience for her as well as for him; and it might not be the best or happiest or wisest experience in the world for her. I think he started thinking about being a sixteen-year-old girl, flirtatious and sexually audacious on the surface but actually nervous and inexperienced, worried over whether you'd be any good in bed since you don't know what you're doing, upset and in tears over a terrible fight with your best friend, with a desperate desire to be liked and approved and a desperate fear of being ordinary. I think he started thinking about what it would be like to be in that state and then be seduced by your best friend's father. I think he started thinking about what it would be like to have that be your first time ever. And I think that he couldn't do it.
And that is his moment of redemption. He's been using her as a symbol, a signpost of the possibilities that lie outside his narrow life, a prize that awaits him if he breaks out of the numerous traps that bind him. But by the time she actually becomes available, by the time she's actually half-naked on the sofa in front of him, he's already broken free. He's already the man he wanted to become, or at least he's on his way there. He doesn't need to use her as a symbol anymore. He can treat her as a human being; and as soon as he sees this, he treats her with compassion. And when this happens, a dam bursts open somewhere inside his head. The hostility, the resentment, the sarcastic bitterness he's been dealing out to the world, melt away, and he face and body radiate joy and contentment and peace.
So what's the deal here? I mean, obviously it's bad to use other people as symbols in that way, to treat them as the moveable furniture in the home decor of your own identity. And yet, for Lester, it worked. It didn't work perfectly, it came with deep problems and fuck-ups both practical and ethical (it screwed up his relationship with his daughter, for one thing). But his lust for Angela did, in fact, wake him up and help break him out of his cage, even though he never followed through on it. So maybe there's a difference between using sex as a symbol and using people as a symbol. Maybe there's a difference between seeing sex, sexual desire and sexual joy and sexual satisfaction, as a symbol for something that's missing in your life, and positioning that desire and joy and satisfaction in some other person and then treating that person as a thing to be acquired in order to reach your dreams. Maybe it's possible to use sex as a symbol, without using people that way.
Copyright 1999 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.