Thoughts on American Beauty
By E.C. Kelly
With the rise of the #MeToo Movement, we have seen many artists fall to their past and present misconduct, a dismantling of their reputations and careers (and rightfully so). But what do we do about the work they leave behind, which are so often works we as an audience have loved and learned from? Is that work, too, now tainted, or can it exist beyond its creators to remain a viable piece of art to cherish and in which to find meaning? Through her experience with the film American Beauty, writer E. C. Kelly gives her thoughts on the matter.
I was 11 years old, and I had been hunting for my brother’s R-Rated movie collection for three months. He was home from college, and when I asked him about it, he said, “Mom made me hide it. You shouldn’t watch stuff like that.”
The night before he left for college, I was painfully aware that there were exactly 13 hours for me to find and watch as many R-rated movies as I could. I waited until everyone was asleep, and then I went through all the boxes he’d packed. All I found were three books on computer coding, a Minnesota Twins parka, and like 35-five New Order albums. No movies.
Then I had a revelation. If I were hiding those movies, I’d want them somewhere near the TV. The bookshelf by the TV in my parent’s basement was filled with books my mother had alphabetized to cope with her oldest heading off to college. I pulled out a big fat book (it may have been a Bible) and saw two DVD covers behind it.
I became electric. Vibratory. I became the raw joy of Catholic rebellion.
I had to stop myself from ripping the books off the shelves; I knew they had to be put back in exactly the same order or someone would know what I’d discovered and what I’d done. I carefully laid the books on the floor and took in the beauty of 20 titles—20 windows into worlds I’d wanted access to my entire life.
I did the math. It was midnight. I could fit in two, maybe three, movies before my dad woke up for work. I picked Trainspotting because my brother had a poster of it, Pulp Fiction because it had cleavage on the front and the guy from Grease on the back, and American Beauty, because I’d seen the picture of the naked girl on a bed of roses.
I put American Beauty into my parent’s DVD player. I got a Sprite, snuggled into the couch, and waited.
Very early in the film, Lester Burnham--played by Kevin Spacey--describes how miserable his life is. He wakes up legitimately disappointed that he didn’t die in his sleep. I watched him fit his feet into cushy slippers and deliver the line, “And in a way, I’m dead already.”
Then the camera cuts to his face, eyes shut, pushing into a perfect stream of water from a fancy showerhead. The camera pans out to show Burnham from the back, and it's clear the character is touching his dick.
“Look at me. Jerking off in the shower,” the voiceover entreats.
I am looking.
“This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.”
This scene represented a turning point in my sex education. Sex Ed Part One was discovering I had a clitoris because of a detachable showerhead. Sex Ed Part Two was realizing I could experience that feeling without a detachable showerhead.
This essay used to include a section where I deconstructed and explained how I felt connected to Kevin Spacey’s character. He wasn’t supposed to find a 16-year-old girl attractive, and neither was I. The difference between us was this: I was an 11-year-old girl repressing her bisexuality, and Kevin Spacey is a middle-aged man who had been sexually harassing young (and underage) men for decades.
I can’t say American Beauty is my favorite movie anymore, because I’m unable to reconcile the film itself and Kevin Spacey’s behavior.
The feeling is similar to how I don’t like to step on the grass in front of grave stones, because it’s impolite to walk on dead people. But what if I didn’t know I was walking over a grave? What if someone planted a tree as a grave marker, I missed the plaque, and ate a sandwich in the shade? If I don’t know I’m dropping crumbs on a dead lady’s foot, then in a relevant way, I’m not dropping crumbs on a dead lady’s foot.
I think I’m saying I wish I could eat a sandwich on a dead lady without knowing I was eating a sandwich on a dead lady. I bet there are some people who can still separate Kevin Spacey’s work from his serial assaults. That’s certainly what Roland Barthes would do. “The Author” (or here, “The Actor”) “is Dead” he claims. The important bit is “The Observer.” The art isn’t art until someone (not the artist) holds the piece to their heart and feels something. That’s the creative act. That’s the ball game.
But I can’t hold American Beauty to my heart anymore. So I’m ending this essay with a message for filmmakers and script writers. There’s a space in our hearts that needs filling. We need a suburban, dead-inside woman to experience an awakening. We need middle aged moms flipping off their bosses and masturbating in showers. There is space in our hearts for you to fill and 11-year-old girls that you can save.