by Barry Germansky

 

Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) is the last Best Picture winner I fully endorse to date. It is a sleek, color-coded sampler of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Nicholas Ray’s films Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956),  and many of the twentieth century’s greatest imitations of all three seminal works. The film makes at least two unique contributions to this representational American legacy: first, it relies on overt satire to an unparalleled degree in order to attack generational conformity (surpassing, in this regard, what Mike Nichols, Buck Henry, and Calder Willingham present in 1967’s equally-great-overall The Graduate); second, it introduces us to Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a grotesque parody of Holden Caulfield and an alternately sensitive and desensitized human-alien who reminds us of what we have lost in our increasingly amoral culture. Beauty was released in 1999, and the sickness it pleaded with us to “look closer” at has now broken through the white picket fences of the unsustainable dream factory known as America. The film is brilliantly ironic from the title onward.