Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Recasting 1999: "American Beauty"

I'm sure some people will think Annette Bening's role as a dissatisfied suburban housewife in Sam Mendes's American Beauty a bit of a stretch, but I happen to think it's a good fit for Meryl. I can remember several years ago listening to one of Sasha Stone's podcasts about previous Oscar winners. She suggested that Meryl may have done a better job than Bening in the role. I was surprised at the time, as I hadn't heard her say a lot of positive things about Meryl leading up to that point, and it sort of stuck with me whenever I think about this movie. 

Really the only stretch I could argue would, again, be age. Like both of my last two recasting choices, the actress who originated the role is as least ten years younger than Meryl (Helen Hunt, Emma Thompson, and now Bening). To hell with that notion, I say. Meryl would've had no problem playing early to mid 40s the year before she turned fifty. Let's not forget that in the same year, she starred opposite love interest Aidan Quinn in Music of the Heart. Quinn was born the same year as Kevin Spacey, her would-be husband in American Beauty. 

Joe and I rewatched this movie several weeks ago. We both recalled liking it in our first go-around, but I hadn't seen it in close to twenty years. In retrospect, this was one of the first films that felt like it was part of the new century. That sounds a bit dramatic, but most of us didn't see it until after January 1, 2000. The look and feel of it reminds me the types of movies that more regularly came out when I was in college. 

The film follows an unhappy married couple in the 'burbs. Lester Burnham (Spacey) quits his job at a magazine after learning he's going to be laid off. His wife, Carolyn (Bening), is a driven real estate broker whose bored of Lester. Their sixteen year-old daughter Jane (Thora Birch) can't stand either of them. Jane gets involved with kind of a weird neighbor boy, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who's constantly filming everything on his camcorder. Ricky's dad is a retired military guy (Chris Cooper), who's a big homophobe. Carolyn has an affair, Lester pathetically tries to impress Jane's cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari). I don't want to give everything away, but all the adults pretty much end up miserable or dead. 

This is the type of "thinky" movie I feel Meryl would've been interested in. I've read that Mendes had Bening and Spacey in mind from the start, however. As satire, it sort of captured the zeitgeist of American suburban dullness. Good jobs, kids, safe neighborhood, health. And yet you're so fucking unsatisfied that you end up hurting everyone around you, and/or yourself. They're typical, flawed people of course. More repressed from pursuing the things they like than anything, and they don't know how to talk about it. 

It's easy to forget how funny certain parts of the movie are. "I lived in a duplex!" What a hero. 

I loved how the film showed the self-loathing of Chris Cooper's character. Just his incorrect suspicions that his son, Ricky, might be gay sends him over the edge. The typical projection that happens when a guy literally can't live with the possibility of accepting the fact that he himself is into dudes. So sad. 

At the time, American Beauty was an overwhelming critical and financial success. My understanding is that the praise hasn't necessarily aged super well. Mendes himself has reportedly said that he expected some of that, as he considered the film "overpraised" upon its original release. I don't think it's the greatest movie ever made, but I also wasn't really aware of what a boner so many critics had for this film when it came out. When something is that universally adored, it's sort of vogue to be contrarian with the benefit of hindsight. The sexual allegations and eventual criminal charges against Kevin Spacey starting in 2017 probably haven't helped. 

Bening won the BAFTA and SAG, and was the only nominee from the film in the "Big Five" categories that did not win the Academy Award. She was up against a powerful performance from Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. But imagine if Meryl had been in Bening's role. I still think it would've been really difficult to score more first place votes than Swank, but with how well-received the movie was, and how Streep would've been seventeen years out since her last win, maybe it would've been enough to put her over the top. Had she or Bening secured that win, American Beauty would have become only the fourth film in history to win the top five, after It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Silence of the Lambs. 


  1. Another great choice Jeff and one I had considered myself previously when thinking about this year. I always thought this was considered Annette Bening's great role and did not realise it had its detractors.

    I guess I got thrown off a little bit as you said there would be three comedies coming up in the latter part of the decade! Maybe part of this movie could be considered to be dark comedy.

    I think this movie still stands up well although I would not consider it the masterpiece some argue it to be. Completely agree that Meryl would be able to pull off the role splendidly, she could easily pass for younger at any age and could bring a lot of interesting nuance to the part.

    For 2000 I wanted to go with "Requiem for a Dream", and absolutely breathtaking role although I do think she would be too young at the stage to play "Sara Goldfarb". I will instead go for the role of "Laine Hanson" in the political drama "The Contender". This movie is perhaps a little forgotten today but I think it still holds up well and the role is certainly an interesting one.

    You mentioned this would be 17 years since Meryl's last win. I am intrigued to know which roles in your reimagined filmography you could conceivably see Meryl win for. There are so many amazing choices, some of which virtually undeniable for the Oscar!

    1. Yeah, I guess I always sort of considered this a dark comedy.

      As far as roles I could conceivably have seen Meryl winning for with this recasting, top three would have to be: Frances, Dangerious Liasons, and The Piano.

      But so much of winning goes into the narrative, not just the movie. If one is "overdue" it's a way bigger chance usually than if you just won for something recently. The performance has to be undeniable to score something close together. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and then Forrest Gump. Katharine Hepburn's in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Lion in Winter.

      I had hoped that Meryl might pull this off for The Iron Lady and August:Osage County. Possibly with a different director for the latter.

    2. I agree completely with your top 3 although for a Frances win it might take a year without Sophie's Choice (assuming they found a great actress to replace Meryl?)

      Yes, John Wells should maybe have gallantly stepped aside and let a more seasoned or artful Director make "August" into an American masterpiece. I still really like the movie and Meryl is stunning but I don't like how the story was butchered. In the right hands it could have been longer yet still riveting.

      I feel the same for "The Iron Lady". You have an actress virtually channeling Thatcher but THAT performance is trapped in an ill-conceived film with a screenplay that skims over some of the most fascinating British political history, directed by someone very clearly out of their depth. A better screenplay and superior Director and what magic we could have had!

      To a lesser extent I feel this way about "Doubt" too. Still a great movie but could have been a classic with slightly more skillful Director.

  2. I was one of the rare viewers who was deeply troubled by 'American Beauty' at the time it came out, which I recall led to a few arguments with friends and colleagues. I felt the film's view of what constituted 'freedom' and 'beauty' was way, way off, and the way it casualised domestic violence.

    I also have to admit that by then I suspected Kevin Spacey was not all he presented himself to be, which added to the disingenuous aura around this film, for me.

    The endless slo-mo close ups of a plastic bag flying around... sorry, just didn't buy it. But Chris Cooper's portrayal of his character was flawless. It's what underpinned the entire movie.

    I can imagine Streep in it. She would have eaten Kevin Spacey alive and I reckon he would have dropped out of the project, to be replaced by stalwart Streep right-hand-man Jack Nicholson.

    I'm stumped for a 2020 pick. The only one I can see is Streep in the Catherine Deneuve role in 'Dancer in the Dark'.

    1. Thanks, Michael. If you're willing, I'd be interested to know more about the problems you found with the film in regard to views of freedom in particular. Especially from someone who recalls taking issue at the time of the film's original release.

      Agreed regarding Cooper. And Bjork's performance in Dancer in the Dark broke my heart.

    2. Hi Jeff, I'd have to watch it again to go into a lot of detail, but I recall that a good deal of the liberation on offer was via illicit drug dealing and addiction. The suggestion of freedom along that pathway is a complete illusion, from my experience of others in my generation.

    3. Got it. Makes sense from that perspective. Appreciate you sharing.

  3. Jeff when you reach 2021 you should compile a list of the most difficult movies to lose..

    1. Do you mean which ones I came close to selecting but didn't?

    2. Yes that too but also the actual movies it pained you to cut from Meryl's actual filmography

    3. I guess I don't really look at it that way. The recasting project is sort of in a parallel universe or filmography. I consider it more an additional or alternative filmography. I don't cut anything I like! But sometimes I'm on the fence for what I actually do cut.