This is the third in a series of articles on American films released in 1999.
Kevin Spacey wasn't born with a reputation as a creepy, obviously insane Hollywood star accused of abusing young men. He was once beloved in Hollywood. What an actor—what a dedication to playing psychopaths—what a revelation of American ugliness! Philistines playing the snob on both coasts cooed at the very thought and the earnest simpletons who follow their lead applauded the louder, since it was harder for them to get the joke.
Spacey eventually gave liberals shudders of sexual excitement in the Netflix hit House Of Cards. (Just think about how many famous liberal actors enjoy playing fascist psychopaths or similarly cruel characters.) No more earnest, stupidly idealist liberal politics a la West Wing. It has to be knowing nihilism now. Spacey was so seductively evil—Southern accent and all—his wife was lady Macbeth of the unholy abortion, and he abused girls and murdered them. Wasn't it all great fiction?
Judging by House of Cards, however, you wouldn't know, what's the big deal! It's just seems a farce. Long before this glamorized combination of liberal pieties, flirting with the devil, and soap opera—this is where the liberal imagination ended up before Trump—Spacey was famous for American Beauty. That was the highest achievement of his art, the most political statement about American Ugliness.
Why American Beauty? It's a bad movie that hardly manages to claw its way to mediocrity at times, only to succumb again. Nobody cares about it anymore. Some of the jokes land, but nothing else. But you forget: Spacey played a liberal martyr, so that makes all the difference. He was an apostle of the 1960s hippies against the 1980s yuppies. This was holy war: Boomers had to save Millennials from morality and boring suburban lives.
Spacey preached the gospel of sophisticated liberals persuading barely-legal attention-seekers to have sex with him. Obviously, this was all very tasteful nudity and advanced the plot. None of that offensive Harvey Weinstein #MeToo stuff. Spacey ascended into the liberal pantheon—give that man an Oscar—give that movie five! And this was before it was taken for granted that these would be moralistic statements about liberalism. These were awards for liberalism at its ugliest—pretentious, stupid, ungenerous.
There are two villains in American Beauty, two examples of all that's wretched about America. One is Chris Cooper, the former military guy—an aged, retired colonel, who not only beats his wife and son, but does it all because he's a repressed homosexual. He eventually shoots Spacey, who gently refuses his pent-up advances, hence martyrdom. Cue the Bach toccata. This was the acme of sophistication. It's not exactly Stendhal—but it certainly is Hollywood.
The other villain is his wife, Annette Bening, because she's such a conformist self-seeker, dealing with mid-life crisis by getting into real estate and taking self-help courses and a lover. With a husband like Spacey, whom all Hollywood envies, nevertheless she feels unfulfilled, so she wants to plug that hole in her soul with material goods instead of doing what he does: Quit the job, buy a muscle car, pump iron, smoke weed. Live in the moment. There's no future anyway.
She, too, plans to murder him. Liberal fantasies of martyrdom are invariably over-determined. Americans are overworked and have empty lives, and if an apostle of lazy self-abuse should arise among us, we’d kill him. It's like Jesus, but without a soul. It's fine, since he's earnest, has a sense of humor, and eventually starts shouting—no more henpecking for him. His liberation can be ours, too. In American Beauty, all liberals can find redemption.
If you have enough scorn to see the movie for what it is, you can see why Hollywood and liberalism ended up the way they did. American Beauty notices that Americans have given up on fantasyland—middle-class suburbia is morally exhausted and bored, because the notion of living in and for fantasies is desiccating every soul in sight. Except two: the moral ideal is a gay couple, fit, energetic, active. They don’t get to have personalities or interest—they're just ideal suburbanites, like you and me, but perfect. Everyone else in suburbia hates himself—but they're there as angels to guide the prophet Spacey.
The two men of conviction—Spacey and a stupid boy who runs away with his daughter—have come to affirm life's essential nothingness. If you abandon any thought of the future—if America becomes one California Zen suicide pact—then we'll finally be happy. No longer will Christ lash us with our knowledge of mortality. No longer will we be restless or lonely, full of self-doubt or achingly incomplete.
This was liberalism's last glamorous attempt to turn agony into Prozac. The eroticism unleashed by the hippies, which Spacey is supposed to recapture, having embodied it as a kid—fun, sex, drugs, rock—has been disappointed and is coming around to take its revenge. But it can all be made better with a symbolic sacrifice—nihilism can replace faith. America has preferred to hold on to agony instead.