September 8th marks the 21st anniversary of American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ epic film about a man in the throes of a midlife crisis. The film features Lester Burnham, a middle-aged magazine executive, father, and husband looking for a change and portrayed by actor Kevin Spacey.
Lester’s voice introduces the film, narrating an aerial shot that sweeps over his suburban neighbourhood. Right as the film cuts to an overhead view of Lester, alone in his bed, he delivers the line: “I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead… And in a way, I’m dead already.”
This line defines the film and mobilises Lester’s chase to reclaim his youth and his soul. He quits his job and tries to turn back the clock on his life. This midlife renaissance takes him back to the 18-year-old version of himself where he develops a crush on his daughter’s cheerleading best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), moves into his garage where he works out and smokes dope, gets a job at McDonald’s and buys his dream car, a 1971 Pontiac Firebird.
The film is about reclamation. Whether that’s youth, dignity, bygone dreams, or all of these, it struck a chord when it was released on September 17th, 1999. Roger Ebert validates Lester’s quest, saying: “He may have lost everything by the end of the film, but he’s no longer a loser.” Desson Howe of the Washington Post describes Spacey’s performance as “achingly tender” and Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian says the film is “intelligent, energetic, [and] effervescent filmmaking.” They weren’t the only ones giving out accolades.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, took home five, and swept the major categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Cinematography, and Screenplay. Mendes created a masterpiece in the conventional sense of the Academy, but its premise isn’t anything new. Hollywood has been trying to nail down the midlife crisis for half a century.
The midlife crisis is one of those often used and abused terms to describe—and justify—midlife transgressions. It’s how the media classified Tom Cruise’s erratic couch-jumping behaviour in 2005 on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and it’s how we made sense of Charlie Sheen’s very public meltdowns following his exit from Two and a Half Men.
However, it didn’t start out this way. The term was initially formed as a way to define a midlife passage and the psychological complexities that come with it. Elliott Jaques, a Canadian psychoanalyst, coined the term in 1965 in his seminal article ‘Death and the Midlife Crisis’. In it, Jaques explores the connections between ageing, depression, creative output, work, and death.
The timing of Jaques’s research couldn’t have been more prescient. The condition would grow to define a generation of men. As America turned its focus away from war-torn European trenches to the suburbs became the new proving ground for masculinity. The midlife crisis struck a nerve with changing post-war masculinities and a new league of discontented breadwinners and ‘grey flannel rebels’.
Barbara Ehrenreich, author of The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment argues that conformity “became the code word for male discontent”, adding: “The grey flannel rebel stayed where he was because he could not think of anywhere to go. If he blamed the corporation for his emasculation, he was not about to leave his job… If he blamed women, he was not about to walk away from the comforts of home.”
Texts like Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955), Robert Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961), and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960) ignite a conversation that pushes back against the ethos of the ‘American Dream’ and family values. With divorce rates spiking in the 1960s and ’70s, the midlife crisis upsets the balance of the family unit, proving it’s just as much a crisis about the family as it is about identity.
Looking to the post-war films of the era, men are taken from the untamed western frontiers and war-torn ditches and recast as fathers and husbands. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946) illustrates the dislocation and the discontent of men shortly after reintegration. Even the most casual filmgoer can see the challenges of making such a hard shift.
The midlife crisis helps us understand Richard’s (Tom Ewell) adolescent fantasies and erratic behaviour in 1955 effort The Seven Year Itch. It’s the hidden layer between Ed Avery’s (James Mason) heart condition and his megalomaniacal breakdown in Bigger Than Life a year later in 1956. It’s the broken American dream and the disillusionment that Ned Merrill, played by Burt Lancaster, wades through while swimming ‘home’ in 1968 film The Swimmer and it’s the way Harry (Ben Gazzara) adamantly proclaims “I’m not going home” just before he descends into a three-day bender with his best friends Archie (Peter Falk) and Gus (John Cassavetes) in the 1970 film Husbands.
As we look back on American Beauty over twenty years later, Lester Burnham’s disaffected voiceover and adolescent yearnings close out a chapter of the midlife crisis film, a chapter that spans fifty years and is replete with the tropes that have grown to define the genre. Sports cars, adolescent behaviours, and fumbling caricatures are the products of a culture that failed to understand what’s really at play.
American Beauty’s greatest accomplishment might be that it takes the midlife crisis mould, perfects it, and then breaks it, all before the turn of the century. It put the tropes to rest. Though the genre is far from dead, see The Family Man and Wild Hogs, the films that succeed it fall on the other side of a watershed moment.
In its wake, a new series of quarter-life crisis films emerge featuring college grads and twenty-somethings paralysed by the fear of growing up like their parents. Films like Reality Bites, Kicking and Screaming, Funny Ha Ha, Lost in Translation, and virtually anything by Wes Anderson, look onto the broken familial, social, and political systems that their parents left them.
It’s a welcome change of the lens and, perhaps, proof that we’re all growing up.