Film: History and Form November 17, 2010 American Beauty: An Analysis of Lester Burnham and Ricky Fitts American Beauty, written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, invites the viewer to do one thing: look closer. Look closer at life, look closer at your surroundings, look closer at your possessions, and finally look closer at your loved ones. What is integral about the subject matter of the film is how applicable it is to almost anyone who watches it.
The film’s grotesque depiction of American middle-class society is immediately very attractive, and the different elements such as the main character’s mid-life crisis, the young girls’ coming-of-age experiences and general family dynamics are very relatable to almost any viewer. As the viewer, we are drawn into the families and are forced to “look closer” and investigate what is wrong and why they have become the way that they are.
Throughout the film’s progression, Lester Burnham and Ricky Fitts are portrayed as mirror-images of one another and that they indeed are quite similar in their struggles against their respective overbearing authorities, share similar feelings of imprisonment and desires for escape. Carolyn, Lester and Jane Fitts seem like the perfect nuclear family. With both parents working successful jobs in the real estate and advertising business, the Burnham household appears to be the ideal American, nuclear family.
Their house is filled with ideal family photos and decorated with expensive furniture, while their front yard is perfectly gardened and lined with a white picket fence and an abundance of red roses. From the outside, it seems like a story of a perfect and happy family. What comes with the label of being a nuclear family are both financial and emotional security and an assumption of traditional gender roles. It is clear, however, that the character of Lester Burnham has grown alienated from within his own home and wants to escape. He is living a sedated life and has become numb to everything.
The viewer, throughout the film, sees Lester portrayed in various shots of imprisonment illusions, notably the shot of him looking through the front window to his wife gives the illusion of prison bars as well as the shot of his reflection on his desk computer with the words on the monitor in a prison bar shape. It is evident to the viewer that Lester is beginning to feel the repercussions of living in confinement from his daily routine. On the surface, the character of Ricky Fitts seems the most peculiar and out of the ordinary.
The viewer first sees him doing the odd act of filming Jane as she walks back to her house, but in reality the viewer comes to realize that he is actually the most real person in the film. Ricky is not like a typical American, male teenager. He is not rowdy, nor does he seem the type to party. He appears to be a very obedient son to his parents, the mom living her life day by day while the father excessively wears a hard exterior because of his past duties in the army. Ricky seems fine, but like the character of Lester, he too is suffering from the dynamics of his own home.
Still, he is able to remain true to himself; he does not put on a facade, and he does not care what anyone thinks. Ricky is a quiet and reserved guy, but what he lacks in words he makes up for with his use of his video camera. What seems like a voyeuristic act of filming Jane throughout the film across his window is actually his own way of reaching out to her and offering his hand to free her from the imprisonment that Jane feels in her own home. He is the most rational and is able to see past the materialistic attitudes and shallowness that characterize many of the characters.
Ricky Fitts appreciates the beauty in nature and the most mundane things that people would not give a second glance toward. Ricky’s video camera acts as his filter to his view of the world. He sees everything from an impartial point of view and therefore sees everyone’s true nature. He quickly senses Angela’s fake exterior and detects the true beauty that is resonant within plain Jane, despite how boring she may seem to most people. To Jane, he is not only her neighbor and lover but also her savior from the confines of her home. Ricky is the outsider who is able to observe what is truly going on inside the Burnham household.
He sees the effects that the negative dynamics of the family have on Jane, and he knows that the happenings inside of the seemingly perfect household are anything but perfect. Both Lester and Ricky’s worlds are turned upside down once the two of them meet. When Ricky shows defiance toward his boss at the party he is working, Lester sees a hero in him. Lester, who seems to be undergoing a mid-life crisis idolizes young Ricky, because it reminds him of his glory days when he was carefree, had no real responsibility and could do whatever he wanted.
Lester has a spiritual awakening and he is motivated to revive himself from the dormant and mundane life that he has been living. Here, the viewer begins to see the mirroring of the characters of Lester and Ricky. Ricky’s carefree attitude and willful spirit ignites a fire within Lester and makes him want to change. Soon after, Lester’s new mindset of change comes into play and subsequently affects his own interactions with his wife and daughter. The chemistry between Lester and Carolyn is an important aspect in defining their roles in the family.
It is safe to conclude that Carolyn is the more authoritative figure. From the beginning, the viewer sees this especially with the way that she taunts Lester when he dropped his briefcase and how she drives the car for the family. In many scenes, Carolyn is always the dominant figure in each shot. For example during the business social scene, Lester is noticeably shorter because Carolyn is a ledge higher than him to symbolize who is dominant in their marriage. Lester further confirms this when he says amusingly to Carolyn, “I’ll be whatever you want me to be. As Lester begins his transformation and attempts to regain control of his life however, the viewer is exposed to signs of rebellion and defiance from Lester toward Carolyn. After his bath tub dream, Lester shows defiance by commenting on how their marriage is really no longer a marriage and that they are just going through their everyday routines. He acknowledges the new Lester by saying, “Well guess what, I’ve changed. And the new me whacks off when he feels horny, ‘cause you’re obviously not gonna do anything about it. Furthermore, in the confrontation scene between Lester and Carolyn about trading in the car Carolyn is, at first, noticeably the dominant figure as she stands in the hallway while Lester sits on the couch. But soon after, Lester takes control and he is the dominant figure as they get intimate on the sofa. But Lester’s attempts at rekindling their dying romance are interrupted by Carolyn’s obsessive-compulsiveness. While Lester realizes that there are better and more important aspects of life than being materialistic and reaffirming oneself with prized possessions, Carolyn doesn’t come to terms like Lester and is ashamed.
We see that Lester has truly changed for the better while Carolyn remains stagnant in her ways of life. Lester exclaims to Carolyn, “IT’S JUST A COUCH. THIS ISN’T LIFE. THIS IS JUST STUFF. ” Carolyn, as we see in this scene, is two-dimensional because she never really transforms like Lester. She is fixated on her career and has a tunnel vision toward ultimate success. While we see a brief glimpse of positive change in Lester through his interaction in this scene with Carolyn, it is evident that the damages in the marriage will never be fixed if Carolyn never changes.
And as we see in the subsequent scenes, Carolyn further spirals downward because of her cheating and intense obsession with her career. Ricky Fitts becomes the source of enlightenment for Lester Burnham and it is evident that the only humanity present throughout a film, whose characters are devoid of any genuine feelings and instead are filled with materialistic tendencies and fake facades, is in the character of Ricky. As the viewer gets to know Ricky better, we see the different representations of what he deems to be signs of beauty.
One example is during school when Jane and her friend Angela catch Ricky filming a dead bird because he finds beauty in it. In a momentous scene of the film, Ricky shows Jane the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen: a floating, white plastic bag. From our point of view, the camera is still and located right behind and in between Jane and Ricky’s heads to invite us to see what Ricky considers to be a representation of ultimate beauty. For the first time in the film, the viewer is exposed to an appreciation for life and a sense of clarity with one’s surroundings.
Aforementioned, Ricky with his camera is the external, unbiased point of view in the film that helps the characters and the audience locate where real beauty can be found. The floating white bag represents what many of characters in the film want: freedom. They desire freedom from the expectations of society, freedom from traditional roles, freedom from family obligations, freedom from job responsibilities, etc. Ricky Fitts sees beauty in the plastic bag because it is able to do whatever it wants freely, as it dances with the leaves and goes wherever the wind takes it.
It is this idea of liberation and desire for escape that motivates many of the characters, particularly Lester and Ricky. In addition to the inspiration that Ricky gives to Lester, the character of Angela also becomes catalyst for the drastic changes that Lester undergoes throughout the film. Lester continuously reminisces about his past even stating at the beginning of the film, “It is never too late to regain your past. ” With the help of technical elements, the first scene in which we see both Lester and Angela establishes the obsession that Lester has for Angela throughout the film.
The film employs the male gaze throughout the film as both Lester and Ricky view their respective love interests in this manner, Lester more lustfully whereas Ricky incorporates real love. In this basketball scene, Angela is given an upward position in the frame to suggest that Lester is indeed noticing her. The camera then zooms in on both characters to intensify the fantasized connection between the two of them, and soon they are isolated from their respective sides to further emphasize this connection. The camera’s focus on Lester’s face creates the illusion of an animal drooling at the mouth over something that he desires.
After all, he is lusting after Angela. Lester, in a way, acts with the mindset of a teenage boy because of his fixation on Angela. He begins to work out, drink and smoke pot and much like a teen, he abandons all responsibilities by quitting his job and therefore abandoning his traditional role as a father. Furthermore, he trades in the family Mercedes for a 1970s Trans Am sports car, his dream car as a young boy. All of these actions accumulate into a necessary sequence of events to achieve happiness and escape from the reality of his mundane family and work life. While Lester finds the fuel to his fire in Angela, Ricky finds a muse in Jane.
As Ricky is able to see past the shallow exterior of Angela, this is why he is able to find beauty in the plain character of Jane. To most people, she’s plain Jane but Ricky sees her as a truly beautiful person over someone like Angela who seems conventionally attractive. Jane fills in the blank for a reason for Ricky to stand up against the overbearing rules of his father and finally run away and be happy. While it is evident that Lester reverts back into a mindset of a male teenager, the viewer finally sees Ricky fulfilling the same role as well; he is finally acting his own age.
Ricky is the same as Lester in the beginning. He is the pushover in his relationship with his father. He is controlled by his father and is monitored very closely to the point that he is required to give urine samples. Near the end of the film, Ricky stands up to his father by egging him on to believe that he performed sexual favors for money. Like Lester’s defiance against Carolyn, he is tired of his father’s overbearing authority over him. Throughout the film, he obeys all of his father’s rules and even getting a catering job to look like a responsible adult.
But eventually he breaks, and like Lester he defies the expectations that are put upon him by the greater powers. Near the end of the film Lester offers up a true example of humanity and sense of reawakening during his final scene with Angela, yet another piece of evidence to prove his mirroring of Ricky Fitts. Unbeknownst to him, Angela was all along a virgin. This can be inferred in the earlier basketball scene in which lighting was a key element. The light source cannot be seen and one can speculate that this light came from heaven shining down on her to show her innocence.
Moreover, it can be inferred by her try-hard ways of showing off her supposed sexual experience to Jane that she, indeed, is a virgin. The omnipresence of the color white around Angela is also further indication that she indeed was a virgin. In the final scene for example, she is wearing a white button-down blouse and the couch on which she lays is also white. Traditionally, white in film represents cleanliness and purity. Finally, her name can be likened to the word “angel” as if to imply that despite her boastful ways, she is indeed an angel on the inside.
Ironic it may be, but it took Angela to make Lester realize that he truly loved his family. Once Angela confessed that she was a virgin, it brought back Lester to a mature man once again who was able to handle responsibility. In this case, he was responsible and decided not to take Angela’s virginity. Instead, he hugs her and puts a blanket around her to comfort her. He shows humanity and compassion in this scene and realizes that Angela, like him, is suffering from the pressures of society.
Lester takes after Ricky in that he, too, displays humanity by seeing through Angela’s fake exterior and realizing that she is beautiful on the inside whether or not she is sexually experienced. Lester finds clarity during his talk with Angela in the kitchen and understands that he has duties as a man and a father in his household. He looks on lovingly and meaningfully at a picture of his family and we, as the audience, sees his realization and his return to reality, only for it to be ended abruptly by a shot to his head by an anonymous person.
At this final stage of the film, we have been given the tools and eye by Ricky to see what truly defines beauty. And as Ricky kneels down in front of Lester who is laying in a pool of his own blood, the viewer is invited to look on as well at Lester and realize that we, too, can find beauty in a graphic image like that. The film teaches us to look closer and to realize beauty in other things besides the obvious. Furthermore, it reaffirms that there is an everyday struggle for individuals to figure out their own identities and sometimes they find it necessary to mask their fears and insecurities with fake exteriors.
Everything is not what it seems. Behind the perfectly painted red door and within the white picket fence, there is disillusionment and tension within the family structure. Behind the hard facade of the sexualized teenage girl, there is an innocent young woman who is insecure and wants attention. Behind the tough exterior of a former colonel, there is a conflicted man begging for answers. Behind the peculiar cold young man, there is the only sliver of humanity left in this materialistic world. The film teaches us that behind these fake exteriors, there exists an ounce of beauty being hidden. All we have to do is look closer.