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The film tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who is an unhappy office worker smack in a midlife crisis, falling out of love with his materialistic wife (Annette Bening), out of touch with his parents-hating, self-deprecating sixteen-year-old daughter (Thora Birch), and sexually obsessed with her cheerleader best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). The film earned numerous accolades, including five Academy Awards yet it is not the quality of the movie that keeps it at the top of many greatest ever lists, but rather the multiple interpretations of its somewhat ambiguous story, and its ability to shift to something new with each successive viewing. Critics claimed it was genre-proof, tackling themes as existential as the meaning of life and human existence, to criticism on loneliness, imprisonment, perceptions of beauty, and sexual gratification. Whatever you cull from the experience, negative, positive or somewhere in-between, it leaves an impression and embraces conversation and debate, which rage on even to this day.
The film begins with a bold statement. Lester narrates that he will soon die, which relieves the audience of some guesswork but oddly, in no way spoils the ending. During the last year of his life, Lester has a kind of metamorphosis, hinging entirely on the prospect of a sexual encounter with a teenage girl. The beautiful Angela is a metaphor of sorts, the physical embodiment of a male’s celebration of maturation, a conquest that signifies the passage between boy and man. As Lester evolves from who he was to who he will become, Angela is the ever-teasing prize, the last hurdle, the fantasy of a reality that can never be achieved.
Throughout the film, a theme of red is always present and represents different things for different people, especially with the use of red roses. The breed of rose, is of course, the popular American Beauty Rose (Rosa ‘American Beauty‘) and with Angela it reveals Lester’s obvious desire for her. In dreams and erotic fantasies, he sees her surrounded by rose petals, one time even with them cascading out from her bare chest like a fountain as he stares in hungry lust in his vision. She is, in his weighted dreams, the absolute exultation of life itself.
The original theatrical poster for American Beauty makes this notion the driving force behind the marketing. Sex sells, and even though there is much more about this image, that core message is clear. With the cropped image carefully omitting but suggestively teasing both the upper and lower parts of the female nude torso, the tagline suggests there is more we can see. This is the success of any great erotic image, in that it is not what we see that compels us to stare but what we can’t. With one finger dipping below the border and a single long-stemmed rose rising up from the same position, the suggestion is clear. What’s truly important about this image is that the girl’s face is not shown. This is not about love, affection, or any emotion beyond the baser impulses. The girl’s body is an object, a canvas unto which the viewer paints their own fantasy, much like Lester does with his infatuation. It’s not about who Angela is but what her body represents.
Created by Pulse Advertising, what’s especially effective about the one sheet is the spacing and bold choice to de-accentuate the title and stars of the film, something that are typically very prominent on posters. The difficult-to-read white lettering and small font size are deliberate, literally forcing us to “look closer” and having us peer more carefully at the image, and by extension, the figure of a nude girl. Visually askew, the film title is also off center, just left of center, giving it an odd sense of imbalance, especially with the flimsy tagline lingering beneath not quite filling the void to the right. Again, these are design tricks to create interest and work very well but also very subtly hint at the film’s theme of disjointed obsessions on appearances. Note too the word Beauty is in bold typeface. The emphasis on this is a visual indication of the emphasis on its real world counterpart as well. Beauty is the thing we seek in much of everything in our lives and on the poster it is the single easiest word to read but the least attractive element of the image.
Interestingly, while Mena Suvari is the talented young actress who portrays the object of Lester’s desire and it is her we are meant to think is the nude girl on the poster, she is not in fact the model for the image. The woman is actually Chloe Hunter, an actress and model whose abdomen and hand are featured on the one sheet.
Three years after American Beauty, Hunter would appear in the low budget film Spun (2002). It starred Mena Suvari, and the film’s theatrical poster also featured a nude abdomen and a hand, though decidedly less sexualized.