The final glimpse given to the audience of the character Carolyn Burnham in Sam Mendes’ 1999 film, American Beauty, is a point-of-view shot taken from her husband’s perspective on a fast spinning carnival ride. Carolyn is thrilled and bursting with passionate joy; perfectly in focus while the world around the two lovers appears as a dark blur full of unknown terrors that are for that moment completely irrelevant. This is the only sign of true happiness that Carolyn Burnham, played by the great Annette Bening, displays in the entire film, and tragically it’s a flashback to days long past. In present day, Carolyn’s life is completely devoid of such lighthearted pleasure. She is, like most of the film’s characters, trapped in a life of suburban stagnation, where confused and often hollow values contribute to a concealed despair and clouded longing. As Carolyn’s husband, Lester (Kevin Spacey), explains in the film’s opening narration, things weren’t always this way: “She used to be happy. We used to be happy,” he recalls. As the film’s main protagonist, Lester evolves radically throughout the story, completing an entire cycle of the Hero’s Journey: departing from the confines of his known world, overcoming obstacles, transforming, and ultimately dying at the very moment when his much needed epiphany is realized. Carolyn’s developmental cycle is more complicated and less conclusive than Lester’s. When he dies at the close of the film, Carolyn is understandably consumed with grief and guilt. Given the events that lead up to that point, many would assume that she’s emotionally and morally lost. However, a closer look at Carolyn’s storyline reveals a complicated trajectory of false progress that is ultimately corrected, leading her not to tragic defeat, but to a promising and even optimistic new beginning.
To appreciate how Carolyn grows throughout the film it is important to have an understanding of her daily life and its entrapments. Carolyn works as a real estate agent and in a cleverly constructed scene in the first act we watch her clean and attempt to sell a run down house in a lower middle class neighborhood. We are aware at this point in the film that her primary focus in life is maintaining an appearance that suggests success, competence and flawlessness, and her job perfectly embodies these values. When Carolyn arrives at the home she’ll be working to sell, she notices that across the street a similar home has just been sold by an agent named Buddy Kane who is both her idol and her competition. In response, Carolyn – before even having begun her work – grimaces and lets out a defeated sigh. She envies Buddy Kane’s success, perceives it as a failure of her own, and in doing so reveals a particularly poisonous psychological defect. Instead of developing her own definition of success, Carolyn looks to the world around her.
Naturally, as a result of this constant focus on image and the successes of others, Carolyn has developed rigid, unrealistic expectations of herself and leaves virtually no room for self-forgiveness. This is made clear when she’s shown rigorously cleaning the home while repeating a mantra that she “will sell this house today”. Rather than create a trustworthy rapport with her clients by marketing the house for what it is, she describes it to her clients as precisely what it is not. The drab kitchen is described as “a dream come true for any cook” and the backyard swimming pool, which really requires no embellishment to be seen as a luxury for somebody in a lower income bracket, has been deceitfully marketed as “lagoon-like”, affectively not only losing the trust of the women viewing the property, but having the opposite of the intended effect by making a perfectly fine pool seem unexceptional. When her last client is gone, Carolyn walks inside, slams the door, and weeps in private; a near silhouette against the vertical blinds that oppress the scene like prison bars. She begins slapping herself and scolding the unwelcomed display of weakness, screaming “stop it!” repeatedly to herself. Her failure to sell leaves her feeling fraudulent. After having worked tirelessly to develop the facade of a picturesque family life she can’t seem to achieve the level of success necessary to legitimize it, and worse may be wondering if she’s the only one being fooled by it. She’s incapable of self love. In the context of the Hero’s Journey, this scene epitomizes Carolyn’s “known world”; the problematic place in which she resides and must in some sense escape or transcend.
In Act 2 we watch Carolyn begin an affair with Buddy “The King” Kane, and at a glance she appears to be thoroughly revitalized. They’ve been shooting guns together, having raucous sex, and she is finally tasting the freedom, excitement and pleasure that she has hungered for. However, an unexpectedly intimate encounter with Lester reveals the faulty foundation on which the “new” Carolyn is being built. When she arrives home after a fling with Buddy Kane, she is annoyed with Lester and reprimands him for his recent streak of bold behavior, and yet Carolyn has an unmistakable glow about her. She stands in the entrance of the living room behind Lester wearing a tight fitting blue dress and her body language shows that for the first time in years she feels sexy, confident, desired. Curiously though, only her body is lit in this shot while her head remains in the shadows, suggesting a reawakening that is strictly sensual. This change in Carolyn is not lost on Lester, for he too is experiencing a cathartic renewal of passion and freedom and he too is wrestling with confused and inappropriate desires as a result of it. But the most significant similarity in their metamorphoses is that they both remain without real, meaningful intimacy and in a manic race to fulfill their long ignored desires have continued to neglect the importance of familial love. In an inspired (and perhaps drunken) fit of passion, Lester makes an advance on Carolyn and they end up face to face on the sofa. Their eyes lock, and as Lester describes the Carolyn he fell in love with, “who used to run up to the roof of our first apartment building to flash the traffic helicopters,” the camera slowly moves in on them. Up close we see their smiling faces reflecting a deep mutual attraction, so much so that it serves to emphasizes exactly how hollow her affair with Buddy Kane is. We’re ready; almost eager to forgive Carolyn, and Lester too. But just as their mouths are about to connect, she spots the beer he’s holding tilted over the couch. Instantly, their connection is severed and the stripes on the sofa appear as prison bars, their blue color standing in perfect harmony with the blue of Carolyn’s dress. She lashes out at Lester for his carelessness and we realize that she is not yet capable of prioritizing love over material wealth and image. She remains captive to the toxic aspects of her known world that are being reinforced by her false mentor, Buddy Kane.
In the film’s final act, Lester, seconds before being shot in the head, finally has the soul-changing epiphany that’s been eluding him for so long, and the rest of the world is left to deal with the tragedy of his murder. Carolyn, having the same day been publicly confronted by Lester while on a rendezvous with Buddy, suffers immensely and with Lester dying before amends are made it may seem that all hope is lost for her. However, I believe that when looking closely at Carolyn’s behavior in reaction to her husband’s death, it becomes clear that in her darkest hour she breaks free from the grip of her false mentor and overcomes the primary obstacles that have been impeding her spiritual development; effectively slaying the proverbial dragon and beginning a journey into the unknown world of love and redemption. After Lester’s murder, a flashback sequence shows each of the primary character’s reactions to the gunshot that killed him. As a result of her affair with Buddy being exposed, Carolyn is in the midst of a downward spiral of shame and guilt and she’s directed all her pain at Lester. When the gunshot rings out, she’s in a trance-like state, walking in the pouring rain toward the Burnham home. Against her chest, she clutches desperately to the two hollow truths of which her affair with Buddy Kane has fed on: her purse and the gun within it. The next shot of Carolyn shows her inside the house crossing the threshold into the master bedroom. The trance is broken as soon as the door is shut. She leans back and breaks into hysterical sobs. We are reminded of the shot in act 1 of her weeping after the failed real estate pitch, but this time there is no prison bar imagery, nor does she attempt to hold back her grief. She opens Lester’s closet and dumps the purse into the hamper with regretful urgency. She is released from the grip of money, power and emotional repression. Disillusioned by tragedy, all that matters in the world is suddenly made clear and she collapses into Lester’s clothes, clinging to them desperately as she had to her purse just moments prior.
This last devastating shot of Carolyn in the modern day dissolves into the aforementioned flashback of her on the spinning carnival ride without a care in the world. The transition is brilliantly jarring; at once heart wrenching and hopeful. A film with less respect for its audience may have shown Carolyn catch a glimpse of a framed “Home is where the heart is” picture upon entering the bedroom in order to drive home the point that she’s finally broken free of her oppressive delusions. Luckily, Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball are masters of clever motifs and subtle prompts that enable the story to serve as both a scathing critique of the American dream and a multifaceted tale of hope and redemption. While we are certainly left feeling deep remorse for Carolyn, we have seen her learn from her missteps and discover new meaning in life. In letting go of her obsessions with wealth, power and image, Carolyn has acquired the most powerful tools in coping: forgiveness, love and human connection.