‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ (The Declaration of Independence, 1776). Critically analyze the Representation of the American Dream in American Beauty and Rocky. The American Dream is ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’ (Adams 1931). ‘It is a desire of people to be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. It is to dream of opportunity and success, with the promise that hard work and fair play will almost certainly lead to success regardless of ascription or background (race, class, gender) (Cao 2009).
It definitely sounds appealing, and therefore it’s no surprise that the storyline of the American Dream plays a role in many popular Hollywood films. Some films, such as Rocky (1976), support the idea of the American Dream while others, such as American Beauty (1999), criticize it. The American Dream began back in 1776 when the idea of freedom being a right and that tyranny could be successfully opposed was the belief amongst the people. There was also thought that the government could support all the people, not just a few, and while this was revolutionary in 1776, it still is today. Some critics have suggested that the American Dream is something of the past, that ‘dreams rarely come to pass and those that do rarely last. The American Dream is no exception’ (Schoon 2008).
‘The idea of the American Dream has been attached to everything from religious freedom to a home n the suburbs, and it has inspired emotions ranging from deep satisfaction to disillusioned fury’ (Hochschild 1995, 15). The dream inspires the thought that anything can happen to anybody, and it can all be good. However, while many Americans have achieved their own dream, most will be disappointed and disillusioned. Some say the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity; people work long hours for bigger houses, fancier cars, designer labels but have less time to enjoy their prosperity. Others claim that the American Dream is beyond the grasp of some people, particularly the working poor, who must work two jobs to ensure their family’s survival. At the same time, a few have chosen their American Dream to be less focused on financial gain and more emphasis on living a simple and fulfilling life.
American Beauty portrays these different views of the American Dream through all its characters (Probst 2000, 80). American Beauty portrays a ‘real perspective on the lives of one special and dynamic American family’ (Dannhauser 2006). While many people like to believe that all typical American families living in typical American suburbs lead a happy ‘normal’ life, American Beauty challenges this and attempts to challenge the idea of what we think is ‘beautiful.’ It is a ‘portrait of the suburban comedy, a jolting shock of realization and a cathartic sense of hope’ (IMDb 1999). ‘The suburbs are a trap, not an escape, a place where life has become predictable, stale and without wonder or enchantment’ (Deneen 2002, 101).
The film depicts several people who are all in their own right striving for their own American Dream, yet few achieve it. It is only Lester who achieves the Dream, and yet his happiness brings his death. Audiences connect with the characters who are simply looking to be happy, but first, they must endure the way of life in which they are trapped. While depicting it, American Beauty also rejects the American Dream through Lester. He chooses to start his life over and reject everything he has accepted up until now. Although their actions are controversial, it is the only way in which they can find happiness. He is presented to us as a loser who is subjugated at home and work. His wife, daughter and boss mistreat him. While he seems beyond redemption, he transforms from this loser into a self defiant person.
The film opens with a pan over the street, which is neat, while Lester narrates, ‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. In less than a year, I’ll be dead. In a way, I’m already dead’ (Deneen 2002, 101). It seems like the perfect setting for one to endure their American Dream, and yet we hear that Lester will not only die within a year, but he feels he is already dead, that his life is meaningless and nothing. Lester is on the Pursuit for Happiness. He is living the suburbanite existence and is seeking to become a happier person. ‘All the characters hide underneath this veneer of normality and respectability, yet they are all revealed to be nothing but the opposite, depressed, depraved and desperate’ (Dannhauser 2006). Lester shows this and attempts to change.
‘His realization comes from watching the cheerleader’s routine at the basketball. Following this, he claims that he has been in a coma for twenty years and is only now waking up’ (Deneen 2002, 101), which suggests that the majority of his life, indeed the time in which he has been married, working the professional job, raising and daughter and living in the prosperous suburbs with nice cars and fancy furniture has meant nothing. He attempts to change and re-live his youth. He quits his job and applies to work at a fast-food outlet, typically worked at by teenagers as a first job. He smokes marijuana and begins working out, living out the life he did when he was young, which, as he describes, ‘all I did was a party and got laid. I had my whole life ahead of me…’ (American Beauty 1999). This is again critiquing marriage and suburban life. He claims he had his whole life ahead of him, his American Dream, but instead, he is living out a nightmare.
Lester’s wife Carolyn is the most success-driven character throughout the entire film; however, her moral side fails. She constantly repeats her mantra adopted from the King of real estate ‘To be successful in life, one must project the appearance of success.’ The saying is repeated throughout all aspects of the film, as it relates to keeping up appearances, the idea that they were all living the American Dream, or at least appeared to be. However, Lester challenges this masquerade by following what his heart desires and not acting or pretending for anybody. He even critiques his wife, claiming that all she cares about is appearance and possession. At the party, he mocks how she would prefer him to act. Instead of being the well-mannered, charming husband, he prefers to rebel and smoke marijuana in the parking lot. He tries to relive his youth through her by seducing her on the couch, telling her how vivacious she used to be.
This seems to work for a while before she realizes he is about to spill beer on the sofa, which infuriates Lester. ‘So what? It’s just a couch. This isn’t life. It’s’ just stuff’ (American Beauty 1999). This successfully sets her up to be the materialistic and evil character that has turned this suburban life into a nightmare. The neighbours consist of the father, Colonel Frank Fitts, a mother and a son. While they seem like a decent family, behind closed doors, the Colonel is a homophobic, violent, controlling father; the mother seems to have some mental disorder while Ricky portrays his obedience to his father while behind his back is selling drugs and faking the urine tests his father gives him. The film critiques the traditional nuclear suburban family. It is portrayed as ‘a repository of deceit, conformity, materialism, martial and sexual discontent, selfishness, anxiety, psychological disorder, substance abuse, and even outright violence and hysteria’ (Deneen 2002, 102).
These two families are considered normal, the families to which the audience should relate. Yet American Beauty critics these ‘traditional’ families portraying their American Dream as violent, dissatisfying, and predictable. It is only the gay couple Jim and Jim who appear generous, warm, loving and most importantly, happy. American Beauty questions masculinity and femininity through the main character of Lester and his wife, Carolyn. Lester, in particular, begins to question his own existence and relationships. ‘In unveiling the ‘fake’ ideologies, we discover the ideals of his own body, relationships with females and the need for escapism from his own reality’ (Perry 1999). There is a lot of emphasis on what a contemporary man in his early 40s should look like. The film also looks at the common ideals of femininity and how they can be changed through the character of Carolyn. Carolyn is in control of the household, something which traditionally has been the role of the male. Lester feels trapped by his wife as she has all power over him.
This is evident in scenes at the dinner table, where Carolyn chooses the music, and neither Lester nor their daughter has a choice. This form of power is different from the traditional view of men controlling the household and that men are the breadwinners. Lester also breaks this challenge when he quits his job, leaving Carolyn to earn for the family. These acts go against all that the American Dream claims to be. Carolyn upholds her identity well in public; however, when alone, she often breaks down and cries, firstly in the house that she can not sell and secondly in the car where she tells herself that she will not be a victim. Carolyn represents women who ‘will not be dominated by men and out into the hegemonic view of women being weaker and the victims of our society.’ Normally it is the male who refuses to cry in front of others, but in American Beauty, Carolyn does not want to show her emotions.
She also challenges the stereotypical gender role when she uses a gun to release her anger. A gun, normally a masculine object and phallic symbol, challenges the stereotypical view of the woman being a nurturing person. This aspect of the film allows Carolyn to be more masculine. ‘The movie looks to dissect American culture and functioning on all levels, from daily interactions to the compounding societal pressures to become self-actualized and successful.’ The film takes typically stereotypical characters and peels away the layers to reveal their human suffering and distress. It suggests that despite the hardships that we endure in our daily lives, there is still beauty present in all that we do. Lester is rewarded for striving for his own American Dream, as does his daughter and Ricky. Carolyn and the Colonel, however, pay the price for upholding their ‘successful image.’ The Colonel pretends to be the perfect citizen, fighting for his country, raising a perfect son and living out the American Dream.
However, we later find out that his homophobia towards Jim and Jim and apparently towards Ricky (whom he believed was doing sexual acts for money) results from his own homosexual nature. Finally, Lester’s rejection of him drives him to shoot him through the head. However, it is only through Lester’s death that the characters are given a glimpse of hope. Rocky is a movie that rings popular even into this millennium. Made in the 1976, it still finds its place in modern times and crosses generations across the decades. It was phenomenally successful and uplifting, taking place during the U.S. Bicentennial and has Philadelphia as a backdrop. It is an irresistible and painful movie of an underdog striving for his American Dream. The film is set in old Philadelphia, an ethnic neighbourhood where working people on grimy streets live out dead-end lives. The city is also significant as historically it is one of the most important cities in the United States, as ‘it witnessed the adoptions of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress at Pennsylvania Statehouse on 4th July 1776’ (Spiezio 2006).
‘The movie’s hero, Rocky Balboa – The Italian Stallion – is an ageing and unpromising product of the dismal boxing gyms’ (Shor 1977). Rocky is a part of a whole sector of working people left behind by U.S prosperity, far from affluence or the green suburbs. Few scenes are shot in the sun. Most occur at night or dusk and dawn, but if no sun shines on Rocky’s neighbourhood, at least he does. Rocky has been described as an American symbol. It is the story of an American Dream, a Cinderella epic about the working class hero, past his prime but still allowed to compete at the top level. Unlike American Beauty, it supports the American Dream instead of critiquing it. However, like American Beauty, it encourages its characters to strive for their own American Dream. While he knows he may not win, it is the opportunity to see if he can go the distance he appreciates the most. Rocky makes the most of his big chance, and the audience is on his side the whole way (Shor 1977).
It is an exciting story with Rocky the only character given real depth. He is very well mannered, friendly and liked, but can’t find dignity or a decent job or put together a respectable family life. He doesn’t look for ‘honest’ work but wants more out of life and winds up with less than the people around him. He either needs to rise above his class or will sink further below it. The other characters are sketched briefly, purely to give Rocky more depth. ‘The redemption of all their empty lives by Rocky’s rising star adds emotional tension to the film’ (Shor 1977). The audience is set up to side with Rocky right throughout the film. We want him to win the girl and the fight. He is a decent guy who loves animals, makes small humorous jokes that smile on faces and tries to educate the youth in his neighbourhood. He never talks dirty in front of women and appears to be very gentle despite his fighting quality. As an audience, we want him to achieve his Dream. The chance for Rocky is set up when Apollo creed offers a shot of the title to an unknown.
Creed and his promoters stage a lavish patriotic spectacle ‘as a national demonstration of what the Land of Opportunity can still offer after its first two hundred years’ (Shor 1977). In this sense, Rocky supports American ideals of the Pursuit of Happiness, the striving for the American Dream and that America is where it can occur. However, with all the hype surrounding the fight, Rocky starts to doubt himself. Next to Creed, he appears unpolished and inarticulate and is ridiculed by promoters and the press. All the while, the audience still side with him. He starts to question why he is doing this and what he is trying to prove? However, he then turns his attention away from victory to going the distance. Like most working-class men, he lowers his expectations and attempts to distance (Shor 1977). He says, ‘Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that doesn’t matter either, you know? Cause I was thinking, it really doesn’t matter if I lose this fight.
It really doesn’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. Cause all I want to do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings, and I’m still standing, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see that I wasn’t just another bum from the neighbourhood’ (Rocky 1976). Rocky does this and gives Creed the fight of his life, and in turn, Rocky receives the audience’s support which identifies with a nobody who wins respect and dignity. ‘Rocky emerges as a working-class hero who answers the sudden call of the American Dream, going from disgrace to dignity in a magical moment’ (Gallantz 1978). His bruised but handsome face mirrors the two faces of the American Dream. The gentle Rocky must hurt people and get hurt himself to make it, or in this case, to go the distance. ‘Opportunity is inseparable from both glory and tragedy, in the damage to oneself and others, up the U.S ladder to success’ (Gallantz 1978). Each man must pay the price, Rocky, with his broken nose and Creed with broken ribs.
The story is a true fantasy. He will get married, enjoy the next few years with good paychecks, retire, and live happily ever after with Adrian. ‘The good in working people is fighting daily against a depraved society’ (Gallantz 1978). As Sylvester Stallone puts it, Rocky is about ‘having the opportunity not to win, not to sell records…just the opportunity to run the race to see if you can finish or not’ (Shor 1977). Rocky is about love and passion, not fighting and muscles. It’s about having something inside that you know must be filled. Each person can finish the race if they try hard enough. American Beauty and Rocky each show different sides to the American Dream. American Beauty rejects the dream. Lester critiques all that he has and throws it all away to try and relive his youth. It is only after his death that he remembers all the good things in the past and gives hope to the other characters that they too will find happiness just as he did.
Rocky is in the Pursuit of his happiness as well. However, he wants to see if he can go the whole way. The traditional underdog story has been described as an American symbol. Its popularity suggests that many people relate to the story; everybody else wants the chance to run the race. But, on the other hand, other audiences are elated by the character of Lester in his unhappiness and striving for his dream. Either way, both Lester and Rocky have been given a chance for life, liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, which is something that all Americans claim they have the opportunity for, but only in the Land of Opportunities.
- Adams, James Truslow (1931), The Epic of America, Little Brown & Company.
- American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. DreamWorks (1999)
- Bauman, Zygmunt (1997), Postmodernity and its Discontents, Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 199-208.
- Cao, Benito (2009), American Identity: American Dream, Lecture delivered Wednesday 26th August, University of Adelaide, South Australia.
- Dannhauser, Phyllis (2006), ‘Critical Analyse of American Beauty’ Available online at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/97573/Critical-Analyse-of-American-Beauty (Accessed on 24/10/09).
- Deneen, Patrick J. (2002), ‘Awakening from the American Dream: The End of Escape in American Cinema?’ Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 96-103.
- Gallantz, Michael (1978), ‘Critical dialogue: Rocky’s racism’ Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no.18, pp. 33-34.
- Hochschild, Jennifer L. (1995), Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 15-38.
- Jones, Edwards (1977), ‘Rocky accomplishes the American Dream,’ The Free-Lance Star, Vol. 93, No. 66, pp. 14.
- Joseph, Paul R. (2000) ‘Pleasantville: An Essay on Law, Power, and Transcendence in Our Cultural Mythological Past,’ Nova Law Review, Vol. 24, pp. 621-638.
- Perry, David (1999), ‘American Beauty,’ Cinema Scene, Vol. 1, No. 30.
- Probst, Christopher (2000), ‘American Beauty,’ American Society of Cinematographers, Vol. 81, No. 3, pp. 80-82.
- Rocky. Dir. John G. Avildsen. United Artists (1976)
- Schoon, Darryl Robert (2008), ‘The American Dream – An obituary’ Available online at: http://www.drschoon.com/articles/TheAmericanDream.pdf (Accessed on 24/10/09).
- Shor, Ira (1977), ‘Rocky: Two faces of the American Dream’ Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 14, pp. 1.
- Spiezio, Roberto (2006), ‘Rocky Balboa: Symbol of America’ Available online at: http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?no=316333&rel_no=1 (Accessed on 30/10/09).
- The Internet Movie Database (1999), ‘American Beauty’ Available online at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0169547/ (Accessed on 30/10/09).