Lester Burnham: From Creepy to Caring
By Madison Whalen
Oscar-winning American Beauty (1999) centers on sexually frustrated Lester Burnham, his micromanaging wife Carolyn, and their angsty teenaged daughter Jane. Set in late 90s suburbia, American Beauty destroys the illusion of the modern-day Norman Rockwell family: a father who sells advertising for a living, a faithful real-estate saleswoman wife, and a cheerleading daughter living in a large house with a picket fence and rosebushes. Beneath the surface, Lester is struggling with an intense sexual attraction to his daughter’s friend Angela, Carolyn strikes up a love affair with a competing realtor, and Jane falls in love with her drug-dealing neighbor. One scene in particular uses food (more specifically, the act of preparing it) to represent a transformation. For the majority of the film, Lester’s food is prepared for him by Carolyn and during meals he acts like a selfish, spoiled, belligerent child. At the end of the film, however, he cooks for the first and only time, revealing a completely different persona: Lester as father, provider, and caregiver. Cooking and being in the kitchen illustrate that Lester is changing from an infatuated man going through a mid-life crisis into a man whose priorities are beginning to realign.
Traditionally, the dinner table has been a place for a family to come together, discuss their day, and function as a cohesive unit. In perhaps the most iconic scene of the film, however, Carolyn is harping and nagging Lester about his recent decision to quit his job, and after asking for the asparagus to be passed multiple times, Lester stands up, walks to the asparagus plate, and throws it against the wall – the plate is shattered and so is the illusion that the Burnhams are a functional suburban American family. Food, which so often serves as a vehicle for community and family and an invitation into a sense of “home,” serves to illustrate the sharp contrast between what should be, and what is.
In one of the final scenes of the film, Lester has finally succeeded in seducing his daughter’s friend Angela. As he takes off her shirt, she informs him that contrary to popular belief (and the image that she herself has carefully crafted), she is a virgin. With this revelation, Lester seems to come to his senses and instead of sleeping with Angela, he heads to the kitchen and makes her dinner. Cooking a meal for Angela symbolizes two things. Firstly, it symbolizes Lester transitioning out of his mid-life, petulant, self-centered, sex-obsessed persona and back into a traditional “father” figure – caregiver, provider, parent. In the previous scene, Angela asks Lester, “What do you want?” To which he responds, “Are you kidding? I want you. I’ve wanted you since the first moment I saw you . . . You are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” In the image above, Lester stands across from where Angela sits, hands braced on the counter, and asks if she would like another serving of food. He then simply says, “How’s Jane? How’s her life? Is she happy? Is she miserable? I’d really like to know, and she’d die before she’d ever tell me about it.” When he hears that Jane is happy and stupidly in love, he begins to tear up and says, “Good for her.” The second thing his cooking does is normalize Angela’s character. For the entire film, she has simply been the object of Lester’s sexual fantasies. As she sits in his home and he makes her a meal, she becomes not a sex object, but a human; she’s Jane’s best friend. Lester begins to treat her more like a daughter and less like a mistress. In essence, cooking and preparing a meal serves to humanize Lester and because of that, he is able humanize Angela. In the still at the top of the page, Lester walks over to the counter to pick up a picture frame holding a photo of his family from years ago – the kitchen is the place where his world begins to right itself.