Kevin Spacey never landed a more zeitgeist-capturing role than Lester Burnham in American Beauty (’99). This scene is my personal favorite. (It’s actually tied with the job-quitting, severance-package, “can you prove you didn’t offer to save my job if I let you blow me?” scene.) Spacey loved the ’90s and the ’90s loved him right backGlengarry Glen Ross (’92), Swimming with Sharks (’94), The Usual Suspects (’95), Se7en (’95 — John Doe was arguably his most perfectly acted performance), Looking for Richard (’95), L.A. Confidential (’97 — Detective Sergeant Jack Vincennes was right on the money), Hurlyburly (’98) and American Beauty. Then his luck changed and it was one misfire or comme ci comme ca shortfaller after another — Pay It Forward, K-PAX, The Shipping News, The United States of Leland, The Life of David Gale, Beyond the Sea, Superman Returns, Fred Claus, 21, et. al. When you’re hot, you’re hot. When you’re not, you’re not.

Posted on 2.18.17: Every year I trot out the old saw about values and lessons being the main determining factor in the choosing of Best Picture winners by Academy voters. People recognize strong stories, first-rate artsy elements and high-level craft, but more often than not the tipping factor is a film “saying” something that the Academy recognizes as fundamentally true and close-to-home — a movie that reflects their lives and values in a way that feels solemn and agreeable.

Ordinary People beat Raging Bull because the values espoused by the former (suppressing trauma is bad, letting it out is good, wicked-witch moms are bad) touched people more deeply than the ones in Raging Bull. What values did Martin Scorsese‘s film espouse? Art-film values. Great goombah acting values. Black-and-white cinematography values. The only value that resulted in a big Oscar was Robert De Niro‘s commitment to realistic performing values — i.e. putting on 50 or 60 pounds to play fat Jake LaMotta. But there were no values in the film at all. What, it’s a bad thing to beat up your brother in front of his wife and kids?

American Beauty won the Best Picture Oscar because it said something that everyone (particularly workaholic careerists) believes to be true, which is that we spend so much time and energy running around in circles that we fail to appreciate the simple beauty of things. On top of which it’s a pungent, occasionally hilarious satire of American middle-class values and lifestyles.

True, American Beauty isn’t as good as Michael Mann‘s The Insider, which was also nominated for 1999’s Best Picture Oscar, but American Beauty values were deemed richer and more resonant than The Insider‘s, which not only wasn’t emotional enough for most voters — it wasn’t emotional at all.