Thursday, 25 August 2011

Use of make-up in American Beauty: Beyond the plastic bag...

A lot of people who discuss or critique American Beauty more often than not comment on the beauty that is in front of our eyes but we are blind too- e.g. the floating plastic bag. However, I am just going to comment on what I have noticed whilst watching the movie numerous times, and the other ideas of beauty that is explored or hinted at during the film.

Make-up is a major player in this movie in showing what is perceived as beautiful and how make-up is used to create the illusion of beauty/ enhance beauty. I will analyse the female characters in this movie- Carolyn, Jane, Angela and Barbara (Ricky's mother).

Firstly, Carolyn. Carolyn Burnham is obsessed with image and appearance. She wants her home and business to look like it is successful and as it should be, so she does that by certain coverings up. As she clearly states, 'She must live that image' and she agrees with Buddy's philosophy- 'In order to be successful, one must project a successful image at all times'. Owner of her own real estate business, Carol must look the image of a successful business woman, even though she is losing out to local competition. She always has immaculate hair, snazzy suits, but most of all, she wears a dark red lipstick. Not only does it look classy, but it makes her look like she lives a glamorous lifestyle, and it makes her seem younger than she is because red lipstick is known for being a sexy thing to wear.

Beginning of film

End of film
Secondly we'll look at Jane. Now Jane is a self-conscious teenager who hates the way she looks, and at the beginning of the movie she wears a dark red lipstick to make herself feel sexy, and she wears a lot of heavy black liner that is not only quite provocative, but quite rebellious too. Of course, after she meets Ricky she becomes more confident because he thinks that she is beautiful, and as she progressively feels more confident in herself, the make-up slowly gets more  reduced to just mascara, to no make-up at all at the end of the movie.

Beginning of film
End of film
Thirdly is Angela. Now at the beginning of the film Angela is aware of her sexual allure but she is an innocent girl who hasn't actually had real attention off another man. But when she realises that Jane's dad Lester is seriously attracted to her, she starts to flirt with him, and we see at school that she tells people that she sleeps around and is really sexually experienced. This is all a lie, and the more lies she tells, the more of an image she has to project, so she turns from quite natural make-up at the beginning of the film, to a a lot of make-up girl seeking attention and trying to look sexy. She wears dark blue eyeshadow on her eyelids in a smokey-eye fashion making her eyes look sultry, and she too dons the red-lip. At the end of the film, when Angela tells Lester that she is a virgin, she starts to cry because she feels stupid. The crying causes her make-up to run which symbolises her mask of being this experienced siren if you like, is washing away, or falling apart. She is just a young girl trying to act like a developed and sexually aware woman.

And finally Barbara (left), who lives a bare, boring- basically doesn't have a life anymore, wears no make-up through the movie. Her face shows her life as it is- empty, blank and dull. She is not covering up anything, she is showing exactly who she is.

Aside from the characters, I'm going to briefly bring to your attention the idea of beauty- what does the title American Beauty mean? When I think about American Beauty I think Marilyn Monroe because she was the dream image of every man during the 1950's, and even today is thought of by many as the ultimate dream, perfection of woman. The 'perfect size' measurements for a woman have been Marilyn Monroe's measurements for over fifty years. This relates to American Beauty because of it's most famous scene, Angela lying nude on a bed of red rose petals.

Marilyn Monroe
Now Angela is blonde like Marilyn, and is wearing red lipstick- Marilyn's trademark. But most of all, this scene is unmistakably similar to Marilyn's first photoshoot that was printed in Playboy magazine. Instead of petals we have red velvet, but the image is strikingly similar. I have not read anywhere that Marilyn's photo was the inspiration but I believe that there is a strong chance that her photo was the basis for the scene.

So yes, please when you watch American Beauty observe the plastic bag, etc, but please also look at the clever and insightful use of make-up in the film because it is remarkable and incredibly revealing. Fantastic film with so much depth. Next time you watch this, do exactly as the films subtitle tells you to... look closer.


  1. Claudia, this was really an interesting post of yours to read and hugely satisfying when it comes to analyzing films the "unusual" way. I love discuss a film based on makeup, hair and clothing, and I get weird looks as if I'm missing the point, while everything in a film is there for a purpose!
    American Beauty is also the name of a classic type of red rose, thus explaining the use of red petals. Red is powerful, alluring, provokes an emotional and sexual catharsis and that's what all the characters in the movie are going through. It's interesting that the film's tag line is "Look closer". It tells us to shed every petal of that beautiful rose, every inch of the mask people wear whether it's money, status, power and makeup (that are there to conceal the characters' unhappiness), to express our desires, but that inner beauty also has a price.
    I'd love to see you with more posts, you're so good at it!
    Tons of love!
    Stephanie (moviefan19S)

  2. American Beauty refers to a type of red roses with the same red used in the movies. It also refers to all the typical American things: guns at home, cheerleading, firebirds, brokers, nice white houses, boring office jobs, drugs.