American Beauty: Use of the red colour as a symbol of Lester's forgotten dreams

Essay, 2008

11 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The red entrance

3. Red roses

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

By mid-November 1999 the $15 million production American Beauty (1999) by Sam Mendes had already earned $65.6 million. It won five Academy Awards and three Golden Globes and provoked a lot of discussion after its release. It presents the story of Lester Burnham who at the age of 42 realises that he has lost his joy in life. His marriage to Carolyn Burnham just lasts to keep up appearances, he cannot fulfil himself in his job and his relationship to his daughter is rather distanced and problematic, consequently he encounters himself right in a stage of midlife crisis.

Among others, it won the Award for Best Camera which is not surprising when we consider all the interesting shots and camera angles and the whole mise-en-scène. But the most eye-catching part of the composition is the contrast of colours. Whereas in nearly the whole movie we find restrained, pastel colours like white, grey, and blue as the dominant ones, for example in the interior of Lester’s house, the colour red in specific scenes is the most outstanding one. It is used for very special objects, as for the entrance of Lester’s house and the red roses that accompany every of Lester’s fantasies about Angela, a school friend of his daughter Jane.

In the following, I will show how the colour red can be understood as a symbol for Lester’s lost and newly emerging dreams.

Firstly, I will briefly demonstrate how the red entrance of his house begins to make Lester aware of his restrictedness and loss of freedom as well as the increasing disintegration of his family.

Then secondly, I will switch to the most powerful image of the movie, the red rose. It has a different meaning for Lester, depending on if it is seen with Carolyn or with Angela. Whereas with Carolyn, the roses remind Lester even more of the decay of his family and their thwarted love, the rose petals that he imagines escorting Angela are symbols of his newly emerged sexual desire. He feels engaged to change his monotonous life and the red colour accompanies his transition and reminds him of his dreams.

2. The red entrance

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Already in the beginning, after the little introductory frame scene of Jane and her boyfriend Ricky and the presentation of the characters, when we see the central family leaving their home, the provocative and unusual red colour of the entrance of the house in the background of the scene catches the viewer’s eye. The viewer sees a full shot with a slight downward angle positioned right behind Carolyn’s car. The red door is in the centre of the whole scene, creating the central axis. The camera remains fixed when Lester leaves the house and moves up towards the car. Because of this special angle, the viewer has the impression that Lester is slowly growing, coming closer to the camera. Then suddenly his brief case bursts open and he has to collect all his papers from the floor, what earns him a deprecatory look from his wife, demonstrating how cold and unemotional their relationship has become.

He runs out of a place where he became too big to live in, where he was imprisoned in. A kind of liberating effect is established. He leaves his bondages and obligations behind and grows out of them.

Inside of the house, he is bound with family ties and cannot escape his boring everyday-life. The red colour of the door functions as a warning for Lester, the house represents his loss of freedom and also what Casey McKittrick calls “the decay of the nuclear family” (McKittrick, 3). Carolyn is the one to take the important decisions and neither she nor Jane recognizes Lester’s traditional role as the head of the family. They simply try to ignore him or are annoyed by him. He feels completely superfluous.

There are also two other scenes with the red door that are interesting. Those might not seem very outstanding in the plot of the movie, but when an attentive viewer follows the movie’s recommendation “Look closer”, he or she might find some striking little details.

In the second scene I shortly want to point to, we see Lester, whose employment seems to be at risk, entering the house shortly after Carolyn. The camera is located in quite some distance and we see Lester hesitating to enter his home. With a longing stare, he watches over to the neighbours or to the street and for a second he seems lost in thought. Maybe he wishes not to enter the house but just leave and do whatever he wants.

The last time we see Lester in front of that red door is on the day he dies. We find the same perspective as in the beginning of the movie, a bird’s eye on the street, changing to the full shot downward angle of the house with the door in the centre. Then the camera zooms in, focusing on the red door, when Lester leaves the building in order to go jogging. Again one might get the impression that he is escaping his home and as soon as he is on the street, a satisfied smile enters his face.

The noticeable red colour is a warning for Lester, it makes him aware of the fact that his life somehow got out of his control and far away from what he dreamt of. He finds himself being a victim of what Michel Foucault has called “the implicit systems in which we find ourselves prisoners; …the system of limits and exclusions which we practice without knowing it” (Foucault, 68). The outer appearance seems to be stable but inside, Lester is not happy with the circumstances of his life.

But the door is not the only guiding symbol, there are far more red items, the red colour is one of the recurrent themes of the movie (it seems to pervade Lester’s life and the movie as the famous German red fibre).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


American Beauty: Use of the red colour as a symbol of Lester's forgotten dreams
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
Postmodern Cinema
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
509 KB
American, Beauty, Lester, Postmodern, Cinema
Quote paper
Stefanie Brunn (Author), 2008, American Beauty: Use of the red colour as a symbol of Lester's forgotten dreams, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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