Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Psychology of Carolyn Burnham - Perfectionism and Self Hatred in American Beauty

In the film American Beauty Carolyn Burnham creates an outward image of perfection to conceal what she feels is the repulsive person at the core of her being.

In the film American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, a man realizes how sedate his life has become, how useless he is to his daughter, and how controlled he is by his wife. He decides to take a closer look at how he got there and how he can get back to the man he used to be - a man who loved life and used to take pleasure in simple luxuries. Lester Burnham, performed by the always engaging Kevin Spacey, is that man, that father, and that husband.

Alan Ball, the brilliant screenplay writer, saved the most complex character for Lester’s wife, Carolyn, played with startling honesty by Annette Bening. She puts forth the air of effortless success when she is covertly loathing her own imperfections. This loathing elicits a violent condemnation of herself at many points in the film, and this psychoanalysis of her character examines the impetus for her behavior.

Buddy Kane’s Version of Success
In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times. So says Buddy Kane, the Real Estate King, played with amusing hubris by Peter Gallagher. Carolyn is attracted to him because she recognizes an aspect of herself in what he says. Carolyn’s image of success is built on details. Her spade and shoes match exactly, she meticulously wipes away an almost unnoticeable smudge on the mirror at the show house, and she prevents her husband Lester from spilling beer on her perfect imported silk couch. The small stuff is easy, and frames the structure of her self-created appearance. The rest is filled in with the bigger details – having a perfect rose garden, selling a house, or keeping a pristine home. The more dense her persona becomes with her accumulated perfections, then the easier it is for her to conceal and forget who she thinks she really is on the inside.

Carolyn Burnham’s Hostility
Carolyn’s self hatred is displayed most obviously when she admonishes herself in the show house. She carefully closes the blinds before she allows herself to have a cry. But after only a moment of release she becomes furious and slaps herself while screaming, “Stop it! Shut up! You’re weak! You baby! Shut up!” Bening’s performance in this scene is frightening and shocking in her ability to so thoroughly register this character’s hatred of herself. Carolyn seems to feel she not only needs but deserves this violent treatment and masochistically administers just enough to pull herself together and march out of the house with head held high. And yet she had to have this experience in a darkened room where nobody could witness what she considers to be her shameful behavior.

Similarly, when her imperfect affair is discovered and Buddy leaves her alone in her car, the stress of it manifests itself as the thunderous howl of a soul ripping apart at the seams, creating a sort of endorphin rush that allows her to regain control when she feels her grasp slipping. One wonders how many takes were required to get the scream just right – and how that may have affected Bening’s poor vocal cords.

Jane Burnham’s Grandparents
But why does Carolyn hate herself so much? “You cannot count on anyone except yourself,” she tells her daughter, Jane, performed by the tepid Thora Birch, Carolyn has clearly been disappointed by people all her life. Perhaps, in later years, it is due to her strict demands not being met. Though, she has probably created those impossibly high goals to hide her own resemblances to the disappointments she encountered growing up. She has learned to rely on herself to get things done. But when she lets herself down, she looses it because if she cannot count on anyone except herself, then she is truly all alone with nobody on her side at all. And that fear of loneliness is what drives Carolyn to self abuse. She is both judge and executioner to her own perceived crimes – such as they are.

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