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American Beauty (1999)
Image: Dreamworks Pictures


American Beauty— A Filmmaking Cinderella Story

A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend.

American Beauty… look closer

American Beauty is an Academy Award-winning comedy-drama about a middle-aged man going through a mid-life crisis but how the film came to be is an astonishing story unto itself. The making of this film is a classic Cinderella tale about a man who wrote his first feature film, was teamed up with a first-time feature film director and won five Oscars for his story.  The odds of this happening to anyone are comparable to winning the lottery!

As with any great film, it all starts with a great script. American Beauty began as a play concept by Alan Ball. He had written previously for television (Grace Under Fire and Cybill) and decided he wanted to break into the film industry. He adapted his script for the film and worked with producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen who shopped the script around before it finally ended up with the colossal DreamWorks. Coincidentally at the time, the principal of DreamWorks was none other than Steven Spielberg, along with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Spielberg read the screenplay and loved it so much that, he didn’t want to change a thing! Almost unheard of in the world of filmmaking! It was Spielberg’s idea to bring in Sam Mendes as the Director.  He had seen Cabaret in a London theatre, which Mendes directed, and thought Mendes “was a great visualist with a wonderful cinematic style that was evident even in a theatrical production.”  Due to Spielberg’s involvement, Sam Mendes, even though this was his directorial debut, was able to assemble a cinematic dream team and make what would turn out to be an Academy Award-winning movie. Sam Mendes and Alan Ball‘s brilliant collaboration provided a deep introspective of life and death. While the simplified theme of the film was life in suburban America, the message goes way deeper. Our time on this earth is precious. How are you going to spend it?

Alan Ball is not only a master at storytelling, he’s also a master at character creation. He created characters that have depth, history, and full backstories. He takes characters that seem so different but ties them together with a common flaw—no one is being honest about who they really are. They are twisted up and ready to break away from their facades with one straw-breaking incident. They are playing grown-ups in a grown-up world, but no one is living the life they really want.  Lester, brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey, is only 42 and already withering away on the vine. He’s living a life where he got on the proverbial conveyer belt and somehow ended up in a place he didn’t want to be, a shell of a man with a splinter of a spine.  His manhood is kept in a box on the fireplace. He even walks hunched over like he’s in his 80s. His wife Caroline, played with a clipped exactness by Annette Bening, is ready to split open under the pressure of trying to live the perfect life, in the perfect house, with the perfect family while being far from perfect as a real estate agent. Her motto is “in order to be successful you have to portray the image of success”. She doesn’t care if anything is authentic, as long as it looks good.  Their daughter Jane, played by a steely Thora Birch, is a high school senior who has shut down with the pressure of perfection from her mother and the lack of direction and communication from her father.  She appears average but she is unique. Mena Suvari plays Angela Hayes, Jane’s best friend who tries too hard to make everyone believe she’s a flamboyant sex goddess and would-be supermodel but is a lost teenager. She appears to be unique but is average.

American Beauty (1999)
Image: Dreamworks Pictures

The only grown-up in American Beauty is Ricky Fitts, played with resolute confidence by Wes Bentley.  He and his family move next door to the Burnham’s. He’s had to grow up way too fast in his militant, homophobic, drug-opposed, physically and emotionally abusive household. His ex-military father Colonial Fitts played by Chris Cooper, is a control freak, closet homosexual. His control has left his wife Barbara, played with unnerving restraint by Allison Janney, a shell of a woman who can barely say two words without fear of the consequences. These cracks are beginning to show for everyone, and the concealments are ready to be revealed.

American Beauty is a narrated flashback of what happened to Lester Burnham during the last year of his life. He is unhappy with his job as a magazine executive, unhappy in his marriage to his wife Carolyn, and unhappy with his life in general. Carolyn and daughter Jane barely notice him. He feels like he’s invisible, living in a coma. A gay couple Jim and Jim are long-time neighbors of the Burnham’s who live next door. On the other side of the Burnham’s, the Fittses have recently moved in—Colonel Frank Fitts, his wife Barbara and son Ricky. They are a mirror image of dysfunction to the Burnham’s. Lester meets Ricky at a real estate event for Carolyn. They smoke pot in the parking lot, something Lester hasn’t done since he was in high school. Lester witnesses Ricky quit his job, stating that Ricky is now his hero.

One night Lester and Carolyn go to see Jane perform a cheerleading routine at a basketball game. Lester develops an instant crush on her friend Angela. Angela is aware of his infatuation with her. She’s a blonde hair, blue-eyed beauty with a young perfect figure. He fantasizes about her when he goes to bed that night. His infatuation sparks something in him and gives him a new outlook on life. Jane and Angela realize Lester’s infatuation and Angela flirts with Lester whenever she sees him. Jane is disgusted by it. Meanwhile, Ricky has developed an infatuation with Jane. He films her with his video camera and leaves a burning script of her name in the front yard. His video camera is an extension of him. He uses the camera to remember things and see more detail. At first, she thinks his attention is creepy but soon she likes him as well.

American Beauty (1999)
Image: Dreamworks Pictures

Carolyn begins an affair with Buddy Kane her real estate rival. Lester is laid off from his job but blackmails his boss for a year’s severance. Lester has all the signs of a mid-life crisis—taking a job as a cashier at a local burger joint, Mr. Smiley’s, selling the Toyota Camry, and buying a red Pontiac Firebird and smoking pot regularly. His life resembles someone in high school. He also starts running and lifting weights to look good for Angela. He’s slowly finding the strength to speak his mind, live his life and find his happiness. Carolyn is changing as well, which Lester notices one day telling her that she looks great. He starts to make love to her on the couch but she’s more concerned with him spilling beer on the couch than connecting with him. That one moment where there’s a chance for reconciliation is gone in an instant.

Lester takes an early morning run with his voice-over narration stating — “Remember those posters that said, Today is the first day of the rest of your life? Well, that’s true except for one day – the day you die.” Jane confronts Lester about his infatuation with Angela, which he denies. Colonial Fitts finds a video of Lester working out naked in his garage that Ricky had previously taken. Lester finds out that Carolyn is having an affair with Buddy as they drive through Mr. Smiley’s. He’s not upset about it. He tells her that he wants her to be happy and, “you don’t get to tell me what to do ever again.” Buddy breaks off the affair with Carolyn leaving her distraught.

That night Colonial Fitts sees Ricky with Lester in his garage. It looks like Ricky and Lester are having a sexual relationship when really Ricky is selling Lester pot. Colonial Fitts confronts him when he returns home and beats him accusing him of being gay. Ricky lies to the Colonial saying that he is gay so he will be disowned. Ricky says goodbye to his mother before leaving for New York with Jane. Colonial Fitts approaches Lester in the garage crying, hugs him and tries to kiss him. Lester refuses his advancements stating that he’s not gay. The Colonial walks away humiliated, devastated and dejected. Jane and Angela have a fight when Jane tells her that she’s running away with Ricky. Ricky tells Angela that she is ordinary. Angela is destroyed by this. She believes “there’s nothing worse than being ordinary”. Angela is comforted by Lester who tells her that she is anything but ordinary and starts kissing and undressing her. She confesses to him that she thinks he’s sexy and that she’s a virgin, and he decides that what they are doing is wrong and covers her in a blanket. He discovers from Angela that Jane is happy and in love. While Lester in his kitchen gazing at a photo of his family feeling at peace and blissfully happy, the Colonial shoots him in the back of the head. Ricky and Jane find Lester. Ricky looks into his eyes to see the beauty in them as he’s dying. Carolyn collapses in their closet hugging Lester’s clothes sobbing. Lester sees all the beautiful images of his life passing before his eyes while he dies.

American Beauty (1999)
Image: Dreamworks Pictures

American Beauty gives the audience a glimpse at what life could be like if we all lived without caring what someone else thought or what was going to happen to us from one day to the next.  These characters are all searching for meaning in their lives. Some are just braver at taking the leap. Lester slowly unfolded like a rose, shedding the job, marriage, car, all the things that he never really wanted and started to live. After you watch American Beauty it stays with you. It’s hard to shake off. It leaves you with questions that may never be answered. It leaves you believing that beauty is everywhere. You just need to develop your eye to see it.

Conrad L Hall, an award-winning cinematographer known for such movies as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Electra Glide in Blue and Road to Perdition, was the Director of Photography for American Beauty. His cinematic vision for the film was inspired by The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard. He wanted to emulate the raw truth and humor of the film with visual tension while also contrasting those tense moments with a sense of peace. He wanted the peaceful moments to seem “like watching life go by”. He was able to complete this cinematic feel with classic shots (balance in the frame) and subtle lighting, shading, shadow and contrast. There are smooth transitions from mundane shots to depict everyday life to fantasy shots to find the surreal within the real.

Thomas Neuman composed a score of contemporary, melancholy, light and dark music to accompany these performances. The music moves fluidly from brooding and haunted to gentle and touching. If one listens closely, you can hear the subtle staccato beat of instruments like time ticking away in the background. Touches of red are scattered throughout the film—a red door, red flowers on the table and red rose petals. Red is life and love. It’s health and vitality. It’s blood beating through your veins.

American Beauty was nominated for eight during the 72nd Academy Awards and won five for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen and Best Cinematography. It was also nominated for Best Actress, Best Original Score and Best Film Editing.  

Alan Ball would go on to write such thought-provoking series such as Six Feet Under and Sam Mendes continues to direct films examining suburban life, including Revolutionary Road.

By Veronica L. Walinski

1999 DVD: American Beauty + Special Features

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