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"In my opinion, the movie played into various of convenient, predictable,
and wholly less than original stereotypes, even if they are the kind of stereotypes
the motion picture industry typically identifies with and exploits at the box office."
From Amazon review
In no way this is a masterpiece as many claim. There is nothing in the plot that can make such a film a masterpiece. "American Beauty" tells the story of the Burnham family, specifically patriarch Lester (Kevin Spacey), matriarch Carolyn (Annette Bening), and daughter Jane (Thora Birch). The Burnham family is disfnctional. Lester slaves away all day at some phone/marketing job that he obviously hates. Wife Carolyn spends her time competing with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) in the dog eat dog world of real estate. Jane Burnham is a teenager obviously unhappy with her physical appearance since we see her checking out plastic surgery sites on the Internet. The weak plot dooms the whole story. In 2005, Premiere named American Beauty as one of 20 "most overrated movies of all time". And what about the film message? That the best way to deal with a disfunctional marriage, and midlife crisis is to quit your job, start smoking dope, and paw your daughter's friends? Seriously? American Beauty is riddled with first year film school clichés and kindergarten philosophy. The angst filled teenagers are not only unappealing, they are nauseating to look at and listen to. American Beauty adds to the list of mediocre Oscar winners such as Forrest Gump. It`s just a movie overhyped to the extreme. Even the theme of mother narcissism and its destructive influence on the family, while highly relevant, is addressed much better in August Osage County
The film will fade: with so much hype it inevitable. In a way, American Beauty still seems to be a sanitized version of Todd Solondz's 'Happiness' (2003), or The Ninth Configuration", or Tony Kaye's 'American History X '. Also compare with Peter Medak's The Ruling Class (1972) starring Peter O'Toole, which portrays the aristocracy as depraved and God forsaken (and provides a very realistic depiction of mania). Robert Altman's A Wedding (1978) with Carol Burnett portrayed dysfunction in American upper classes, and Vincente Minnelli's Home from the Hill (1960) with Robert Mitchum and George Hamilton, Richard Brooks' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.
A set of over simplified clichés about the USA middle class suburbia ( compare with "Our marriage is just a commercial for telling people how normal we are"): mindless affluence, moral emptiness, the lust for status, the over erotized lives of teenagers. The dirty truth of American suburban life is that nobody is happy, but everybody pretend to be. Other than that, the film is very mediocre. There is some dark humor and stabs at the culture of consumerism, but that's it. The wannabe-nymphet Angela, the narcissistic wife Carolyn, the rebellious, confused teen Jane, the suppressed, dangerous, and strange Ricky and his overbearing father are all cartoonish. Some decadent postmodernism...
But in a world where so many films are exercises in stupidity, the film at least shows the dangers of narcissistic mothers, although what ended up on screen looks like the first draft that needed some serious work. The main hero, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle aged man who feels like he's completely dead inside and is going though the typical midlife crisis in a compltly silly, unconstructive way. His character is essentially a riff on the character he played in The Ref. He decides to stop caring about success and becomes infatuated with a teenaged girl: "Beauty" Angela (Mena Suvari). Angela is a friend of his daughter (Thora Birch), a whiny brat who hates her parents for giving her opulent lifestyle and wants breast implants. She has a boyfriend and pursue oddly narcissistic relationship with a reclusive, sensitive teen (Wes Bentley) who doubles as a drug dealer. He has an the authoritarian father who can no longer discipline his son. But the idea of the marine as the closet gay was just too cheesy
Kevin Spacey plays his role with humor and depicts well a baby-boomer stupid fantasies of thumbing one's nose at the system, dreams of getting "true love" (which, of course, should be a beautiful teenage girl, no more, no less) and retreating into adolescent irresponsibility, sex and pot smoking. His wife, being a narcissist, despite him and cheat on him. His daughter does the same and do not show him any signs of respect. On the surface, the family seems like a picture-perfect middle class family that everybody dreams about -- but there is rot inside in almost every important for stable and healthy marriage area.
The wife of the main hero, Carolyn ( Annette Bening), is a narcissistic mother. She is an ambitious real estate broker, who does not stops at sleeping with the competitor to achieve her goals. Annette Bening's caricature of a materialistic, power-hungry narcissistic mother and wife makes Spacey's choices even more despicable. He is sucker who has no courage to leave her and to reject all that she stands for. It is Annette Bening presentation of a narcissist mother who lives only for image and finds her own authenticity by bedding her chief real estate competitor that is the most interesting part of the movies.
In this sense American Beauty can be called a film about imprisonment of family members by narcissistic wife/mother and escape from imprisonment, not so much about the hollow existence of the American suburbs, or the protest against conformity (what protest? this is just a joke). Indeed by the end of the movie, nobody is as they first appeared, Lester Burnham is dead and all main characters are even more crippled then at the beginning. Some are completely despicable.
All the adults in the film are cartoons, constructed to bring home various points about the presumed horrible inadequacies of the US suburbia. Thora Birch plays a miserable, conflicted teenage daughter, obsessed about her appearance and sex. Wes Bentley as her boyfriend looks slightly better, but they and their silly problems are also one-dimensional. Depiction of the tyranny of narcissistic mothers and double high authoritarian fathers are the only things that are somewhat educational.
The only angle under which the film can be viewed as a masterpiece is to consider it to be a biting satire on what's wrong with 'American life', and all this narcissism, pretenciosity, hypertrophied sexuality, self-centerness, and other false ideas connected with it, that brainwashed by neoliberalism US middle class carries in their heads, not understanding that it is being robbed and decimated by "Masters of the Universe" -- financial oligarchy. Keeping up with Jones is now so ingrained in American mentality that it completely deforms the whole American character in a profound way, making an amoral animals out of them. Even teenagers now strive for sex not out of curiosity of passionate, romantic love, but in order to keep with Jones. Did I lost virginity like my friends did? Check. Did I visit Disneyland? Check. Did I manage to get drunk in the party? Check. And so on and so forth.
It also destroys marriages, concentrating the energy of completely wrong things, making spouses relations something like relation of two actors in a show for the neighbors. And poisoning their relations with their teenage sons and daughters. We can assume that one of the messages of the film is that the USA population lives in a world of illusion with an interesting twist of conspicuous consumption run amok.
It also cripples the life of teenagers as "sexual maturity and exploration" became the goal in itself, completly separate from the idea of finding reliable mate in your life. It's a real jungle for teenage girls with predators left and right. Neoliberalism with its "homo homini lupus est" mentality deforms it even more. It makes people be selfish and uncaring of who they hurt. In other words promotes psychopathy. It also creates a stream of investor money seeking perversion on the blue screen as a way to obtain good return on investment. Sex sells.
The film also depicts the sordid relationship between a grown man and a teenage girl with an educational seduction scene of a teenage girl toward the end (1:45), whom the hero managed to get into the bed, but then for some reason changes his mind and she did not lose her virginity. Funny while undressed she complains to him that due to her virginally she might not be able to "perform better". Lester's attempts to relive his youth might be viewed as a direct result of his lust for Angela. Although still disconcerting, the subject of pedophilia is far less shocking today than, say, 50 years ago.
American Beauty (1999 film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
American Beauty is a 1999 American drama film directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, a 42-year-old advertising executive who has a midlife crisis when he becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter's best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Annette Bening co-stars as Lester's materialistic wife, Carolyn, and Thora Birch plays their insecure daughter, Jane. Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper and Allison Janney also feature. The film is described by academics as a satire of American middle class notions of beauty and personal satisfaction; analysis has focused on the film's explorations of romantic, and paternal love, sexuality, beauty, materialism, self-liberation and redemption.
Ball began writing American Beauty as a play in the early 1990s, partly inspired by the media circus around the Amy Fisher trial in 1992. He shelved the play after realizing the story would not work on stage. After several years as a television screenwriter, Ball revived the idea in 1997 when attempting to break into the film industry. The modified script had a cynical outlook that was influenced by Ball's frustrating tenures writing for several sitcoms. Producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen took American Beauty to DreamWorks; the then-fledgling film studio bought Ball's script for $250,000, outbidding several other production bodies. DreamWorks financed the $15 million production and served as its North American distributor. American Beauty marked acclaimed theater director Mendes' film debut; courted after his successful productions of the musicals Oliver! and Cabaret, Mendes was nevertheless only given the job after twenty others were considered and several "A-list" directors turned down the opportunity.
Spacey was Mendes' first choice for the role of Lester, even though DreamWorks had urged the director to consider better-known actors; similarly, the studio suggested several actors for the role of Carolyn until Mendes offered the part to Bening without DreamWorks' knowledge. Principal photography took place between December 1998 and February 1999 on soundstages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, California and on location in Los Angeles. Mendes' dominant style was deliberate and composed; he made extensive use of static shots and slow pans and zooms to generate tension. Cinematographer Conrad Hall complemented Mendes' style with peaceful shot compositions to contrast with the turbulent on-screen events. During editing, Mendes made several changes that gave the film a less cynical tone than the script.
Released in North America on September 17, 1999, American Beauty was positively received by critics and audiences; it was the best-reviewed American film of the year and grossed over $356 million worldwide. Reviewers praised most aspects of the production, with particular emphasis on Mendes, Spacey and Ball; criticism focused on the familiarity of the characters and setting. DreamWorks launched a major campaign to increase the film's chances of Academy Award success; at the 72nd Academy Awards the following year, the film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Spacey), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. It was nominated for and won many other awards and honors, mainly for the direction, writing and acting.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Themes and analysis
- 3 Production
- 4 Release
- 5 Critical reception
- 6 Accolades
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Actor Role Kevin Spacey Lester Burnham Annette Bening Carolyn Burnham Thora Birch Jane Burnham Wes Bentley Ricky Fitts Mena Suvari Angela Hayes Peter Gallagher Buddy Kane Allison Janney Barbara Fitts Chris Cooper Col. Frank Fitts Barry Del Sherman Brad Dupree
Lester Burnham is a middle-aged magazine writer and advertising executive who despises his job. His wife, Carolyn, is an ambitious real estate broker; their sixteen-year-old daughter, Jane, abhors her parents and has low self-esteem. The Burnhams' new neighbors are retired United States Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts and his introverted wife, Barbara. Their teenage son, Ricky, obsessively films his surroundings with a camcorder, collecting hundreds of recordings on video tapes in his bedroom. He also secretly deals marijuana, using a job as a part-time bar caterer as a front. Having been previously forced into a military academy and a psychiatric hospital, Ricky is subjected by Col. Fitts to a strict disciplinarian lifestyle. Jim Olmeyer and Jim Berkley, a gay couple who live nearby, welcome the family to the neighborhood; Col. Fitts later reveals his homophobia when angrily discussing the incident with Ricky.
Lester becomes fixated with Jane's vain cheerleader friend, Angela Hayes, after seeing her perform a half-time dance routine at a high school basketball game. He starts having sexual fantasies about Angela, during which red rose petals are a recurring motif. Carolyn begins an affair with a business rival, Buddy Kane. When Lester's boss and efficiency expert Brad tells him that he is to be laid off, Lester instead blackmails him for $60,000 and quits his job. Lester continues his liberation by taking employment serving fast food, trading in his Toyota Camry for his dream car, a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, and starts working out after he overhears Angela tell Jane that she would find him sexually attractive if he improved his physique. He begins smoking marijuana supplied by Ricky, and flirts with Angela whenever she visits Jane. The girls' friendship wanes after Jane becomes involved with Ricky; they bond over what Ricky considers the most beautiful imagery he has filmed: a plastic bag being blown in the wind.
Lester discovers Carolyn's infidelity, but reacts indifferently. Buddy ends the affair, fearing an expensive divorce. Col. Fitts becomes suspicious of Lester and Ricky's friendship when he finds his son's footage of Lester lifting weights while nude, which Ricky captured by chance. After spying on Ricky and Lester through Lester's garage window, the colonel mistakenly concludes the pair are sexually involved. He later beats Ricky and accuses him of being gay. Ricky falsely admits the charge and goads his father into kicking him out of their home. Carolyn is sitting in her car in the rain, she takes a gun out of the glove box while a voice on the radio talks about not being a victim. Ricky goes to Jane's bedroom, finding her arguing with Angela about Angela's flirtation with Lester. Ricky convinces Jane to flee with him to New York City and assures Angela that she is ugly, boring and ordinary.
Col. Fitts confronts Lester and attempts to kiss him; Lester rebuffs the colonel, who tearfully flees. Carolyn puts the gun in her handbag shouting "I refuse to be a victim!" Lester finds a distraught Angela sitting alone in the dark; she asks him to tell her she is beautiful. He does, and he begins to seduce her.
Carolyn drives through the rain, rehearsing a confession to Lester. As Lester strokes Angela she admits that she is a virgin, and Lester changes his mind. He instead comforts her and the pair bond over their shared frustrations. Angela goes to the bathroom and Lester smiles at a family photograph in his kitchen. An unseen figure raises a gun to the back of his head, a gunshot sounds and blood sprays on the wall. Ricky and Jane find Lester's body, while Carolyn breaks down crying in the closet. A bloodied Col. Fitts returns home, where a gun is shown to be missing from his collection. Lester's closing narration describes meaningful experiences during his life; he says that, despite his death, he is happy because there is so much beauty in the world.
Scholars and academics have offered many possible readings of American Beauty; film critics are similarly divided, not so much about the quality of the film as their interpretations of it. Described by many as about "the meaning of life" or "the hollow existence of the American suburbs", the film has defied categorization by even the filmmakers.
Mendes is indecisive, saying the script seemed to be about something different each time he read it: "a mystery story, a kaleidoscopic journey through American suburbia, a series of love stories; [...] it was about imprisonment, [...] loneliness [and] beauty. It was funny; it was angry, sad." The literary critic and author Wayne C. Booth concludes that the film resists any one interpretation: "[American Beauty] cannot be adequately summarized as 'here is a satire on what's wrong with American life'; that plays down the celebration of beauty.
It is more tempting to summarize it as 'a portrait of the beauty underlying American miseries and misdeeds'; but that plays down the scenes of cruelty and horror, and Ball's disgust with our mores. It cannot be summarized with either Lester's or Ricky's philosophical statements about what life is or how one should live."
He argues that the problem of interpreting the film is tied with that of finding its center—a controlling voice who "[unites] all of the choices".[nb 1] He contends that in American Beauty's case it is neither Mendes nor Ball. Mendes considers the voice to be Ball's, but even while the writer was "strongly influential" on set, he often had to accept deviations from his vision, particularly ones that transformed the cynical tone of his script into something more optimistic. With "innumerable voices intruding on the original author's," Booth says, those who interpret American Beauty "have forgotten to probe for the elusive center". According to Booth, the film's true controller is the creative energy "that hundreds of people put into its production, agreeing and disagreeing, inserting and cutting".
Imprisonment and redemption
Lester's reflection in the monitor resembles a man in a jail cell, evoking director Sam Mendes's themes of imprisonment and escape from imprisonment.
Mendes called American Beauty a rite of passage film about imprisonment and escape from imprisonment. The monotony of Lester's existence is established through his gray, nondescript workplace and characterless clothing. In these scenes, he is often framed as if trapped, "reiterating rituals that hardly please him". He masturbates in the confines of his shower; the shower stall evokes a jail cell and the shot is the first of many where Lester is confined behind bars or within frames, such as when he is reflected behind columns of numbers on a computer monitor, "confined [and] nearly crossed out". The academic and author Jody W. Pennington argues that Lester's journey is the story's center. His sexual reawakening through meeting Angela is the first of several turning points as he begins to "[throw] off the responsibilities of the comfortable life he has come to despise". After Lester shares a joint with Ricky, his spirit is released and he begins to rebel against Carolyn. Changed by Ricky's "attractive, profound confidence", Lester is convinced that Angela is attainable and sees that he must question his "banal, numbingly materialist suburban existence"; he takes a job at a fast-food outlet, which allows him to regress to a point when he could "see his whole life ahead of him".
When Lester is caught masturbating by Carolyn, his angry retort about their lack of intimacy is the first time he says aloud what he thinks about her. By confronting the issue and Carolyn's "superficial investments in others", Lester is trying to "regain a voice in a home that [only respects] the voices of mother and daughter". His final turning point comes when he and Angela almost have sex; after she confesses her virginity, he no longer thinks of her as a sex object, but as a daughter. He holds her close and "wraps her up". Mendes called it "the most satisfying end to [Lester's] journey there could possibly have been".
With these final scenes, Mendes intended to show Lester at the conclusion of a "mythical quest". After Lester gets a beer from the refrigerator, the camera pushes toward him, then stops facing a hallway down which he walks "to meet his fate". Having begun to act his age again, Lester achieves closure. As he smiles at a family photo, the camera pans slowly from Lester to the kitchen wall, onto which blood spatters as a gunshot rings out; the slow pan reflects the peace of Lester's death. His body is discovered by Jane and Ricky. Mendes said that Ricky's staring into Lester's dead eyes is "the culmination of the theme" of the film: that beauty is found where it is least expected.
Conformity and beauty
Like other American films of 1999—such as Fight Club, Bringing Out the Dead and Magnolia—American Beauty instructs its audience to "[lead] more meaningful lives". The film argues the case against conformity, but does not deny that people need and want it; even the gay characters just want to fit in. Jim and Jim, the Burnhams' other neighbors, are a satire of "gay bourgeois coupledom", who "[invest] in the numbing sameness" that the film criticizes in heterosexual couples.[nb 2] The feminist academic and author Sally R. Munt argues that American Beauty uses its "art house" trappings to direct its message of non-conformity primarily to the middle classes, and that this approach is a "cliché of bourgeois preoccupation; [...] the underlying premise being that the luxury of finding an individual 'self' through denial and renunciation is always open to those wealthy enough to choose, and sly enough to present themselves sympathetically as a rebel."
Professor Roy M. Anker argues that the film's thematic center is its direction to the audience to "look closer". The opening combines an unfamiliar viewpoint of the Burnhams' neighborhood with Lester's narrated admission that he will soon die, forcing audiences to consider their own mortality and the beauty around them. It also sets a series of mysteries; Anker asks, "from what place exactly, and from what state of being, is he telling this story? If he's already dead, why bother with whatever it is he wishes to tell about his last year of being alive? There is also the question of how Lester has died—or will die." Anker believes the preceding scene—Jane's discussion with Ricky about the possibility of his killing her father—adds further mystery. Professor Ann C. Hall disagrees; she says by presenting an early resolution to the mystery, the film allows the audience to put it aside "to view the film and its philosophical issues". Through this examination of Lester's life, rebirth and death, American Beauty satirizes American middle class notions of meaning, beauty and satisfaction. Even Lester's transformation only comes about because of the possibility of sex with Angela; he therefore remains a "willing devotee of the popular media's exaltation of pubescent male sexuality as a sensible route to personal wholeness". Carolyn is similarly driven by conventional views of happiness; from her belief in "house beautiful" domestic bliss to her car and gardening outfit, Carolyn's domain is a "fetching American millennial vision of Pleasantville, or Eden". The Burnhams are unaware that they are "materialists philosophically, and devout consumers ethically" who expect the "rudiments of American beauty" to give them happiness. Anker argues that "they are helpless in the face of the prettified economic and sexual stereotypes [...] that they and their culture have designated for their salvation."
The film presents Ricky as its "visionary, [...] spiritual and mystical center". He sees beauty in the minutiae of everyday life, videoing as much as he can for fear of missing it. He shows Jane what he considers the most beautiful thing he has filmed: a plastic bag, tossing in the wind in front of a wall. He says capturing the moment was when he realized that there was "an entire life behind things"; he feels that "sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it... and my heart is going to cave in." Anker argues that Ricky, in looking past the "cultural dross", has "[grasped] the radiant splendor of the created world" to see God. As the film progresses, the Burnhams move closer to Ricky's view of the world. Lester only forswears personal satisfaction at the film's end. On the cusp of having sex with Angela, he returns to himself after she admits her virginity. Suddenly confronted with a child, he begins to treat her as a daughter; in doing so Lester sees himself, Angela and his family "for the poor and fragile but wondrous creatures they are". He looks at a picture of his family in happier times, and dies having had an epiphany that infuses him with "wonder, joy, and soul-shaking gratitude"—he has finally seen the world as it is.
According to Patti Bellantoni, colors are used symbolically throughout the film, none more so than red, which is an important thematic signature that drives the story and "[defines] Lester's arc". First seen in drab colors that reflect his passivity, Lester surrounds himself with red as he regains his individuality. The American Beauty rose is repeatedly used as symbol; when Lester fantasizes about Angela, she is usually naked and surrounded by rose petals. In these scenes, the rose symbolizes Lester's desire for her. When associated with Carolyn, the rose represents a "façade for suburban success". Roses are included in almost every shot inside the Burnhams' home, where they signify "a mask covering a bleak, unbeautiful reality". Carolyn feels that "as long as there can be roses, all is well". She cuts the roses and puts them in vases, where they adorn her "meretricious vision of what makes for beauty" and begin to die. The roses in the vase in the Angela–Lester seduction scene symbolize Lester's previous life and Carolyn; the camera pushes in as Lester and Angela get closer, finally taking the roses—and thus Carolyn—out of the shot. Lester's epiphany at the end of the film is expressed via rain and the use of red, building to a crescendo that is a deliberate contrast to the release Lester feels. The constant use of red "lulls [the audience] subliminally" into becoming used to it; consequently, it leaves the audience unprepared when Lester is shot and his blood spatters on the wall.
Sexuality and repression
Pennington argues that American Beauty defines its characters through their sexuality. Lester's attempts to relive his youth are a direct result of his lust for Angela, and the state of his relationship with Carolyn is in part shown through their lack of sexual contact. Also sexually frustrated, Carolyn has an affair that takes her from "cold perfectionist" to a more carefree soul who "[sings] happily along with" the music in her car.
Jane and Angela constantly reference sex, through Angela's descriptions of her supposed sexual encounters and the way the girls address each other. Their nude scenes are used to communicate their vulnerability. By the end of the film, Angela's hold on Jane has weakened until the only power she has over her friend is Lester's attraction to her.
Col. Fitts reacts with disgust to meeting Jim and Jim; he asks, "How come these faggots always have to rub it in your face? How can they be so shameless?" To which Ricky replies, "That's the thing, Dad—they don't feel like it's anything to be ashamed of." Pennington argues that Col. Fitts' reaction is not homophobic, but an "anguished self-interrogation".
With other turn-of-the-millennium films such as Fight Club, In the Company of Men (1997), American Psycho (2000) and Boys Don't Cry (1999), American Beauty "raises the broader, widely explored issue of masculinity in crisis".
Professor Vincent Hausmann charges that in their reinforcement of masculinity "against threats posed by war, by consumerism, and by feminist and queer challenges", these films present a need to "focus on, and even to privilege" aspects of maleness "deemed 'deviant'". Lester's transformation conveys "that he, and not the woman, has borne the brunt of [lack of being]"[nb 3] and he will not stand for being emasculated. Lester's attempts to "strengthen traditional masculinity" conflict with his responsibilities as a father. Although the film portrays the way Lester returns to that role positively, he does not become "the hypermasculine figure implicitly celebrated in films like Fight Club". Hausmann concludes that Lester's behavior toward Angela is "a misguided but nearly necessary step toward his becoming a father again".
Hausmann says the film "explicitly affirms the importance of upholding the prohibition against incest"; a recurring theme of Ball's work is his comparison of the taboos against incest and homosexuality. Instead of making an overt distinction, American Beauty looks at how their repression can lead to violence. Col. Fitts is so ashamed of his homosexuality that it drives him to murder Lester.
Ball said, "The movie is in part about how homophobia is based in fear and repression and about what [they] can do." The film implies two unfulfilled incestuous desires: Lester's pursuit of Angela is a manifestation of his lust for his own daughter, while Col. Fitts' repression is exhibited through the almost sexualized discipline with which he controls Ricky.
Consequently, Ricky realizes that he can only hurt his father by falsely telling him he is homosexual, while Angela's vulnerability and submission to Lester reminds him of his responsibilities and the limits of his fantasy. Col. Fitts represents Ball's father, whose repressed homosexual desires led to his own unhappiness. Ball rewrote Col. Fitts to delay revealing him as homosexual, which Munt reads as a possible "deferment of Ball's own patriarchal-incest fantasies".
Temporality and music
American Beauty follows a traditional narrative structure, only deviating with the displaced opening scene of Jane and Ricky from the middle of the story. Although the plot spans one year, the film is narrated by Lester at the moment of his death. Jacqueline Furby says that the plot "occupies [...] no time [or] all time", citing Lester's claim that life did not flash before his eyes, but that it "stretches on forever like an ocean of time". Furby argues that a "rhythm of repetition" forms the core of the film's structure. For example, two scenes see the Burnhams sitting down to an evening meal, shot from the same angle. Each image is broadly similar, with minor differences in object placement and body language that reflect the changed dynamic brought on by Lester's new-found assertiveness. Another example is the pair of scenes in which Jane and Ricky film each other. Ricky films Jane from his bedroom window as she removes her bra, and the image is reversed later for a similarly "voyeuristic and exhibitionist" scene in which Jane films Ricky at a vulnerable moment.Play me
Lester's fixation on Angela is reflected in a discordant, percussive musical motif that temporarily replaces the diegetic "On Broadway".
Lester's fantasies are emphasized by slow motion and repetitive motion shots; Mendes uses double-and-triple cut backs in several sequences, and the score alters to make the audience aware that it is entering a fantasy. One example is the gymnasium scene—Lester's first encounter with Angela. While the cheerleaders perform their half-time routine to "On Broadway", Lester becomes increasingly fixated on Angela. Time slows to represent his "voyeuristic hypnosis" and Lester begins to fantasize that Angela's performance is for him alone. "On Broadway"—which provides a conventional underscore to the onscreen action—is replaced by discordant, percussive music that lacks melody or progression. This nondiegetic score is important to creating the narrative stasis in the sequence; it conveys a moment for Lester that is stretched to an indeterminate length. The effect is one that Stan Link likens to "vertical time", described by the composer and music theorist Jonathan Kramer as music that imparts "a single present stretched out into an enormous duration, a potentially infinite 'now' that nonetheless feels like an instant".[nb 4] The music is used like a visual cue, so that Lester and the score are staring at Angela. The sequence ends with the sudden reintroduction of "On Broadway" and teleological time.
According to Drew Miller of Stylus, the soundtrack "[gives] unconscious voice" to the characters' psyches and complements the subtext. The most obvious use of pop music "accompanies and gives context to" Lester's attempts to recapture his youth; reminiscent of how the counterculture of the 1960s combated American repression through music and drugs, Lester begins to smoke cannabis and listen to rock music.[nb 5] Mendes' song choices "progress through the history of American popular music". Miller argues that although some may be over familiar, there is a parodic element at work, "making good on [the film's] encouragement that viewers look closer". Toward the end of the film, Thomas Newman's score features more prominently, creating "a disturbing tempo" that matches the tension of the visuals. The exception is "Don't Let It Bring You Down", which plays during Angela's seduction of Lester. At first appropriate, its tone clashes as the seduction stops. The lyrics, which speak of "castles burning", can be seen as a metaphor for Lester's view of Angela—"the rosy, fantasy-driven exterior of the 'American Beauty'"—as it burns away to reveal "the timid, small-breasted girl who, like his wife, has willfully developed a false public self".
In 1997, Alan Ball resolved to move into the film industry after several frustrating years writing for the television sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill. He joined the United Talent Agency (UTA), where his representative, Andrew Cannava, suggested he write a spec script to "reintroduce [himself] to the town as a screenwriter". Ball pitched three ideas to Cannava: two conventional romantic comedies and American Beauty,[nb 6] which he had originally conceived as a play in the early 1990s. Despite the story's lack of an easily marketable concept, Cannava selected American Beauty because he felt it was the one Ball had the most passion for. While developing the script, Ball created another television sitcom, Oh, Grow Up. He channeled his anger and frustration at having to accede to network demands on that show—and during his tenures on Grace Under Fire and Cybill—into writing American Beauty.
Ball did not expect to sell the script, believing it would act as more of a calling card, but American Beauty drew interest from several production bodies. Cannava passed the script to several producers, including Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, who took it to DreamWorks. With the help of executives Glenn Williamson and Bob Cooper, and Steven Spielberg in his capacity as studio partner, Ball was convinced to develop the project at DreamWorks; he received assurances from the studio—known at the time for its more conventional fare—that it would not "iron the [edges] out".[nb 7] In an unusual move, DreamWorks decided not to option the script; instead, in April 1998, the studio bought it outright for $250,000, outbidding Fox Searchlight Pictures, October Films, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Lakeshore Entertainment. DreamWorks planned to make the film for $6–8 million.
Jinks and Cohen involved Ball throughout the film's development, including casting and director selection. The producers met with about twenty interested directors, several of whom were considered "A-list" at the time. Ball was not keen on the more well-known directors because he believed their involvement would increase the budget and lead DreamWorks to become "nervous about the content". Nevertheless, the studio offered the film to Mike Nichols and Robert Zemeckis; neither accepted. In the same year, Mendes (then a theater director) revived the musical Cabaret in New York with fellow director Rob Marshall. Beth Swofford of the Creative Artists Agency arranged meetings for Mendes with studio figures in Los Angeles to see if film direction was a possibility.[nb 8] Mendes came across American Beauty in a pile of eight scripts at Swofford's house, and knew immediately that it was the one he wanted to make; early in his career, he had been inspired by how the film Paris, Texas (1984) presented contemporary America as a mythic landscape and he saw the same theme in American Beauty, as well as parallels with his own childhood. Mendes later met with Spielberg; impressed by Mendes' productions of Oliver! and Cabaret, Spielberg encouraged him to consider American Beauty.
Mendes found that he still had to convince DreamWorks' production executives to let him direct. He had already discussed the film with Jinks and Cohen, and felt they supported him. Ball was also keen; having seen Cabaret, he was impressed with Mendes' "keen visual sense" and thought he did not make obvious choices. Ball felt that Mendes liked to look under the story's surface, a talent he felt would be a good fit with the themes of American Beauty. Mendes' background also reassured him, because of the prominent role the playwright usually has in a theater production. Over two meetings—the first with Cooper, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, the second with Cooper alone—Mendes pitched himself to the studio. The studio soon approached Mendes with a deal to direct for the minimum salary allowed under Directors Guild of America rules—$150,000. Mendes accepted, and later recalled that after taxes and his agent's commission, he only earned $38,000. In June 1998, DreamWorks confirmed that it had contracted Mendes to direct the film.
"I think I was writing about [...] how it's becoming harder and harder to live an authentic life when we live in a world that seems to focus on appearance. [...] For all the differences between now and the [1950s], in a lot of ways this is just as oppressively conformist a time. [...] You see so many people who strive to live the unauthentic life and then they get there and they wonder why they're not happy. [...] I didn't realize it when I sat down to write [American Beauty], but these ideas are important to me."—Alan Ball, 2000
Ball was partly inspired by two encounters he had in the early 1990s. In about 1991–92, Ball saw a plastic bag blowing in the wind outside the World Trade Center. He watched the bag for ten minutes, saying later that it provoked an "unexpected emotional response". In 1992, Ball became preoccupied with the media circus around the Amy Fisher trial. Discovering a comic book telling of the scandal, he was struck by how quickly it had become commercialized. He said he "felt like there was a real story underneath [that was] more fascinating and way more tragic" than the story presented to the public, and attempted to turn the idea into a play. Ball produced around 40 pages, but stopped when he realized it would work better as a film. He felt that because of the visual themes, and because each character's story was.. "intensely personal", it could not be done on a stage. All the main characters appeared in this version, but Carolyn did not feature strongly; Jim and Jim instead had much larger roles.
Ball based Lester's story on aspects of his own life. Lester's re-examination of his life parallels feelings Ball had in his mid-30s; like Lester, Ball put aside his passions to work in jobs he hated for people he did not respect. Scenes in Ricky's household reflect Ball's own childhood experiences. Ball suspected his father was homosexual and used the idea to create Col. Fitts, a man who "gave up his chance to be himself". Ball said the script's mix of comedy and drama was not intentional, but that it came unconsciously from his own outlook on life. He said the juxtaposition produced a starker contrast, giving each trait more impact than if they appeared alone.
In the script that was sent to prospective actors and directors, Lester and Angela had sex; by the time of shooting, Ball had rewritten the scene to the final version. Ball initially rebuffed counsel from others that he change the script, feeling they were being puritanical; the final impetus to alter the scene came from DreamWorks' then-president Walter Parkes. He convinced Ball by indicating that in Greek mythology, the hero "has a moment of epiphany before [...] tragedy occurs". Ball later said his anger when writing the first draft had blinded him to the idea that Lester needed to refuse sex with Angela to complete his emotional journey—to achieve redemption. Jinks and Cohen asked Ball not to alter the scene straight away, as they felt it would be inappropriate to make changes to the script before a director had been hired. Early drafts also included a flashback to Col. Fitts' service in the Marines, a sequence that unequivocally established his homosexual leanings. In love with another Marine, Col. Fitts sees the man die and comes to believe that he is being punished for the "sin" of being gay. Ball removed the sequence because it did not fit the structure of the rest of the film—Col. Fitts was the only character to have a flashback—and because it removed the element of surprise from Col. Fitts' later pass at Lester. Ball said he had to write it for his own benefit to know what happened to Col. Fitts, even though all that remained in later drafts was subtext.
Ball remained involved throughout production; he had signed a television show development deal, so had to get permission from his producers to take a year off to be close to American Beauty. Ball was on-set for rewrites and to help interpret his script for all but two days of filming. His original bookend scenes—in which Ricky and Jane are prosecuted for Lester's murder after being framed by Col. Fitts—were excised in post-production; the writer later felt the scenes were unnecessary, saying they were a reflection of his "anger and cynicism" at the time of writing (see "Editing"). Ball and Mendes revised the script twice before it was sent to the actors, and twice more before the first read-through.
The shooting script features a scene in Angela's car in which Ricky and Jane talk about death and beauty; the scene differed from earlier versions, which set it as a "big scene on a freeway" in which the three witness a car crash and see a dead body. The change was a practical decision, as the production was behind schedule and they needed to cut costs. The schedule called for two days to be spent filming the crash, but only half a day was available. Ball agreed, but only if the scene could retain a line of Ricky's where he reflects on having once seen a dead homeless woman: "When you see something like that, it's like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you're careful, you can look right back." Jane asks: "And what do you see?" Ricky: "Beauty." Ball said, "They wanted to cut that scene. They said it's not important. I said, 'You're out of your fucking mind. It's one of the most important scenes in the movie!' [...] If any one line is the heart and soul of this movie, that is the line." Another scene was rewritten to accommodate the loss of the freeway sequence; set in a schoolyard, it presents a "turning point" for Jane in that she chooses to walk home with Ricky instead of going with Angela. By the end of filming, the script had been through ten drafts.
Mendes had Spacey and Bening in mind for the leads from the beginning, but DreamWorks executives were unenthusiastic. The studio suggested several alternatives, including Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner or John Travolta to play Lester, and Helen Hunt or Holly Hunter to play Carolyn. Mendes did not want a big star "weighing the film down"; he felt Spacey was the right choice based on his performances in the 1995 films The Usual Suspects and Seven, and 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross.
Spacey was surprised; he said, "I usually play characters who are very quick, very manipulative and smart. [...] I usually wade in dark, sort of treacherous waters. This is a man living one step at a time, playing by his instincts. This is actually much closer to me, to what I am, than those other parts." Mendes offered Bening the role of Carolyn without the studio's consent; although executives were upset at Mendes, by September 1998, DreamWorks had entered negotiations with Spacey and Bening.
Spacey loosely based Lester's early "schlubby" deportment on Walter Matthau. During the film, Lester's physique improves from flabby to toned; Spacey worked out during filming to improve his body, but because Mendes shot the scenes out of chronological order, Spacey varied postures to portray the stages. Before filming, Mendes and Spacey analyzed Jack Lemmon's performance in The Apartment (1960), because Mendes wanted Spacey to emulate "the way [Lemmon] moved, the way he looked, the way he was in that office and the way he was an ordinary man and yet a special man". Spacey's voiceover is a throwback to Sunset Boulevard (1950), which is also narrated in retrospect by a dead character. Mendes felt it evoked Lester's—and the film's—loneliness. Bening recalled women from her youth to inform her performance: "I used to babysit constantly. You'd go to church and see how people present themselves on the outside, and then be inside their house and see the difference." Bening and a hair stylist collaborated to create a "PTA president coif" hairstyle, and Mendes and production designer Naomi Shohan researched mail order catalogs to better establish Carolyn's environment of a "spotless suburban manor". To help Bening get into Carolyn's mindset, Mendes gave her music that he believed Carolyn would like. He lent Bening the Bobby Darin version of the song "Don't Rain on My Parade", which she enjoyed and persuaded the director to include it for a scene in which Carolyn sings in her car.
For the roles of Jane, Ricky and Angela, DreamWorks gave Mendes carte blanche. By November 1998, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari had been cast in the parts—in Birch's case, despite the fact she was underage for her nude scene. As Birch was 16 at the time she made the film, and thus classified as a minor in the United States, her parents had to approve her brief topless scene in the movie. They and child labor representatives were on the set for the shooting of the scene. Bentley overcame competition from top actors under the age of 25 to be cast. The 2009 documentary My Big Break followed Bentley, and several other young actors, before and after he landed the part. To prepare, Mendes provided Bentley with a video camera, telling the actor to film what Ricky would. Peter Gallagher and Alison Janney were cast (as Buddy Kane and Barbara Fitts) after filming began in December 1998. Mendes gave Janney a book of paintings by Edvard Munch. He told her, "Your character is in there somewhere." Mendes cut much of Barbara's dialogue, including conversations between her and Colonel Fitts, as he felt that what needed to be said about the pair—their humanity and vulnerability—was conveyed successfully through their shared moments of silence. Chris Cooper plays Colonel Fitts, Scott Bakula plays Jim Olmeyer, and Sam Robards plays Jim Berkley. Jim and Jim were deliberately depicted as the most normal, happy—and boring—couple in the film. Ball's inspiration for the characters came from a thought he had after seeing a "bland, boring, heterosexual couple" who wore matching clothes: "I can't wait for the time when a gay couple can be just as boring." Ball also included aspects of a gay couple he knew who had the same forename.
Mendes insisted on two weeks of cast rehearsals, although the sessions were not as formal as he was used to in the theater, and the actors could not be present at every one. Several improvisations and suggestions by the actors were incorporated into the script. An early scene showing the Burnhams leaving home for work was inserted later on to show the low point that Carolyn and Lester's relationship had reached. Spacey and Bening worked to create a sense of the love that Lester and Carolyn once had for one another; for example, the scene in which Lester almost seduces Carolyn after the pair argue over Lester's buying a car was originally "strictly contentious".
Principal photography lasted about 50 days from December 14, 1998, to February 1999. American Beauty was filmed on soundstages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, California, and at Hancock Park and Brentwood in Los Angeles. The aerial shots at the beginning and end of the film were captured in Sacramento, California, and many of the school scenes were shot at South High School in Torrance, California; several extras in the gym crowd were South High students. The film is set in an upper middle class neighborhood in an unidentified American town. Production designer Naomi Shohan likened the locale to Evanston, Illinois, but said, "it's not about a place, it's about an archetype. [...] The milieu was pretty much Anywhere, USA—upwardly mobile suburbia." The intent was for the setting to reflect the characters, who are also archetypes. Shohan said, "All of them are very strained, and their lives are constructs." The Burnhams' household was designed as the reverse of the Fitts'—the former a pristine ideal, but graceless and lacking in "inner balance", leading to Carolyn's desire to at least give it the appearance of a "perfect all-American household"; the Fitts' home is depicted in "exaggerated darkness [and] symmetry".
The production selected two adjacent properties on the Warner backlot's "Blondie Street" for the Burnhams' and Fitts' homes.[nb 9] The crew rebuilt the houses to incorporate false rooms that established lines of sight—between Ricky and Jane's bedroom windows, and between Ricky's bedroom and Lester's garage. The garage windows were designed specifically to obtain the crucial shot toward the end of the film in which Col. Fitts—watching from Ricky's bedroom—mistakenly assumes that Lester is paying Ricky for sex. Mendes made sure to establish the line of sight early on in the film to make the audience feel a sense of familiarity with the shot. The house interiors were filmed on the backlot, on location, and on soundstages when overhead shots were needed. The inside of the Burnhams' home was shot at a house close to Interstate 405 and Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles; the inside of the Fitts' home was shot in the city's Hancock Park neighborhood. Ricky's bedroom was designed to be cell-like to suggest his "monkish" personality, while at the same time blending with the high-tech equipment to reflect his voyeuristic side. The production deliberately minimized the use of red, as it was an important thematic signature elsewhere. The Burnhams' home uses cool blues, while the Fitts' is kept in a "depressed military palette".
Mendes' dominating visual style was deliberate and composed, with a minimalist design that provided "a sparse, almost surreal feeling—a bright, crisp, hard edged, near Magritte-like take on American suburbia"; Mendes constantly directed his set dressers to empty the frame. He made Lester's fantasy scenes "more fluid and graceful", and Mendes made minimal use of steadicams, feeling that stable shots generated more tension. For example, when Mendes used a slow push in to the Burnhams' dinner table, he held the shot because his training as a theater director taught him the importance of putting distance between the characters. He wanted to keep the tension in the scene, so he only cut away when Jane left the table.[nb 10] Mendes did use a hand-held camera for the scene in which Col. Fitts beats Ricky. Mendes said the camera provided the scene with a "kinetic [...] off balance energy". He also went hand-held for the excerpts of Ricky's camcorder footage. It took Mendes a long time to get the quality of Ricky's footage to the level he wanted. For the plastic bag footage, Mendes used wind machines to move the bag in the air. The scene took four takes; two by the second unit did not satisfy Mendes, so he shot the scene himself. He felt his first take lacked grace, but for the last attempt he changed the location to the front of a brick wall and added leaves on the ground. Mendes was satisfied by the way the wall gave definition to the outline of the bag.
Mendes avoided using close-ups, as he believed the technique was overused; he also cited Spielberg's advice that he should imagine an audience silhouetted at the bottom of the camera monitor, to keep in mind that he was shooting for display on a 40-foot (10 m) screen. Spielberg—who visited the set a few times—also advised Mendes not to worry about costs if he had a "great idea" toward the end of a long working day. Mendes said, "That happened three or four times, and they are all in the movie." Despite Spielberg's support, DreamWorks and Mendes fought constantly over the schedule and budget—although the studio interfered little with the film's content. Spacey, Bening and Hall worked for significantly less than their usual rates. American Beauty cost DreamWorks $15 million to produce, slightly above their projected sum. Mendes was so dissatisfied with his first three days' filming that he obtained permission from DreamWorks to reshoot the scenes. He said, "I started with a wrong scene, actually, a comedy scene.[nb 11] And the actors played it way too big: [...] it was badly shot, my fault, badly composed, my fault, bad costumes, my fault [...]; and everybody was doing what I was asking. It was all my fault." Aware that he was a novice, Mendes drew on the experience of Hall: "I made a very conscious decision early on, if I didn't understand something technically, to say, without embarrassment, 'I don't understand what you're talking about, please explain it.'"
Mendes encouraged some improvisation; for example, when Lester masturbates in bed beside Carolyn, the director asked Spacey to improvise several euphemisms for the act in each take. Mendes said, "I wanted that not just because it was funny [...] but because I didn't want it to seem rehearsed. I wanted it to seem like he was blurting it out of his mouth without thinking. [Spacey] is so in control—I wanted him to break through." Spacey obliged, eventually coming up with 35 phrases, but Bening could not always keep a straight face, which meant the scene had to be shot ten times. The production used small amounts of computer-generated imagery. Most of the rose petals in Lester's fantasies were added in post-production, although some were real and had the wires holding them digitally removed. When Lester fantasizes about Angela in a rose petal bath, the steam was real, save for in the overhead shot. To position the camera, a hole had to be cut in the ceiling, through which the steam escaped; it was instead added digitally.
American Beauty was edited by Christopher Greenbury and Tariq Anwar; Greenbury began in the position, but had to leave halfway through post-production because of a scheduling conflict with Me, Myself and Irene (2000) (which Chris Cooper also starred in). Mendes and an assistant edited the film for ten days between the appointments. Mendes realized during editing that the film was different from the one he had envisioned. He believed he had been making a "much more whimsical, [...] kaleidoscopic" film than what came together in the edit suite. Instead, Mendes was drawn to the emotion and darkness; he began to use the score and shots he had intended to discard to craft the film along these lines. In total, he cut about 30 minutes from his original edit. The opening included a dream in which Lester imagines himself flying above the town. Mendes spent two days filming Spacey against bluescreen, but removed the sequence as he believed it to be too whimsical—"like a Coen brothers movie"—and therefore inappropriate for the tone he was trying to set. The opening in the final cut reused a scene from the middle of the film where Jane tells Ricky to kill her father. This scene was to be the revelation to the audience that the pair were not responsible for Lester's death, as the way it was scored and acted made it clear that Jane's request was not serious. However, in the portion he used in the opening—and when the full scene plays out later—Mendes used the score and a reaction shot of Ricky to leave a lingering ambiguity as to his guilt. The subsequent shot—an aerial view of the neighborhood—was originally intended as the plate shot for the bluescreen effects in the dream sequence.
Mendes spent more time re-cutting the first ten minutes than the rest of the film taken together. He trialled several versions of the opening; the first edit included bookend scenes in which Jane and Ricky are convicted of Lester's murder, but Mendes excised these in the last week of editing because he felt they made the film lose its mystery, and because they did not fit with the theme of redemption that had emerged during production. Mendes believed the trial drew focus away from the characters and turned the film "into an episode of NYPD Blue". Instead, he wanted the ending to be "a poetic mixture of dream and memory and narrative resolution". When Ball first saw a completed edit, it was a version with truncated versions of these scenes. He felt that they were so short that they "didn't really register". He and Mendes argued, but Ball was more accepting after Mendes cut the sequences completely; Ball felt that without the scenes the film was more optimistic and had evolved into something that "for all its darkness had a really romantic heart".
Conrad Hall was not the first choice for director of photography; Mendes believed he was "too old and too experienced" to want the job, and he had been told that Hall was difficult to work with. Instead, Mendes asked Fred Elmes, who turned the job down because he did not like the script. Hall was recommended to Mendes by Tom Cruise, because of Hall's work on Without Limits (1998), which Cruise had executive produced. Mendes was directing Cruise's then-wife Nicole Kidman in the play The Blue Room during pre-production on American Beauty, and had already storyboarded the whole film. Hall was involved for one month during pre-production; his ideas for lighting the film began with his first reading of the script, and further passes allowed him to refine his approach before meeting Mendes. Hall was initially concerned that audiences would not like the characters; he only felt able to identify with them during cast rehearsals, which gave him fresh ideas on his approach to the visuals.
Hall's approach was to create peaceful compositions that evoked classicism, to contrast with the turbulent on-screen events and allow audiences to take in the action. Hall and Mendes would first discuss the intended mood of a scene, but he was allowed to light the shot in any way he felt necessary. In most cases, Hall first lit the scene's subject by "painting in" the blacks and whites, before adding fill light, which he reflected from beadboard or white card on the ceiling. This approach gave Hall more control over the shadows while keeping the fill light unobtrusive and the dark areas free of spill. Hall shot American Beauty in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio in the Super 35 format, using Kodak Vision 500T 5279 35 mm film stock. He used Super 35 partly because its larger scope allowed him to capture elements such as the corners of the petal-filled pool in its overhead shot, creating a frame around Angela within. He shot the whole film at the same T-stop (T1.9); given his preference for shooting that wide, Hall favored high-speed stocks to allow for more subtle lighting effects. He used Panavision Platinum cameras with the company's Primo series of prime and zoom lenses. Hall employed Kodak Vision 200T 5274 and EXR 5248 stock for scenes with daylight effects. He had difficulty adjusting to Kodak's newly introduced Vision release print stock, which, combined with his contrast-heavy lighting style, created a look with too much contrast. Hall contacted Kodak, who sent him a batch of 5279 that was 5% lower in contrast. Hall used a 1/8 inch Tiffen Black ProMist filter for almost every scene, which he said in retrospect may not have been the best choice, as the optical steps required to blow Super 35 up for its anamorphic release print led to a slight amount of degradation; therefore, the diffusion from the filter was not required. When he saw the film in a theater, Hall felt that the image was slightly unclear and that had he not used the filter, the diffusion from the Super 35–anamorphic conversion would have generated an image closer to what he originally intended.
A shot where Lester and Ricky share a cannabis joint behind a building came from a misunderstanding between Hall and Mendes. Mendes asked Hall to prepare the shot in his absence; Hall assumed the characters would look for privacy, so he placed them in a narrow passage between a truck and the building, intending to light from the top of the truck. When Mendes returned, he explained that the characters did not care if they were seen. He removed the truck and Hall had to rethink the lighting; he lit it from the left, with a large light crossing the actors, and with a soft light behind the camera. Hall felt the consequent wide shot "worked perfectly for the tone of the scene". Hall made sure to keep rain, or the suggestion of it, in every shot near the end of the film. In one shot during Lester's encounter with Angela at the Burnhams' home, Hall created rain effects on the foreground cross lights; in another, he partly lit the pair through French windows to which he had added material to make the rain run slower, intensifying the light (although the strength of the outside light was unrealistic for a night scene, Hall felt it justified because of the strong contrasts it produced). For the close-ups when Lester and Angela move to the couch, Hall tried to keep rain in the frame, lighting through the window onto the ceiling behind Lester. He also used rain boxes to produce rain patterns where he wanted without lighting the entire room.
American Beauty was widely considered the best film of 1999 by the American press. It received overwhelming praise, chiefly for Spacey, Mendes and Ball. Variety reported that "no other 1999 movie has benefited from such universal raves." It was the best-received title at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it won the People's Choice Award after a ballot of the festival's audiences. TIFF's director, Piers Handling, said, "American Beauty was the buzz of the festival, the film most talked about."
Writing in Variety, Todd McCarthy said the cast ensemble "could not be better"; he praised Spacey's "handling of innuendo, subtle sarcasm and blunt talk" and the way he imbued Lester with "genuine feeling". Janet Maslin in The New York Times said Spacey was at his "wittiest and most agile" to date, and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times singled Spacey out for successfully portraying a man who "does reckless and foolish things [but who] doesn't deceive himself". Kevin Jackson of Sight & Sound said Spacey impressed in ways distinct from his previous performances, the most satisfying aspect being his portrayal of "both sap and hero". Writing in Film Quarterly, Gary Hentzi praised the actors, but said that characters such as Carolyn and Col. Fitts were stereotypes. Hentzi accused Mendes and Ball of identifying too readily with Jane and Ricky, saying the latter was their "fantasy figure"—a teenaged boy who's an absurdly wealthy artist able to "finance [his] own projects". Hentzi said Angela was the most believable teenager, in particular with her "painfully familiar" attempts to "live up to an unworthy image of herself". Maslin agreed that some characters were unoriginal, but said their detailed characterizations made them memorable. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said the actors coped "faultlessly" with what were difficult roles; he called Spacey's performance "the energy that drives the film", saying the actor commanded audience involvement despite Lester not always being sympathetic. "Against considerable odds, we do like [these characters]," Turan concluded.
Maslin felt that Mendes directed with "terrific visual flair", saying his minimalist style balanced "the mordant and bright" and that he evoked the "delicate, eroticized power-playing vignettes" of his theater work. Jackson said Mendes' theatrical roots rarely showed, and that the "most remarkable" aspect was that Spacey's performance did not overshadow the film. He said that Mendes worked the script's intricacies smoothly, to the ensemble's strengths, and staged the tonal shifts skillfully. McCarthy believed American Beauty a "stunning card of introduction" for film débutantes Mendes and Ball. He said Mendes' "sure hand" was "as precise and controlled" as his theater work. McCarthy cited Hall's involvement as fortunate for Mendes, as the cinematographer was "unsurpassed" at conveying the themes of a work. Turan agreed that Mendes' choice of collaborators was "shrewd", naming Hall and Newman in particular. Turan suggested that American Beauty may have benefited from Mendes' inexperience, as his "anything's possible daring" made him attempt beats that more seasoned directors might have avoided. Turan felt that Mendes' accomplishment was to "capture and enhance [the] duality" of Ball's script—the simultaneously "caricatured [...] and painfully real" characters. Hentzi, while critical of many of Mendes and Ball's choices, admitted the film showed off their "considerable talents".
Turan cited Ball's lack of constraint when writing the film as the reason for its uniqueness, in particular the script's subtle changes in tone. McCarthy said the script was "as fresh and distinctive" as any of its American film contemporaries, and praised how it analyzed the characters while not compromising narrative pace. He called Ball's dialogue "tart" and said the characters—Carolyn excepted—were "deeply drawn". One other flaw, McCarthy said, was the revelation of Col. Fitts' homosexuality, which he said evoked "hoary Freudianism". Jackson said the film transcended its clichéd setup to become a "wonderfully resourceful and sombre comedy". He said that even when the film played for sitcom laughs, it did so with "unexpected nuance". Hentzi criticized how the film made a mystery of Lester's murder, believing it manipulative and simply a way of generating suspense. McCarthy cited the production and costume design as plusses, and said the soundtrack was good at creating "ironic counterpoint[s]" to the story. Hentzi concluded that American Beauty was "vital but uneven"; he felt the film's examination of "the ways which teenagers and adults imagine each other's lives" was its best point, and that although Lester and Angela's dynamic was familiar, its romantic irony stood beside "the most enduring literary treatments" of the theme, such as Lolita. Nevertheless, Hentzi believed that the film's themes of materialism and conformity in American suburbia were "hackneyed". McCarthy conceded that the setting was familiar, but said it merely provided the film with a "starting point" from which to tell its "subtle and acutely judged tale". Maslin agreed; she said that while it "takes aim at targets that are none too fresh", and that the theme of nonconformity did not surprise, the film had its own "corrosive novelty". Ebert awarded American Beauty four stars out of four, and Turan said it was layered, subversive, complex and surprising, concluding it was "a hell of a picture".
A few months after the film's release, reports of a backlash appeared in the American press, and the years since have seen its critical regard wane. In 2005, Premiere named American Beauty as one of 20 "most overrated movies of all time"; Mendes accepted the inevitability of the critical reappraisal, saying, "I thought some of it was entirely justified—it was a little overpraised at the time."
Currently, the film holds an 88% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 180 reviews, with an average rating of 8.2/10; the critical consensus reads, "Flawlessly cast and brimming with dark, acid wit, American Beauty is a smart, provocative high point of late '90s mainstream Hollywood film." Metacritic gives the film a score of 86, based on 33 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim."
AccoladesMain article: List of accolades received by American Beauty
American Beauty was not considered an immediate favorite to dominate the American awards season. Several other contenders opened at the end of 1999, and US critics spread their honors among them when compiling their end-of-year lists. The Chicago Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Film Critics Association named the film the best of 1999, but while the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association recognized American Beauty, they gave their top awards to other films. By the end of the year, reports of a critical backlash suggested American Beauty was the underdog in the race for Best Picture; however, at the Golden Globe Awards in January 2000, American Beauty won Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay.
As the nominations for the 72nd Academy Awards approached, a frontrunner had not emerged. DreamWorks had launched a major campaign for American Beauty five weeks before ballots were due to be sent to the 5,600 Academy Award voters. Its campaign combined traditional advertising and publicity with more focused strategies. Although direct mail campaigning was prohibited, DreamWorks reached voters by promoting the film in "casual, comfortable settings" in voters' communities. The studio's candidate for Best Picture the previous year, Saving Private Ryan, lost to Shakespeare in Love, so the studio took a new approach by hiring outsiders to provide input for the campaign. It hired three veteran consultants, who told the studio to "think small". Nancy Willen encouraged DreamWorks to produce a special about the making of American Beauty, to set up displays of the film in the communities' bookstores, and to arrange a question-and-answer session with Mendes for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Dale Olson advised the studio to advertise in free publications that circulated in Beverly Hills—home to many voters—in addition to major newspapers. Olson arranged to screen American Beauty to about 1,000 members of the Actors Fund of America, as many participating actors were also voters. Bruce Feldman took Ball to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where Ball attended a private dinner in honor of Anthony Hopkins, meeting several voters who were in attendance.
In February 2000, American Beauty was nominated for eight Academy Awards; its closest rivals, The Cider House Rules and The Insider, received seven nominations each. In March 2000, the major industry labor organizations[nb 17] all awarded their top honors to American Beauty; perceptions had shifted—the film was now the favorite to dominate the Academy Awards. American Beauty's closest rival for Best Picture was still The Cider House Rules, from Miramax. Both studios mounted aggressive campaigns; DreamWorks bought 38% more advertising space in Variety than Miramax. On March 26, 2000, American Beauty won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Spacey), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.[nb 18] At the 53rd British Academy Film Awards, American Beauty won six of the fourteen awards for which it was nominated: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress (Bening), Best Cinematography, Best Film Music and Best Editing. In 2000, the Publicists Guild of America recognized DreamWorks for the best film publicity campaign. In September 2008, Empire named American Beauty the 96th "Greatest Movie of All Time" after a poll of 10,000 readers, 150 filmmakers and 50 film critics, the 4th highest ranked movie from 1999 (behind Fight Club, The Matrix, and Magnolia).[nb 19] In 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay #38 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays.
The film was nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) in 2007.
customer, October 16, 2002
Give Me a Break
Boy, am I getting tired of this kind of movie.
Every few years a film comes along designed to skewer the supposed "complacency" of middle America. You know, we're all a bunch of shallow, crass, materialistic, out-of-touch, hypocritical phonies who've failed to connect with the "beauty" of everyday life.
A few years ago, it was "The Ice Storm." Bored American suburbanite couples contemplating adultery. An alienated teen-age daughter who romances the misfit/social outcast boy next door. Recreational drug use to underscore the general sense of ennui. Then, at the end, somebody dies, and that tragedy is supposed to imbue the movie with resonance and meaning.
Or did I just describe "American Beauty"? Oh, well, doesn't matter. In another few years, another filmmaker will crank out another cinematic screed along the same lines, and no doubt that film will wow critics and win multiple awards as well.
The real tragedy of "American Beauty" is that the script had real potential. If you ever had the opportunity to read Alan Ball's screenplay (available on the Internet), you're in for what they call in Hollywood "a good read." Ball is an exceptionally gifted writer and has a real ear for dialogue. My problem is with the film's direction. Others have raved about Sam Mendes. Kindly include me out on that score: his direction reeks to high heaven. Rather than working to flesh out his characters, he portrays his characters as unsympathetic cartoons. Spacey,
Bening (lord, especially Bening) and several other, ahem, "actors" give screeching, eye-bulging, over-the-top, look-ma-I'm-in-a-movie type performances. Mena Suvari's turn as the would-be high school nympho wouldn't get past the first round of a casting call for the TV version of "Clueless." Only Thora Birch (a long underrated actress) and newcomer Wes Bentley manage to give sympathetic, humanistic performances. The rest of the cast seems to think it's in an episode of "Hogan's Heroes."
And therein lies the problem. This is one of those movies that isn't funny enough to rate as a good comedy yet doesn't take itself seriously enough to work as drama. Spacey gets a few funny lines (okay, he gets all the funny lines) but that's essentially it.
By contrast, Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" back in 1980 (written by Alvin Sargent) also tackled the subjects of loveless marriage, alienated youth, angst in suburbia, and so forth, but it did so with a great sense of compassion for its lead characters.
Deep down, "American Beauty" has contempt for its characters, and for that reason the film never really connects. It would be like having the makers of "Amos & Andy" direct "Roots". The filmmakers were so blinded by their desire to give suburbia the cinematic finger that they missed the opportunity to explore real human emotions.
Maybe they should have looked closer.
A customer, September 23, 2001
Less than the sum of its parts
When first viewed in theatre, I was favorably impressed with this film, not the least of which because of the Oscar-deserving Kevin Spacey. Upon repeat viewings at home, I have to say that it does not hold up. The performances are fine, with the exception of an over-the-top Annette Benning, but the high-handed and the pretentious (the swirling paper in slow motion) treatment by director/writer Mendes of the theme - the illusion that is the American dream - eventually gets under one's skin. The subject matter is a worthy one, I just wish that it had been done with more originality and panache...
A customer, July 11, 2000
Good, But Overrated......
American Beauty is very well-acted, and first-time film director Sam Mendes shows real flair with his direction and staging, but when I hear people praise this film for being "audacious" and "challenging" (which is quite often) I have to say I'm perplexed. What startling, difficult truths is it presenting? That older men can be sexually attracted to teenage girls? That homophobia is wrong? That smoking pot might not be the terrible sin some people make it out to be? That people shouldn't be so absorbed in their careers at the expense of their families?
I'm sorry, but these "messages" should hardly be considered new or challenging. Maybe I'm alone on this, but when I hear words like "masterpiece" and "audacious" being thrown around, I expect a film to push me out of my comfort zone a bit and to force me to see things in a new way. American Beauty does a nice job of confirming truths like those listed above, and there are some truly wonderful moments in the film, but I think credit for this should be attributed to the performances and some nice directorial touches, not the script itself, which I thought really derailed itself in the last half hour, spelling EVERYTHING out for a viewer rather than allowing us to "look closer" outselves and draw our own conclusions.
If you want to see some truly unique, challenging, and audacious filmmaking from 1999, try films like Magnolia, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, or Boys Don't Cry instead. I would easily put them above a good (but not great) film like American Beauty.
Mr. Cairene on April 22, 2000BLOOD AND ROSES
I read somewhere that the overwelmingly red look of American Beauty is a symbol for blood and roses. Represented in the film by the flower petals in Lester Burnham's fantasies, and the blood spilt when the sadness that hovers beneath bears its face. The title of American Beauty does not refer to the pretty surfaces that hide the anguish of these people, but the beauty of their souls when dealing with that anguish. Many reviewers have considered the title to be ironic, it isn't.
I've heard Kevin Spacey say that this film is about context, because taken out of context the behaviour of these characters seem bizzare and even psychotic, but out with in the context of their messy lives or indeed anybody's life, it seems natural.
If I tell you that Kevin Spacey plays a character who is obsessed with the idea of sleeping with his daughter's best friend, a daughter who constantly announces her hatred of her parents, a woman so obsessed with appearances that happiness is but a memory to her, a loner who makes his living as a drug dealer with a firm rigid father living in denial about his son and himself, you would guess that there would be no one to like in this film.
You would be wrong. This film is magical in the way it lets identify with these characters, care for them and worry about their outcome. Infact the ideas of American Beauty are nothing new.
The pursuit of happiness through the abandoning of materialistic possessions and the satisfaction of primal, animal and natural desires was the exact same premise for Fight Club. This could be a middle aged version of that film. The family turmoil closely resembles Ang Lee's The Ice Storm 1998, and like that film, American Beauty ends in tragedy.
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Michael Crane on February 4, 2004
And in a way, I am dead already.""American Beauty" is a pure cinematic triumph that is both funny and sad. It's disturbing... and yet, it's extremely provocative and deep. The film is an extraordinary achievement that reveals a tragic and realistic story about a family that is anything but ordinary. It's a film with so many layers that it is almost impossible to dissect them all in one single thought.
Meet Lester Burnham; a man who feels like he's completely dead inside. His wife and daughter despise him and do not show him any signs of respect. On the surface, the family seems like a picture-perfect family that everybody dreams about--but inside is a completely different matter.
His wife is obsessed with material possessions and doesn't care for "petty" things like love or life, while his daughter resents herself because she isn't "perfect." Lester's mental coma is rudely interrupted when he meets his daughter's friend and starts fantasizing about her. The awakening might be due to a disturbing thought or feeling, but the wake-up call changes Lester and allows him to realize that there's always time to erase his "forced-image" and be the person he really is. This is all a set-up for a funny, disturbing and tragic movie.
I don't know about everybody else, but my mind was literally racing around when this movie was playing before my eyes. It's one of those films that allows you to pick up on something different upon each viewing. As I said in the beginning of the review, this film has a number of layers to it. There's so many different meanings and points to the film that it is nearly impossible to describe them all in one little review. Besides, the fun part of the movie is discovering these meanings and points for yourself. You know a film is successful when you totally lose yourself to it and allow it to challenge you in every way. The film is crafted flawlessly and doesn't have a wasted minute in it.
The acting from Kevin Spacey is really a sight to see. He gives his character all of the right needs and feelings that is necessary for the authenticity of his role. You don't even look at him as an actor--but as the real person he portrays. It is certainly a milestone in his acting career that will continue to be remembered throughout all cinematic history. Annette Bening is also superb in her role and brings life to her character, as well. Everybody in the film should be applauded, as they all make the film what it is.
The DVD has some neat features to offer. The picture quality is fantastic and the sound is more than great. You have the option of watching the movie in DTS if your system is able to play it. Extras included are commentary from the director and writer, a behind-the-scenes featurette, cast and crew biographies, trailers and more. While I wouldn't had mind a Two-Disc edition of the movie, this is a pretty impressive package overall.
"American Beauty" is a breath-taking masterpiece with a very high replay value. It's a terrific film on every front and does not disappoint for a single second. While it's not a movie that everybody will like, it's most certainly one to check out if you are a lover of films. If you're looking for something that isn't so ordinary, then this may be the chance that you are seeking. I feel that it is a unique and superb film that is very hard to express in words--you'll just have to experience it for yourself. -Michael Crane
Lisa C, March 21, 2000
My initial reaction, "That was weird," has changed to "How thought-provoking." What happens when characters who struggle to live authentically cross paths with those who struggle to do anything but?
Lester Burnham and the oddly compelling boy next door both discover the ability to see the true beauty in life, even in the most unlikely or mundane circumstances. Who is to be pitied more: Lester, whose life is snuffed out at the moment of pure joy and contentment, or his wife, who buys into the mantra that one must first attain the appearance of success in order to BE successful? She fiercely shuts down any intense emotion lest she be overwhelmed, and even her sexual encounters are comically farcical. "When did you become so joyless?" the soul-searching Lester asks his wife in a touching moment.
Ricky's character as the boy next door is haunting. He sees life as an artist and a poet; his serenity contrasts with the stark repression of his military father and soulless mother, and intrigues Lester's daughter Jane, who possesses Wednesday Addams' moon face and dour disposition. Her struggle of self-discovery contrasts with that of her best friend, the beautiful and perfect cheerleader Angela, whose insecurities are masked by sexual bravado.
This is a movie worth seeing . . . worth thinking about long after it's over . . . and a gentle reminder to live life authentically.1 Comment
klingsithvamp, February 3, 2004
Beauty - vs. - Ref
With so many reviews, I guess the core materials have been covered. So, into the fray! American Beauty was much hailed, but Ref, essentially an earlier concept of the same movie, went unrecognized, due to its comedic classification. The Ref utilized some of the same cast members, whose performance there, I felt, was superior. Despite the show's sometimes goofy presentation, the issues and emotions had far more depth than the later release. Too, Beauty had a preachy quality, telling you how to live your life. The Ref, doesn't really tell you how; it just says you can't control everything that happens to you - deal with it. Furthermore, Beauty had a flitty feel (perhaps a result of the repetitious musical cues), simply inhanced by one-dimensional characters, who never really connect. The Ref's characters are very similar, on a basic level; and yet, they not only connect, they clash painfully. Even the insignificant townsfolk have layers of unexplored realism. These people are forced to confront their issues, to learn and grow. Beauty's people, on the other hand, seem to drift even further into their own isolated misery, spiting the movies intended message. Leary's role in The Ref is multi fold. Primarily, he is the catalyst of change and the voice of chaos - little effort on his part. Ultimately, while his humor may have removed the film from any Oscar contentions, it also gives the viewer a much needed stress release valve. The drama there is so intense, you get the idea that this family would happily choke the life out of each other. When (like me) Leary goes off on a rant, anger is displaced with negative jocularity, creating an antithetical surrealism. It's like being comforted by the fact that your buddies laugh at you for doing something stupid. The "ref" both makes and breaks the movie. I will concede this however; had I not seen The Ref, my opinion of American Beauty would be higher. You know how it is; everything is relative - good is only good until there is something better (but in this case, better came first).
Bykw, April 9, 2006
Spacey, the actor or the way someone feels while watching the movie American Beauty? Kevin Spacey is phenomenal in his portrayal of Lester Burnham in Sam Mendes' film American Beauty. While American Beauty portrays the story of an average family man having a mid-life crisis, it does not succeed in portraying the average American family. The American family is only represented in the movie through materialistic aspects. These aspects include the suburban neighborhood, the family car, and the house with the white picket fence. The values, customs, way of life, and love of the "family" is not represented in this movie. I feel that American Beauty succeeds in showing the life of one family out of thousands, but it is not a good representation of every American family.
In the beginning of the film the viewer is introduced to Lester Burnham (Spacey). He is a middle aged man working at an ad agency and his wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a middle aged woman working for her own real estate firm. Together they have a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), who is in high school. The Burnham's are unhappy with their lives but do not show it to the outside world, until one day when Lester is introduced to Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), Jane's friend. After meeting her Lester's mid-life crisis begins. He quits his jobs, buys the car he's always wanted, starts smoking pot, and starts to work at a burger joint. Carolyn can not believe what her husband is doing because it is messing up her "perfect life." Also included in this messed up sort of world are the Fitts'. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is the militant father that every son, who's not athletic, is afraid of and his wife Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney) is a woman in a deep depression. Their son Ricky (Wes Bentley) is rebellious and at times creepy. He starts to obsess over Jane and over her father, too. These two families go through the trials and tribulations of dealing with a hippie and militant father, a cheating and depressed mother, a depressed daughter, and a rebellious son.
The movie tends to drag in places and does not keep the viewers interest. He or she can start to space out and not pay attention to what is going on, but if this happens then once the viewer comes back to the movie he or she is lost in what's going on. There seems to be a sort of fog throughout the movie as well. The viewer seems to be left out of some important information and it makes it hard to understand what is happening. If one thing is missed such as one statement or one line, he or she can be lost the rest of the movie. This though can relate back to the Burnham family. It seems that some of the family members are being left out of certain talks and happenings too. They too do not know what's going on within their family. Also, the editing of the movie seems to jump around a lot. It gets confusing when Ricky and Jane are talking after school, and then when Ricky comes home in the next scene it is late at night and he is in totally different clothes. His father doesn't seem to realize that it is late at night and his mother says nothing. She just sits and stares at the TV. This can be taken as a representation of how the Fitts family operates. Many families do have their dysfunctional aspects, and the Fitts family is confusing to follow and all together they are confused themselves. If this is taken into account, many families in America are not this dysfunctional or confused. Yes, there may be some contradicting comments and confusing talks between family members but none as confusing and out of place as the previous example. There also seems to be a lack of finding the beauty in America. Rather then seeing beauty in obvious ways, the viewer is made to guess where the beauty is to be found in a scene. This beauty can be the rose petals, the film editing, the setting of the neighborhood and the house, or the face that is seen on Lester Burnham's face in his last scene. It all depends on what the observer sees as beautiful. If the viewer really pays attention and can think about what's going on they will enjoy this movie. It is definitely a movie for someone that likes to sit and analyze the meanings behind certain statements or occurrences. This movie really does make you "look closer."
In choosing my two other reviews on this movie, I decided to go for ones that I totally agreed with and totally did not agree with. The first review was by a common man. It tells all about the family's problems, the tribulations that they face, and the response of each family member to the happenings of the family. He does a very good job in adding his opinion about the movie, and not pushing anyone to think the same way as him. The best part of his review is when he quotes Ricky as saying "never underestimate the power of denial." This is so true throughout the entire movie, too. Frank Fitts denies that people are gay, denies that his son has a pot problem, and denies that anything is wrong with his family. By not believing all of these problems, Frank helps to prove that this is not the average American family. This review also talks about how well the film is put together. I feel the same way about this, except for a few editing errors. But those errors are necessary to create a good movie that flows and hits all the main points needed. For my disagreeing review, I did not feel that it was an "American Snapshot." I also did not feel that the words he used were appropriate. Lester Burnham was not a schmuck. He was a man going through a hard time in his life. Many men feel this way during their older years, and to call them a schmuck is an insult. I also did not agree with the fact that he calls Carolyn Burnham a "money grubbing soulness phoney." Yes, throughout the movie it may seem as though she does not give a damn about what is happening to her family, but in all reality she does. Her compassion and soul are seen when she wants the best for herself and her daughter. They are also seen at the very end of the movie when she goes into her bedroom, grabs Lester's clothes and begins to sob. If this isn't compassion, then I don't know what is. I also do not agree that the entire world is narcisstic, obsessed with looks or toys. Yes, many Americans may be obsessed with these things, but to say that the entire world is this way is wrong. These reviews help to explain two very different views on this movie.
Whether, someone likes this movie or does not all depends on how they look at it. American Beauty can be seen as a heartwarming, true tale of a mid-life crisis or it can be seen as a distasteful representation of the "American family" and the "American dream." It all depends on the viewer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is it the meaning that matters? Or the content in which the beauty is displayed?
Mat, May 3, 2005
Pretty Silly, But Fun
The first time I saw American Beauty it was the last in three consecutive weekend movie run. The other two films were Fight Club and Bringing Out the Dead. All three films are about men trying to come to terms to what it means to be a man in America in this day and age. Fight Club finds meaning in deconstructing everything down to base needs, feeling through pain. Bringing Out the Dead gives meaning to its character through drug use, but is was in American Beauty that I found some sense of hope.
In the film, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) plays a middle aged, middle class suburbanite, with seemingly everything he could desire. He has a good, well paying job; a beautiful wife (Annette Bening); a large luxurious house; and a lovely daughter (Thora Birch). Yet, with all of this he is not happy. In fact, all of these things are not quite what they seem. His employer is facing cut backs, and he may soon lose his job. He marriage is in shambles, and his daughter openly hates him. Early, we see him masturbating in the shower, in narration; he states this is the highpoint of his day. All is not well in the house of Burnham.
All of this changes when Lester meets Angela (Mena Suvari), his daughter, Jane's gorgeous, cheerleader friend. On first seeing Angela during a cheer routine, Lester feel a special, lustful connection. Later that night, Lester overhears Angela playfully tell Jane that if he would only work out, he would be sexy. His lust over this teenage vixen becomes the catalyst for the film and Lester's very life.
Soon after Lester quits his job, in fact he bilks the company for a year's salary by threatening to disclose scandalous information that he has become privy to. He begins smoking pot, buys a hot rod.. He plays with remote control cars, takes a job at a fast food joint, and of course does start working out. In every way he reverts back to his teenage years. Even the soundtrack begins blaring out classic rock tunes from the 1970's. Finally after years, decades even, of feeling low, miserable, not alive, he feels great.
This reversion back to his glory days is only the beginning. It is a reversion back to the days when he had fun, when he felt alive. But he is not a man who will stop there. This is just a beginning point to a life long conversion of living a full life, as opposed to a life full of the right things, but that is ultimately empty. Or it would be if he was not shortly dead (this is not nearly the spoiler you might think it is, for Lester announced his death within the first minutes of the film.) Towards the end of the film we can see that Lester is already outgrowing his childish behavior. When he yells at his daughter, he immediately feels the sting of regret. When given the chance to indulge in his lusts, he backs away, understanding that it is not right. Just as the music changed to classic rock with the first change, here it has changed again, turning into the same classic rock being covered by newer, contemporary artists.
Many will probably say that using the lust for a teen, and illicit drug us as a catalyst for change, is not a change for the better. I can already hear my mother scolding me for having seen the movie, much less reviewed it from 2,000 miles away in Oklahoma. Yet, here it works, and works well. I don't believe the film is saying that these things should be the means to a change, these things only served as means for this character to break free from the rut that had become his life. There is a telling scene where Lester and his wife are overcome with sexual desire. As he dips his wife to kiss her, she stops the embrace because he is near to spilling his glass of wine on an expensive couch. An argument ensues with Lester proclaiming that "it's just a couch," while his wife is horrified at the thought of ruining said couch. There lies one of the central themes of the film. That these characters are so wrapped up in the material that they lose sight of the better pleasure of life, including love making.
It is not a perfect film. The Burnham's neighbor, Col. Fritts (Chris Cooper) seems a caricatured archetype. His plays a hateful, homophobe who really carries deep rooted homosexual tendencies is too outlandish to be considered real. Though it must be said the part is played marvelously by Chris Cooper. Jane's speech about being a freak too, may move the young kids who consider themselves the nonconformist, shy-type, but it is too after-school special for my tastes.
I've left out some of the best scenes and an important character, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). He plays the drug dealing son of Col. Fritts, who likes to record everything on his video camera. There is a moving scene in which he and Jane watch an old tape of his of a plastic bag floating through the air. It is a moving, poetic scene that conjures up thought of the futility of life and its very beauty. It is that type of movie. It creates beautiful, moving, simple scenes that bring a sense of hope to life, while at the same time, showing the ultimate horror of living it.
John Noodles, March 6, 2001
Entertaining, But Overrated
Perhaps I'm judging this movie a little unfairly--that is, against the hype and excessive accolades it received rather than against only its own successes and failures. It IS, after all, an entertaining, enjoyable film. But I would not call it a great film. Enough has been said about the great performances--yeah, they're great, but....
It is a message film about middle age, suburban American life, and base materialism. As a message film, though, it is very odd. Lester Burnham,
successful executive, burns out, blackmails his boss, quits his job, and develops the hots for his teenage daughter's best friend.
His shrewish wife, meantime, starts a romp with a local hot shot real estate agent, who turns her on not only to adultery, but to shooting, too, offering the cliched explanation that it makes him feel powerful.
Lester's daughter starts hanging out with the weird, pot-dealing son of the fascistic Marine (yes, THAT old cliche) next door. The boy's father beats the tar out of him routinely, and with particular violence when he suspects his boy might be gay. Not soon after, during a painful scene of misunderstanding that results from the boy assuring his father that he and Lester have been having sex (not true; he said it to hurt his father), the father makes a pass at Lester. Yes, ANOTHER cliche: the Nazi-like homophobe (who actually collects Nazi war relics!) who is really gay himself!
And what about the other messages? That the best way to deal with a difficult marriage, and life's disappointments is to quit your job, start smoking dope, and paw your daughter's friends? Seriously?
The only normal, well-adjusted people in this movie are Lester's gay neighbors (the other neighbors), whom we only briefly meet. I wonder...is this a message, too?
ByCharlotte Vale-AllenVINE VOICEon February 23, 2003
With an opening voiceover stolen directly from Sunset Boulevard, this film is pretty typical of undeserving movies that win The Big Prize. Spacey and Bening are a fairly loathsome couple, only sympathetic intermittently. The truly compelling aspect of the film resides in the family next door: father Chris Cooper, mother Allison Janney, and son Wes Bentley. What goes on in this household is the true stuff of moviemaking. Janney who has achieved much-deserved fame as a result of her role on The West Wing has been around quite a while, turning in flawless performances each time out of the gate. But what she does in American Beauty, with only a few lines of dialogue, is simply awe-inspiring. I came away from this film positively stricken by her performance which is a masterpiece of understated acting. The same is true of Chris Cooper (who is, at last, getting much-deserved recognition for his fine talent) in the role of a man trying to contain massive fears about his true identity. And Wes Bentley is terrific, dark and defiant, as the son of this household.
If you take a step back and look closely at the Spacey character, what you see is perilously close to pedophelia--a man lusting after an underage girl. That it's covered in rose petals doesn't make it any more palatable. Yes there are some good scenes but it doesn't alter the core thesis that a middle-aged man, fed up with his awful family, makes drastic changes to his life because he is hopelessly drawn to a teenage girl.
Watch this one for the Janney, Cooper, Bentley performances. They're worth the time. The rest of this prize-winner is derivative--an apple with a worm at its core.
Father Knows Best
ByNicholas Stixon May 23, 2003
With the video release of American Beauty, now you, too, can rent or own this subversive satire of the hypocrisy, Nazism, and homophobia lurking among the freshly cut lawns and orderly subdivisions of suburban civilization.
In American Beauty, an expert Hollywood eye shows an American neighborhood for what it really is: the miserable businesswoman putting on a phony, cheery face; the degraded husband who, suffering a midlife crisis, fantasizes about his daughter's girlfriend; the girlfriend, who brags of seducing older men; and best of all, the new neighbors, a retired Marine Corps colonel and his family. The homophobic colonel is of course a neo-Nazi and closet homosexual. Meanwhile, the one gay couple on the block is as sweet, decent, and tolerant as everyone else is screwed up, mean-spirited, and phony.
Bad enough, that director Sam Mendes and screenwriter/co-producer Alan Ball, presume to be telling "the truth" about suburbia, but they think they're doing director-screenwriter-producer Billy Wilder [alive in 2000, at the time of original publication] proud! They said so at the Oscars. This is clear, as well, through the gimmick, copied from Wilder's 1950 masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, of the dead protagonist's (William Holden's Joe Gillis) opening and closing narration. Mendes and Ball aren't fit to carry Billy Wilder's director's chair. Indeed, today a young Billy Wilder would be satirizing them and their ilk.
Billy Wilder has never shown hatred toward the land that not only made him rich, but which saved the Viennese refugee from being turned into soap by his fellow Austrian, Hitler. And in contrast to the retired Marine Corps colonel on whom Mendes and Ball focus their hatred, see Wilder's affectionate portrait of America's fighting men in his Oscar-winning, 1953 movie, Stalag 17.
Wilder -- considered anything but subtle in his day -- wore silk gloves, in contrast to the hamhanded doings here. And though cynical, he didn't ooze superiority over his characters. In Sunset Boulevard, for instance, Wilder depicted faded silent screen legend "Norma Desmond" (played by Gloria Swanson, herself a faded silent screen giant in a career-capping performance dripping in irony) as a monster, and yet, she was a monster for whom he clearly felt affection. Wilder, as screenwriter, gave Desmond the best line in the picture, which indicted the Hollywood of his time. When a police detective asks Desmond, "Didn't you used to be big in pictures?," she responds, "I AM big. It's the pictures that got small." They sure did.
Mendes and Ball confuse glibness and smugness with irony, with every character a mere prop in their anti-morality tale. They promote the adolescent notion that people are good, only to the degree that they do whatever they feel like at any given moment.
And yet, the picture does have its funny moments, most of which involve Spacey, one of only two characters for whom Mendes and Ball feel any sympathy. The other character is a young, drug-dealing, peeping Tom -- but he's authentic! (The gay couple can't be counted: Their brief, superficial presence exists only to emphasize the evil of the homophobic colonel.) Much technical skill is in evidence. And the cast does marvelous work. Kevin Spacey, in particular, gives a performance for the ages, in this otherwise conventionally PC, Hollywood concoction.
American Beauty has two basic attitudes, each of which is anathema to Billy Wilder's work. 1. Political correctness. Wilder made a living skewering the sort of simple-minded notions that Mendes and Ball prize. 2. Authenticity: Younger fans of this film have said things like, "It'll change your life!" They saw the film as saying that most people walk around already dead, but don't know it yet. When protagonist Lester Burnham (Spacey) has an awakening, his life can never be the same.
But of course! In an Intro to Psychology lecture in 1978, wide-eyed with wonder, I heard about the philosophy that swept across America, after The War. The brainchild of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1977), existentialism teaches the ethics of "authenticity," of consciously living under the shadow of death, without religious evasions or "bad faith." Existentialism's impassioned attack on hypocrisy, has always made it attractive to young people. And yet, its premise -- that life is led only in the face of mortality -- is philosophy's point of departure, not its destination.
Had Ball and Mendes known anything about existentialism, they would have known that it is inseparable from ... Nazism!
Martin Heidegger's philosophy of life was of a piece with his politics. Like other Nazis, he was disgusted by the hypocrisy of bourgeois life.
And then there is American Beauty's embrace of homosexuality, and insistence on an unholy trinity of Nazism, homophobia, and closet homosexuality.
One of the obscenities of revisionist, pc history is the assertion that the Nazis persecuted homosexuals, just as they did Jews. In fact, the second most powerful man in the Nazi Party, Ernst Roehm, was an open homosexual, as were all of his lieutenant/lovers. Roehm headed the Storm Troopers, who openly brutalized Jews and leftists. Among many Party members, Ernst Roehm was even more popular than the Fuehrer. That's why Hitler, in an infamous "night of the long knives," had Roehm and his lieutenants murdered.
It is understandable that gay activists would want to grind the history of Nazi homosexuality, and those who would tell it, under their jackboots. But Billy Wilder knew all about Roehm and Heidegger.
Having grown up in suburbia, I know its problems all too well. And as a Jew who lived for five years in West Germany (1980-85), and once got his nose bashed in by an old Nazi, I know something about the problem of authenticity, too. But Mendes and Ball are strangers to such problems, their jaundiced movie a self-righteous exercise in bigotry and ignorance.
In a just world, suburbanites would be able to make movies mocking Hollywood hypocrisy, say, "I Spend My Free Time and Influence Getting Murderers Paroled ... So They Can Kill Again!" Oops! That's not a movie; that's real life in Hollywood.
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