American Beauty Theme Essay Outline

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 rewritten 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 the fledgling DreamWorks studio, which bought the 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 theater director Mendes' film debut; courted after his successful productions of the musicals Oliver! and Cabaret, Mendes was only given the job after 20 others were considered and several A-list directors turned down the opportunity.

Spacey was Mendes' first choice for the role of Lester, though DreamWorks urged him 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 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.

Plot[edit]

ActorRole
Spacey, KevinKevin SpaceyBurnham, LesterLester Burnham
Bening, AnnetteAnnette BeningBurnham, CarolynCarolyn Burnham
Birch, ThoraThora BirchBurnham, JaneJane Burnham
Bentley, WesWes BentleyFitts, RickyRicky Fitts
Suvari, MenaMena SuvariHayes, AngelaAngela Hayes
Gallagher, PeterPeter GallagherKane, BuddyBuddy Kane
Janney, AllisonAllison JanneyFitts, BarbaraBarbara Fitts
Cooper, ChrisChris CooperFitts, Col. FrankCol. Frank Fitts
Del Sherman, BarryBarry Del ShermanDupree, BradBrad Dupree

Lester Burnham is a middle-aged office worker 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 CorpsColonel Frank Fitts and his near-catatonic wife, Barbara. The Fitts' 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 to help keep it secret from his father. 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 infatuated 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, in which red rose petals are a recurring motif. Carolyn begins an affair with a married business rival, Buddy Kane. Lester is told he is to be laid off, but instead blackmails his boss for $60,000 and quits his job, taking employment serving fast food. He buys his dream car 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 starts a relationship with Ricky; they bond over what Ricky considers the most beautiful imagery he has ever 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 and later finds his son's footage of a nude Lester lifting weights, which Ricky captured by chance. After watching Ricky and Lester through Lester's garage window, Col. Fitts mistakenly concludes they are sexually involved. He later beats Ricky and accuses him of being gay. Ricky falsely admits the charge and goads his father into expelling him from their home. Carolyn is shown sitting in her car, where she takes a handgun from the glove box. Ricky goes to Jane, finding her arguing with Angela about her flirtation with Lester. Ricky convinces Jane to flee with him to New York City and tells Angela she is boring and ordinary.

Col. Fitts confronts Lester and attempts to kiss him; Lester rebuffs the colonel, who flees. Lester finds a distraught Angela sitting alone in the dark; she asks him to tell her she is beautiful. He does; the pair kiss, but moments before they are about to have sex, Angela admits she is a virgin and Lester decides not to go through with the act. Instead, they talk, and bond over their shared frustrations. Angela goes to the bathroom and Lester smiles at a family photograph in his kitchen. An unseen figure points a gun at the back of Lester's head; a gunshot sounds and blood sprays onto the wall in front of him. Ricky and Jane find Lester's body, while Carolyn is seen crying in the closet. A bloodied Col. Fitts returns home, where a gun is 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.

Themes and analysis[edit]

Multiple interpretations[edit]

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.[3] Described by many as about "the meaning of life" or "the hollow existence of the American suburbs",[4] 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."[5] 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 or Ricky's philosophical statements about what life is or how one should live."[3] 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][5] He contends that in American Beauty's case, it is neither Mendes nor Ball.[6] Mendes considers the voice to be Ball's, but even while the writer was "strongly influential" on set,[5] he often had to accept deviations from his vision,[6] particularly ones that transformed the cynical tone of his script into something more optimistic.[7] 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".[3]

Imprisonment and redemption[edit]

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.[8] In these scenes, he is often framed as if trapped, "reiterating rituals that hardly please him". He masturbates in the confines of his shower;[10] the shower stall evokes a jail cell and the shot is the first of many where Lester is confined behind bars or within frames,[8][9] such as when he is reflected behind columns of numbers on a computer monitor, "confined [and] nearly crossed out".[10] The academic and author Jody W. Pennington argues that Lester's journey is the story's center.[11] 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".[12] After Lester shares a joint with Ricky, his spirit is released and he begins to rebel against Carolyn.[13] 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".[14]

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.[15] 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".[14] His final turning point comes when Angela and he almost have sex;[16] after she confesses her virginity, he no longer thinks of her as a sex object, but as a daughter.[17] 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".[16][18] Having begun to act his age again, Lester achieves closure.[17] 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.[19] 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.[20]

Conformity and beauty[edit]

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".[21] 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.[22] Jim and Jim, the Burnhams' other neighbors, are a satire of "gay bourgeois coupledom",[23] who "[invest] in the numbing sameness" that the film criticizes in heterosexual couples.[nb 2][24] The feminist academic and author Sally R. Munt argues that American Beauty uses its "art house" trappings to direct its message of nonconformity 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."[12]

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 this is the last day of his life, forcing audiences to consider their own mortality and the beauty around them.[25] 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.[26] 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".[27] Through this examination of Lester's life, rebirth and death, American Beauty satirizes American middle class notions of meaning, beauty and satisfaction.[28] 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".[29] 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".[30] 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."[31]

The film presents Ricky as its "visionary, [...] spiritual and mystical center".[32] 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.[33] As the film progresses, the Burnhams move closer to Ricky's view of the world.[34] 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,[35] 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.[28]

According to Patti Bellantoni, colors are used symbolically throughout the film,[36] 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.[37] 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".[11] Roses are included in almost every shot inside the Burnhams' home, where they signify "a mask covering a bleak, unbeautiful reality".[31] Carolyn feels that "as long as there can be roses, all is well".[31] She cuts the roses and puts them in vases,[11] where they adorn her "meretricious vision of what makes for beauty"[31] and begin to die.[11] 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.[16] Lester's epiphany at the end of the film is expressed by rain and the use of red, building to a crescendo that is a deliberate contrast to the release Lester feels.[38] 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.[37]

Sexuality and repression[edit]

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,[11] 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.[39] Jane and Angela constantly reference sex, through Angela's descriptions of her supposed sexual encounters and the way the girls address each other.[39] Their nude scenes are used to communicate their vulnerability.[16][40] 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.[41] 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".[42]

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".[43] 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.[43] 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".[10]

Hausmann says the film "explicitly affirms the importance of upholding the prohibition against incest";[44] a recurring theme of Ball's work is his comparison of the taboos against incest and homosexuality.[45] Instead of making an overt distinction, American Beauty looks at how their repression can lead to violence.[46] Col. Fitts is so ashamed of his homosexuality that it drives him to murder Lester.[42] Ball said, "The movie is in part about how homophobia is based in fear and repression and about what [they] can do."[47] The film implies two unfulfilled incestuous desires:[22] Lester's pursuit of Angela is a manifestation of his lust for his own daughter,[48] while Col. Fitts' repression is exhibited through the almost sexualized discipline with which he controls Ricky.[22] 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.[41] Col. Fitts represents Ball's father,[49] whose repressed homosexual desires led to his own unhappiness.[50] Ball rewrote Col. Fitts to delay revealing him as homosexual, which Munt reads as a possible "deferment of Ball's own patriarchal-incest fantasies".[46]

Temporality and music[edit]

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".[51] Furby argues that a "rhythm of repetition" forms the core of the film's structure.[52] For example, two scenes have 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.[53][54] 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.[51]

Lester's fantasies are emphasized by slow- and repetitive-motion shots;[56] Mendes uses double-and-triple cutbacks in several sequences,[15][57] and the score alters to make the audience aware that it is entering a fantasy.[58] 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.[59] "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;[60] 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.[55]

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".[61]

Production[edit]

Development[edit]

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, 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][63] which he had originally conceived as a play in the early 1990s.[64] Despite the story's lack of an easily marketable concept, Cannava selected American Beauty because he felt it was the one for which Ball had the most passion.[65] 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.[63]

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.[66] Cannava passed the script to several producers, including Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, who took it to DreamWorks.[67] 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;[68] 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][66] In an unusual move, DreamWorks decided not to option the script;[69] instead, in April 1998, the studio bought it outright[70] for $250,000,[71] outbidding Fox Searchlight Pictures, October Films, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Lakeshore Entertainment.[72] DreamWorks planned to make the film for $6–8 million.[73]

Jinks and Cohen involved Ball throughout the film's development, including casting and director selection. The producers met with about 20 interested directors,[74] 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".[75] Nevertheless, the studio offered the film to Mike Nichols and Robert Zemeckis; neither accepted.[73] 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,[77] 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.[78] Mendes later met with Spielberg; impressed by Mendes' productions of Oliver! and Cabaret,[62] Spielberg encouraged him to consider American Beauty.[73]

Mendes found that he still had to convince DreamWorks' production executives to let him direct.[73] He had already discussed the film with Jinks and Cohen, and felt they supported him.[79] 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.[75] Mendes' background also reassured him, because of the prominent role the playwright usually has in a theater production.[74] Over two meetings—the first with Cooper, Walter Parkes, and Laurie MacDonald,[79] the second with Cooper alone[80]—Mendes pitched himself to the studio.[79] 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.[80] In June 1998, DreamWorks confirmed that it had contracted Mendes to direct the film.[81]

Writing[edit]

"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[82]

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 10 minutes, saying later that it provoked an "unexpected emotional response".[83] In 1992, Ball became preoccupied with the media circus around the Amy Fisher trial.[65] Discovering a comic book telling of the scandal, he was struck by how quickly it had become commercialized.[64] 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,[65] and attempted to turn the idea into a play. Ball produced around 40 pages,[64] but stopped when he realized it would work better as a film.[65] 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.[84]

Ball based Lester's story on aspects of his own life.[85] Lester's re-examination of his life parallels feelings Ball had in his mid-30s;[86] like Lester, Ball put aside his passions to work in jobs he hated for people he did not respect.[85] Scenes in Ricky's household reflect Ball's own childhood experiences.[66] Ball suspected his father was homosexual and used the idea to create Col. Fitts, a man who "gave up his chance to be himself".[87] 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.[88]

In the script that was sent to prospective actors and directors, Lester and Angela had sex;[89] by the time of shooting, Ball had rewritten the scene to the final version.[90] 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".[91] 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.[90] Jinks and Cohen asked Ball not to alter the scene right away, as they felt it would be inappropriate to make changes to the script before a director had been hired.[92] 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[93]—and because it removed the element of surprise from Col. Fitts' later pass at Lester.[92] Ball said he had to write it for his own benefit to know what happened to Col. Fitts, though all that remained in later drafts was subtext.[93]

Ball remained involved throughout production;[74] 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.[89] Ball was on-set for rewrites and to help interpret his script for all but two days of filming.[94] His original bookend scenes—in which Ricky and Jane are prosecuted for Lester's murder after being framed by Col. Fitts[95]—were excised in post-production;[65] 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").[88] Ball and Mendes revised the script twice before it was sent to the actors, and twice more before the first read-through.[75]

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"[96] in which the three witness a car crash and see a dead body.[97] The change was a practical decision, as the production was behind schedule and they needed to cut costs.[96] The schedule called for two days to be spent filming the crash, but only half a day was available.[97] 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."[96] 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.[97] By the end of filming, the script had been through 10 drafts.[75]

Casting[edit]

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 and 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.[98] 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."[71] Mendes offered Bening the role of Carolyn without the studio's consent; although executives were upset at Mendes,[98] by September 1998, DreamWorks had entered negotiations with Spacey and Bening.[99][100]

Spacey loosely based Lester's early "schlubby" deportment on Walter Matthau.[101] During the film, Lester's physique improves from flabby to toned;[102] Spacey worked out during filming to improve his body,[103] but because Mendes shot the scenes out of chronological order, Spacey varied postures to portray the stages.[102] 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".[71] 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.[8] 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".[104] To help Bening get into Carolyn's mindset, Mendes gave her music that he believed Carolyn would like.[105] 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.[104]

For the roles of Jane, Ricky, and Angela, DreamWorks gave Mendes carte blanche.[106] By November 1998, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari had been cast in the parts[107]—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. Child labor representatives were on the set for the shooting of the scene.[108][109] Bentley overcame competition from top actors under the age of 25 to be cast.[107] The 2009 documentary My Big Break followed Bentley, and several other young actors, before and after he landed the part.[110] To prepare, Mendes provided Bentley with a video camera, telling the actor to film what Ricky would.[105]Peter Gallagher and Alison Janney were cast (as Buddy Kane and Barbara Fitts) after filming began in December 1998.[111][112] Mendes gave Janney a book of paintings by Edvard Munch. He told her, "Your character is in there somewhere."[105] Mendes cut much of Barbara's dialogue,[113] including conversations between Colonel Fitts and her, 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.[114]Chris Cooper plays Colonel Fitts, Scott Bakula plays Jim Olmeyer, and Sam Robards plays Jim Berkley.[115] Jim and Jim were deliberately depicted as the most normal, happy—and boring—couple in the film.[47] 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.[87]

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.[105] Several improvisations and suggestions by the actors were incorporated into the script.[75] 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.[8] 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 argues over Lester's buying a car was originally "strictly contentious".[116]

Filming[edit]

Principal photography lasted about 50 days[117] from December 14, 1998,[118] to February 1999.[119]American Beauty was filmed on soundstages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, California, and at Hancock Park and Brentwood in Los Angeles.[38] The aerial shots at the beginning and end of the film were captured in Sacramento, California,[120] 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.[121] 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".[38]

The production selected two adjacent properties on the Warner backlot's "Blondie Street" for the Burnham and Fitts' homes.[nb 9][38] 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.[122] 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.[103] 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.[123] The house interiors were filmed on the backlot, on location, and on soundstages when overhead shots were needed.[38] 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.[122] 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".[38]

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",[18] 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][101] 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.[40] Mendes took a long time to get the quality of Ricky's footage to the level he wanted.[101] 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.[125]

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.[16] 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."[126] Despite Spielberg's support, DreamWorks and Mendes fought constantly over the schedule and budget, although the studio interfered little with the film's content.[18] 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.[127] 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.'"[71]

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 10 times.[126] The production used small amounts of computer-generated imagery. Most of the rose petals in Lester's fantasies were added in post-production,[57] although some were real and had the wires holding them digitally removed.[128] 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.[15]

Editing[edit]

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) (in which Chris Cooper also starred). Mendes and an assistant edited the film for 10 days between the appointments.[129]

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.[8][9]
Lester's fixation on Angela is reflected in a discordant, percussive musical motif that temporarily replaces the diegetic "On Broadway".[55]
Principal cast. First row, left to right: Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Mena Suvari, Kevin Spacey
Second row: Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Allison Janney
The aerial shots of the Burnhams' neighborhood at the beginning and end of the film were captured above Sacramento, California.[120]

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