American Beauty: Beyond Italian Upholstery

… LOOK CLOSER.

americanbeautyThe story of how American Beauty, one of the most celebrated films of the 1990s, was made is the story of how a struggling TV writer tried to break into movies and a theater director with a flair for staging dark reinventions of musicals like “Cabaret” and “Oliver” got his huge breakthrough by making a film. Looking back at this project now, it all seems so clear – Sam Mendes’s move followed his work in theater in such a natural way, and the themes and tone of Alan Ball’s black comedy kept resurfacing in new, ingenious ways in his two hit TV shows, Six Feet Under and True Blood.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is 42 years old, works for a magazine and is married to Carolyn (Annette Bening), a real estate broker. The highlight of his day is jerking off in the shower in the morning. The Burnhams’ marriage has been dead for quite some time, which is obvious to their teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). When Lester one day sees Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) perform as a cheerleader he’s struck by her beauty in a not too subtle way and decides to try and woo her by starting to work out. At the same time, Carolyn embarks on an affair with a rival real estate broker (Peter Gallagher) and Jane is intrigued by the boy next door, Ricky (Wes Bentley), an aspiring filmmaker who’s also selling weed on the side. Lester becomes one of his clients, and Ricky’s conservative dad (Chris Cooper) begins to smell a rat…

Immense sadness in much of it
Alan Ball originally intended to write a play based on the 1992 Amy Fisher affair, where a 17-year-old fell in love with an auto body shop owner and ended up shooting his wife in the face. Ball never went through with that project, but part of the film looks like it might have been inspired by the scandalous case. Above all, this is a satire on middle-class life in suburbia where everything looks perfect, complete with an obligatory gay couple in the neighborhood being just as middle-class perfect as their straight neighbors. But scratch on the surface, and it all comes pouring out. Just like in Sunset Blvd. (1950), the film opens with Spacey’s character talking to us from beyond the grave, instantly making us understand that his death will create tragedy as well as suspense over the length of the story. There is immense sadness in much of it; in the fact that Angela sincerely believes that the only thing in life that matters is beauty; and in the next-door family with its downtrodden mother and gay-bashing, hateful father. At the same time, Ball and Mendes’s sense of humor brings relief and depth to the way these lives are portrayed, at least in the case of the Burnhams. Spacey and Bening are amazing, taking their characters’ pent-up frustrations from a simmering boil to complete rupture where nothing is off the table. Especially the former is fun to watch, when you know that his performance was inspired by Jack Lemmon in the first place – but also Walter Matthau in the way Lester always slouches in the beginning of the film. The teenagers’ dialogue, emotions and actions all seem utterly real, echoing what the adults were once like before Life crushed their dreams. Thomas Newman’s music score was a big hit, mirroring the comedy and tragedy of the film in quirky ways.

Ball poured all his troubled life experiences into this drama and Mendes made sure it resonated with audiences on several levels, creating one of cinema’s finest portrayals of middle-class angst, all the misery that exists behind a façade of smiles and expensive Italian sofas. Truth is what hides beneath the beauty and it isn’t easy to deal with. Part of it is ugly as hell and depressing… but part of it is also liberating and necessary.

American Beauty 1999-U.S. 121 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks. Directed by Sam Mendes. Screenplay: Alan Ball. Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall. Music: Thomas Newman. Editing: Tariq Anwar, Christopher Greenbury. Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper… Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula.

Trivia: Jessica Biel was allegedly first cast in Birch’s role; Jeff Daniels was allegedly considered for the part of Lester.

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Spacey), Original Screenplay, Cinematography. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Film, Actor (Spacey), Actress (Bening), Cinematography, Film Music, Editing.

Last word: “I spent four seasons as a sitcom writer on shows that were really frustrating to be a writer on. As a playwright in New York, I had been used to having this really passionate connection to my work. And you can’t do that on certain sitcoms, like the ones I was on, because the work just gets rewritten and shredded until it goes in front of the camera, because that’s just what the process is. You have to develop a healthy detachment from it. I longed for the chance to write something that I was deeply invested in, and that – plus my anger and rage at my working situation – just sort of channeled into ‘American Beauty’.” (Ball, Amazon.com)

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