Director: Sam Mendes
Production: DreamWorks SKG; 35 mm, color (DeLuxe); running time: 121 minutes; DTS/Dolby Digital/SDDS. Released September 1999 USA. Filmed in 1998 and 1999 in Los Angeles and Sacramento, California, and at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California; additional scenes shot at South High School, Torrance, California; cost: $15,000,000 (US).
Producers: Alan Ball, Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, and Stan Wlodkowski; screenplay: Alan Ball; photography: Conrad L. Hall; assistant directors: Tony Adler, Rosemary Cremona, Carey Dietrich, and Chris Edmonds; editors: Tariq Anwar and Chris Greenbury; supervising sound editor: Scott Martin Gershin; art director: David S. Lazan; production designer: Naomi Shohan; costume designer: Julie Weiss; set designer: Jan K. Bergstrom; music: Original score by Thomas Newman; additional songs by Pete Townshend; special effects: CFC/MVFX, Los Angeles.
Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham); Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham); Thora Birch (Jane Burnham); Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts); Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes); Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane); Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts); Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts); Scott Bakula (Jim Olmeyer); Sam Robards (Jim Berkley); Barry Del Sherman (Brad Dupree).
Awards: Oscars for Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Picture (Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks), Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball), and Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), 2000; British Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Actress, Best Actor, Achievement in Film Music (Thomas Newman), Cinematography, and Editing (Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury), 2000; Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay, 2000; Chicago Film Critics Association Awards for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture, and Most Promising Actor (Wes Bentley), 2000; Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (Sam Mendes, et al.), 2000; Golden Globes for Best Director—Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture— Drama, and Best Screenplay—Motion Picture, 2000; London Critics Circle Awards for Actor of the Year (Kevin Spacey), Actress of the Year (Annette Bening), Director of the Year, Film of the Year, and Screenwriter of the Year, 2000; Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Theatrical Motion Picture, Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role (Annette Bening) and Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role (Kevin Spacey), 2000; Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Director, 1999; National Board of Review Award (USA) for Breakthrough Performance by an Actor (Wes Bentley), 1999; National Society of Film Critics Awards (USA) for Best Cinematography, 1999.
Ball, Alan, American Beauty: The Shooting Script (introduction by director Sam Mendes), New York, 1999.
Weinraub, Bernard, "A Wunderkind Discovers the Wonders of Film," in New York Times, 12 September 1999.
McCarthy, Todd, "'American' Dream, Worked Over," in Variety (Los Angeles) 13 September 1999.
Maslin, Janet, "Dad's Dead, and He's Still a Funny Guy," in NewYork Times, 15 September 1999.
Denby, David, "Transcending the Suburbs: American Beauty Goes from Satire to a Vision of the Sublime," in New Yorker, 20 September 1999.
Marshall, Alexandra, "What's Wrong with this Picture?," in American Prospect (Princeton, NJ), 6 December 1999.
Kemp, Philip, "Sam Mendes' American Beauty: The Nice Man Cometh," in Sight and Sound (London), January 2000.
Jackson, Kevin, "American Beauty," in Sight and Sound (London), February 2000.
* * *
Not since Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe (1966) has a theatre director made as auspicious a leap to the silver screen as Sam Mendes. Mendes came to Hollywood by way of the London stage, where he directed such hits as The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and The Blue Room. Mendes was hand picked to direct American Beauty by Steven Spielberg, whose DreamWorks SKG (controlled by Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen) owned the rights to Alan Ball's original screenplay. Although seemingly an odd choice, Mendes' beautifully crafted, superbly acted, and critically acclaimed film proves Spielberg an astute judge of directorial potential.
American Beauty tells the story of Lester Burnham, a mid-level ad man going through a mid-life melt down. Lester lives in the suburbs in a two story house surrounded by a white picket fence. But despite the exterior sheen, all is not well in the Burnham household. Lester is burned out, tired of conforming to the expectations of the American middle class. His wife Carolyn is an emasculating shrew, apparently more concerned about appearing "normal" than being happy. Their daughter Jane is a confused and embittered teen who is saving up for breast enhancement surgery despite already being well endowed. The neighbors on one side are the Fitts family, consisting of the Colonel, a homophobic ex-marine, his wife Barbara, a shattered person, and their son Ricky, a drug dealing video voyeur. On the other side live Jim Olmeyer and Jim Berkley, a gay couple who, ironically, are by far the most "normal" people in the neighborhood. Early in the film Lester meets Jane's friend Angela, on whom he develops a crush that becomes the catalyst for the remainder of the action.
The film's scathing portrayal of American suburbia is neither groundbreaking nor innovative as the suburbs have been the subject of artistic contempt dating back to at least John Cheever's short fiction of the early 1950s. In cinema the suburbs have been skewered for years in exemplary films such as The Graduate (Nichols, 1967), Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986), and The Ice Storm (Lee, 1997). Furthermore, many of the narrative lines in American Beauty recall earlier films; for example, Lester's voice over from beyond the grave is reminiscent of Joe Gillis' (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950); his infatuation with Angela has echoes of Lolita (Kubrick, 1962); and Ricky Fitts' video voyeurism is a contemporary version of L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies' (Jimmy Stewart) window watching in Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954). Despite its stereotypical treatment of suburban malaise and at times derivative narrative, American Beauty is a riveting film; what makes it so is Conrad L. Hall's poetic cinematography, which alternates between Lester's reality and his surreal visions of life as he would like it to be, and its across-the-board phenomenal acting.
While all involved turn in stellar work, two performances in particular stand out: Annette Bening as Carolyn and Kevin Spacey as Lester. Carolyn Burnham is a problematic character for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the script's inherent misogyny towards her. Carolyn is all shrew, an impossible-to-like screaming control freak. And yet she is in the same position as Lester; life has not at all turned out as she had hoped and the costs extracted have left her hollow on the inside. Just as Lester does, so too does Carolyn deviate from expectations in search of something that will fulfill her. She ends up in an affair with Buddy Kane, a fabulously smarmy real estate "king," and takes up pistol shooting as a hobby. As written, we're set up to hate her for her transgressions, whereas when Lester deviates we can't help but root for him. Bening nevertheless manages to find in Carolyn something redeeming; her humane portrayal of this uniformly unsympathetic character is a tour de force.
Conversely, the script's sympathy is heavily weighted towards Lester. After meeting Angela, Lester says, "I feel like I've been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I'm just now waking up." His "waking up" involves trading in his Lexus for a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, quitting his ad agency job in favor of counter work at a fast food restaurant, beginning a physical training program that will enable him to "look good naked," which he hopes will make him more attractive to Angela, drinking beer at all hours of the day, a resumption of the pot smoking he loved as a teen, and, most importantly, his reasserting himself as the unquestioned authority figure in the Burnham household. Lester's reversion to a young-girlloving, beer-swilling jerk is a rehabilitation of the American male as defined by Larry Flynt. But when at one point in the film he defiantly shoves his fist in the air and says, "I rule," audience members, both male and female, cheer; this reaction is a testament to Spacey's interpretation of Lester. He goes beyond what was written and finds in Lester a heart; Spacey's sensitive delivery of Lester's lines, accompanied by telling facial expressions and body language, renders what could have been an irredeemable character a lovable everyman. In accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor, Spacey himself summed up why the award was so richly deserved when he said, "And that's why I loved playing Lester, because we got to see all of his worst qualities and we still grew to love him."
In the end Lester is redeemed, and so too is the film, which because of the craftsmanship of the actors and crew manages to rise well above its stereotypical subject matter. In addition, American Beauty will likely be remembered for three reasons. First, in winning the Academy Award for Best Picture the film legitimized DreamWorks SKG as a studio to be reckoned with. Next, it marked Sam Mendes as filmmaker to watch in coming years. And finally, Kevin Spacey's performance in American Beauty cemented his position as one of the finest actors of his generation.