That September 15, 1999, I was unaware that American Beauty was released in U.S. cinemas. In Italy, we had to wait a while before seeing this masterpiece (in fact, my favorite film). But I didn’t see it at the cinema in 2000, but during a high school protest.
During the protest, there were some students who went out on the streets, others who took advantage of the strike to study. I, on the other hand, was metaphorically “electrocuted” by this film, shown in an impromptu class at the cinema. I liked American beauty, the story, the soundtrack, the performance of Kevin Spacey (who also won the Academy Award for Best Actor), and Wes Bentley, the rich subtext, the messages.
I will try to convey the emotion that this film gave me, the beauty in the even more insignificant things that it taught me to see. Grab some popcorns and a soda and let the show begin!
The script for American Beauty was written by Alan Ball (the creator of True Blood and Six Feet Under) who had initially thought of it as a play almost a decade before its theatrical release.
The story was inspired in part by the hustle and bustle surrounding Amy Fisher’s 1992 trial. To sum up Amy Fisher’s story we can say that in 1992 when she was 17 years old, she shot and seriously injured Mary Jo Buttafuoco, the wife of her lover, Joey Buttafuoco. Initially charged with attempted first-degree murder, she eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree aggravated assault and served seven years in prison. Released on parole in 1999, Fisher became a writer and actress in porn films.
Let’s go back to our main story instead. Ball abandoned the idea of writing this stage show but, after several years as a television screenwriter, he revamped the idea in 1997 by creating a film script instead.
Producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen brought the screenplay for American Beauty to the nascent DreamWorks studio, which bought it for 250,000 dollars and finance its production with 15 million dollars.
American Beauty, in addition to its origin, shares another story with the world of theatre. In fact, the film recruiteddirector Sam Mendes, famous for his successful productions in musicals but at his first film. It seems that Mendes received the assignment only after twenty other prominent directors were considered, rejecting the offer. I think they will cry like babies (even though in their Beverly Hills estates)!
Kevin Spacey was Mendes’ first choice for the role of Lester, and similarly, the director chose Annette Bening for the role of Carolyn, unknowingly to the studio. To be commended for the courage and, of course, for the choice of cast!
American Beauty, the plot
Let’s say this is a courtesy paragraph, I don’t want to think that there is anyone who really hasn’t seen American Beauty!
The film chronicles the last months of the life of Lester Burnham, who is also the narrator.
Lester lives in an unnamed suburb with his wife Carolyn, a real estate agent unhappy with her work successes, and their frustrated teenage daughter, Jane. Like Carolyn, Lester hates his job.
The couple goes to a basketball game at Jane’s high school, and Lester gets some kind of crush on Jane’s friend Angela, to Jane’s horror. Angela, on the other hand, is flattered by the attention of the man.
Once home, Jane meets her neighbour, Ricky Fitts, who films her with his camera. Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts of the Marine Corps, is the typical hothead, violent with his son and homophobic.
One night, Lester and Carolyn attend a meeting, where Carolyn introduces Lester to the best real estate agent Buddy Kane. Lester notices Ricky working as a waiter at the party, and Ricky and Lester go out to smoke marijuana; Ricky offers to become Lester’s drug dealer.
In a game of misunderstandings, Colonel Fitts begins to suspect that his son Ricky may be gay. Meanwhile, Lester seems to be in the throes of a midlife crisis: he trains to conquer Angela, smokes joints, changes cars, leaves work.
At the same time, Carolyn begins a relationship with Buddy while Jane and Ricky fall in love.
The film ends when Lester asks Ricky for more marijuana and the misunderstanding about Ricky’s homosexuality grows. In fact, when Colonel Fitts catches a glimpse of his son rolling a joint for Lester, he thinks he’s witnessing a sexual act between the two.
Colonel Fitts confronts Ricky upon his return. The latter, now tired of the father, tells him that he truly sells sexual favors for money so to have his father throw him out of the house. Ricky then goes to Jane’s house, where he has an argument with Angela, who is at Burnham’s house. Colonel Fitts, full of anger, goes to Lester’s garage, where Lester is training. Lester invites him in and Colonel Fitts tries to kiss him, but Lester gently rejects him.
Lester returns to the house, where he finds Angela alone, after an argument between her and her friend Jane. He starts to seduce her, but when she tells him she’s a virgin, he retires. The two prepare something to eat, and Angela asks Lester about how he feels.
At that very moment, Lester realizes that he feels really happy. Angela then leaves the room and someone shoots Lester, killing him. In the final scene, Colonel Fitts is revealed as the killer and Lester describes his epiphany about the beauty of an ordinary life.
The topics covered
Despite a rather simple plot to understand, the themes that American Beauty addresses are many. As the back of the DVD and the title of this article says, look closer, because only going deeper than the appearance you can discover the truth.
We agree, from the very name we understand that American Beauty is a portrait of contemporary American society, of its superficiality. The title refers to three different symbols of American culture: the American Beauty roses (a popular variety), Angela as a representative of the typical innocent American beauty, and the aesthetics of beauty.
Carolyn, for example, fully represents American consumerism and the belief that things can replace relationships and affections. Lester’s shift from brilliant employee to a fast-food worker and the fact that Jane, despite her “different” sensibility, still wants to be part of cheerleaders, inject a note of black humor into the narrative of the typically American cultural traits.
Happiness in American Beauty is like a kind of chimera to aspire to, but also a disguise. All the characters are engaged in the pursuit of happiness, although they have very different ideas about what happiness is and how to find it.
The key question in fact of the film is: if being American means having the intrinsic right to happiness and beauty, why is the “typical” American so deeply unhappy? And the character who makes the greatest path of redemption from unhappiness to happiness is surely Lester because, albeit in a tortuous way, he is the only one who pays attention to his true desires.
Carolyn, on the other hand, is a kind of Lester’s nemesis. He believes that pursuing success is synonymous with pursuing happiness, but in reality, he is simply trying to hide his misery for a marriage that is falling apart and the banality of his life.
Jane, on the other hand, is so immersed in her misery that, when she meets Ricky, she continues to be obsessed with her terrible family life despite Ricky’s situation clearly being much worse than hers.
Many of the problems of American Beauty characters stem from their inability to maintain a consistent identity over the course of the film and, of course, their lives.
Lester finds happiness by separating his work and family life (typical values that embody identity) from what truly increases his self-esteem. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Carolyn is one of the most tragic characters in the film because she has literally replaced her identity as a person with material things like cars, the garden and the “Italian silk sofa”.
Angela believes that her identity is based entirely on her sexuality. Ricky, on the other hand, is the only character who has no identity problem. His impressive strength, which Lester admires from the very beginning, stems from his ability to maintain a clear sense of self-awareness, despite his father’s constant abuse.
The film ends when the true identity of Colonel Fitts is revealed, killing Lester because the latter understood his real self, which he couldn’t bear.
Love and sexuality
Director Sam Mendes had a great ability to handle rather difficult themes, such as nudity, masturbation and even extramarital sex, with great irony.
Just think of Lester who regains his freedom by stopping masturbating in the shower (where he washes away all things “dirty”), doing it instead in bed in front of his wife. In American Beauty, sex becomes a “look closer” through which to observe the progression of each character.
Another thing is love, or rather, its absence. The Burnham family dinners are a clear example of people who have basically forgotten how to love each other. Or we can mention Ricky’s complex relationship with his father, with the first convinced that his father loves him despite the way he treats him.
One of the most heartbreaking moments is at the end of the film when Carolyn, faced with the death of her husband, realizes that she will never again have the chance to love him.
The only character who loves 360 degrees is Lester who, in the last months of his life, falls in love with life again, loving himself first. The smile printed on his face at the moment of death is emblematic, Lester is finally unable to hate, unlike everyone around him.
There are so many other issues that could be dealt with, the dysfunctional family, the obsessions, freedom, but let us leave to you all the reflections you will want to add.
Instead, let’s change music by talking about… Music!
The American Beauty soundtrack features the opening and closing themes created by Thomas Newman, as well as a mix of classic, avant-garde rock, pop and soul.
Thomas Newman mainly used percussion instruments to create the atmosphere and rhythm, the inspiration for which was provided by Mendes, who made the soundtrack more minimalistic. Newman has repeatedly stated that the soundtrack helps advance the film without disturbing the “moral ambiguity” of the script.
In addition to Newman’s songs we can find Bobby Darin‘s Don’t Rain on My Parade, Betty Carter‘s Open the Door that gives the film a “suburban” connotation. While Free‘s All Right Now or The Seeker by The Who suggest turbulence just below the surface. The soundtrack also includes an unreleased version of The Beatles‘ “Why” by Elliot Smith.
If you want to buy the CD, get ‘it !
Reception, awards, and… Curiosities
American Beauty was a box office success and the film release on DVD also enjoyed the same positive results.
There’s something very interesting about this movie. The film’s production company, DreamWorks, has commissioned Amazon.com to create the film’s official website. This marked the first time Amazon created a special section dedicated to a feature film. The website included an overview, a photo gallery, filmographies and interviews with Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening.
Another interesting thing is the numerous awards that film and soundtrack obtained. The soundtrack won a Grammy, which is the highest award in terms of music for movies, as well as the Oscar. But even this award was achieved.