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AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), All You Want To Know & Watch About A Great Movie

 

AMERICAN BEAUTY 1999

A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend.

 

American Beauty is a 1999 American black comedy-drama film written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes in his directorial debut. Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, an advertising executive who has a midlife crisis when he becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter’s best friend, played by Mena Suvari. Annette Bening stars as Lester’s materialistic wife, Carolyn, and Thora Birch plays their insecure daughter, Jane.

Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, and Allison Janney co-star. Academics have described the film as satirizing how beauty and personal satisfaction are perceived by the American middle class; further analysis has focused on the film’s explorations of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, materialism, self-liberation, and redemption.

Ball began writing American Beauty as a play in the early 1990s, partly inspired by the media circus that accompanied the Amy Fisher trial in 1992. He shelved the play after deciding that the story would not work on stage. After spending the next few years writing for television, Ball revived the idea in 1997 when attempting to break into the film industry. The rewritten script had a cynical outlook influenced by Ball’s frustrating tenures writing for several sitcoms. Producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen took the script for American Beauty to the fledgling DreamWorks studio, which bought it 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 reportedly 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 actresses for the role of Carolyn until Mendes offered the part to Bening without the studio’s knowledge. Principal photography took place between December 1998 and February 1999 on sound stages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, California and on location in Los Angeles.

Mendes’ dominant directorial 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 softened the cynical tone of Ball’s script.

Released in North America on September 17, 1999, American Beauty received widespread critical and popular acclaim; it was the second best-reviewed American film of the year behind Being John Malkovich and grossed over $350 million worldwide against its $15-million budget. Reviewers praised most aspects of the production, with particular emphasis on Mendes, Spacey and Ball; criticism tended to focus on the familiarity of the characters and setting.

DreamWorks launched a major campaign to increase American Beauty’s chances of Oscar success following its controversial Best Picture snubs for Saving Private Ryan (1998) the previous year. At the 72nd Academy Awards, the film won several Oscars, including Best Picture, along with Best Director for Mendes, Best Actor for Spacey, Best Original Screenplay for Ball and Best Cinematography for Hall.

The film was nominated for and won many other awards and honors, mainly for directing, writing, and acting. Retrospective reviews have been more negative, criticizing its screenplay, outdated social commentary, and parallels between the film’s protagonist and allegations of sexual misconduct against Kevin Spacey.

 

American Beauty Trailer

American Beauty Reviews

 

“American Beauty” is a comedy because we laugh at the absurdity of the hero’s problems. And a tragedy because we can identify with his failure–not the specific details, but the general outline.

The movie is about a man who fears growing older, losing the hope of true love and not being respected by those who know him best. If you never experience those feelings, take out a classified ad. People want to take lessons from you.

Lester Burnham, the hero of “American Beauty,” is played by Kevin Spacey as a man who is unloved by his daughter, ignored by his wife and unnecessary at work. “I’ll be dead in a year,” he tells us in almost the first words of the movie. “In a way, I’m dead already.” The movie is the story of his rebellion.

We meet his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), so perfect her garden shears are coordinated with her footwear. We meet his daughter Jane (Thora Birch), who is saving up for breast implants even though augmentation is clearly unnecessary; perhaps her motivation is not to become more desirable to men, but to make them miserable about what they can’t have.

“Both my wife and daughter think I’m this chronic loser,” Lester complains. He is right. But they are not without their reasons. At an agonizing family dinner, Carolyn plays Mantovanian music that mocks every mouthful; the music is lush and reassuring, and the family is angry and silent. When Lester criticizes his daughter’s attitude, she points out correctly that he has hardly spoken to her in months.

Everything changes for Lester the night he is dragged along by his wife to see their daughter perform as a cheerleader. There on the floor, engrossed in a sub-Fosse pompon routine, he sees his angel: Angela (Mena Suvari), his daughter’s high-school classmate. Is it wrong for a man in his 40s to lust after a teenage girl? Any honest man understands what a complicated question this is. Wrong morally, certainly, and legally. But as every woman knows, men are born with wiring that goes directly from their eyes to their genitals, bypassing the higher centers of thought. They can disapprove of their thoughts, but they cannot stop themselves from having them.

“American Beauty” is not about a Lolita relationship, anyway. It’s about yearning after youth, respect, power and, of course, beauty. The moment a man stops dreaming is the moment he petrifies inside and starts writing snarfy letters disapproving of paragraphs like the one above. Lester’s thoughts about Angela are impure, but not perverted; he wants to do what men are programmed to do, with the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.

Angela is not Lester’s highway to bliss, but she is at least a catalyst for his freedom. His thoughts, and the discontent they engender, blast him free from years of emotional paralysis, and soon he makes a cheerful announcement at the funereal dinner table: “I quit my job, told my boss to – – – – himself and blackmailed him for $60,000.” Has he lost his mind? Not at all. The first thing he spends money on is perfectly reasonable: a bright red 1970 Pontiac Firebird.

Carolyn and Jane are going through their own romantic troubles. Lester finds out Carolyn is cheating when he sees her with her lover in the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant (where he has a job he likes). Jane is being videotaped by Ricky (Wes Bentley), the boy next door, who has a strange light in his eyes. Ricky’s dad (Chris Cooper) is a former Marine who tests him for drugs, taking a urine sample every six months; Ricky plays along to keep the peace until he can leave home.

All of these emotional threads come together during one dark and stormy night, when there is a series of misunderstandings so bizarre they belong in a screwball comedy. And at the end, somehow, improbably, the film snatches victory from the jaws of defeat for Lester, its hero. Not the kind of victory you’d get in a feel-good movie, but the kind where you prove something important, if only to yourself.

“American Beauty” is not as dark or twisted as “Happiness,” last year’s attempt to shine a light under the rock of American society. It’s more about sadness and loneliness than about cruelty or inhumanity. Nobody is really bad in this movie, just shaped by society in such a way they can’t be themselves, or feel joy.

The performances all walk the line between parody and simple realism; Thora Birch and Wes Bentley are the most grounded, talking in the tense, flat voices of kids who can’t wait to escape their homes. Bening’s character, a real estate agent who chants self-help mantras, confuses happiness with success–bad enough if you’re successful, depressing if you’re not.

And Spacey, an actor who embodies intelligence in his eyes and voice, is the right choice for Lester Burnham. He does reckless and foolish things in this movie, but he doesn’t deceive himself; he knows he’s running wild–and chooses to, burning up the future years of an empty lifetime for a few flashes of freedom. He may have lost everything by the end of the film, but he’s no longer a loser.

 

  • BY Roger Ebert  – Roger Ebert
  • Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism

 

American Beauty Film Credits

American Beauty movie poster

American Beauty (1999)

Rated R For Strong Sexuality, Language, Violence and Drug Content

120 minutes

 

Cast

Mena Suvari as Angela Hayes

Chris Cooper as Colonel Fitts

Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham

Annette Bening as Carolyn Burnham

Thora Birch as Jane Burnham

Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts

 

Directed by

  • Sam Mendes

 

Written by

  • Alan Ball

 

American Beauty pictures

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American Beauty Movie Info

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a gainfully employed suburban husband and father. Fed up with his boring, stagnant existence, he quits his job and decides to reinvent himself as a pot-smoking, responsibility-shirking teenager. What follows is at once cynical, hysterical, and, eventually, tragically uplifting.

 

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