by Nerd in a Comfy Chair
AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)
Sometimes…life is so busy it will trump the daily blog. I am blessed to be the father of two boys. I am blessed with family. I am blessed to work in theatre.
This will always take precedence over my writing…which is why I don’t write as much as I used to.
It will also take precedence over ever getting to that list of movies that I own, but never seem to have the chance to watch.
I am blessed by my life.
I am blessed you are reading this.
I look forward to you doing so…just as much as I look forward to writing them.
But…there may be gaps of time between them…just so you know.
And its not you…its me.
Let’s get back to it
Where Was I When I First Saw The Movie?
This was a movie I KNEW I wanted to see, because it had KEVIN SPACEY in it. Yes. I meant to put that in capital letters. Because one of the actors I wanna be when I grow up is Kevin Spacey. For the record, the others are Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Rickman and Gene Hackman. See a trend?
First person that does and posts the right comment gets a special prize. And, no, I won’t tell you what the prize is, because that will make the prize less special.
Also there is the wonderful Annette Bening. Fell in love with her the moment I saw her. Then Warren Beatty came along and stole her. Did you know that she was supposed to be Catwoman in Tim Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS? I did. Then Mr. Beatty went and decided to start a family with her…and she forego the catsuit.
They were both in this movie…and it had a really cool trailer and I couldn’t wait.
Then I saw it…
Wow…was I unprepared.
It was mesmerizing. It was intoxicating. It was riveting. It was different than anything else like it being shown in theatres at the time. The first movie in a long time, since maybe KRAMER vs KRAMER or ORDINARY PEOPLE, where it just “went there” for its depiction of what is actually happening in far too many houses in far to many perfect neighborhoods across America.
It also introduced me to director Sam Mendes. I have seen everything that he has directed since…up to and including SKYFALL.
He has informed my directing style, particularly in dramas and pseudo-comedies (like ABSENT FRIENDS), immeasurably.
His patience with quiet. His understanding of allowing someone to communicate, quietly, in a moment by simply allowing the emotions to hide perfectly behind a glance…this is where I wanted to go as a director. And, in some respects, I have…but only with the actors that allow themselves to understand their own moment and the power of it…without detracting from the overall mood of a scene.
And, lemme tell you, that’s hard.
But I am so fortunate to say…there are some actors that go there willingly. And, more often than not, again and again…and on their own.
So…to be clear. Started with KEVIN SPACEY – which I got to watch and learn from even more that before. Then I got Annette Bening – who blew me away, yet again. AND I got to discover Sam Mendes – which opened a whole new way of learning.
This was wonderful!
I gave it a great review…everyone who saw it, wondered what was fractured with my psyche.
Then it won the Academy Award for BEST PICTURE.
And, by gum, everyone still thought my psyche was fractured. But, at least, I had a good eye.
What Is It About?
Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about it:
American Beauty is a 1999 American drama film directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. Kevin Spacey stars as office worker Lester Burnham, 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 has been 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 modified 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 DreamWorks; the fledgling film studio bought Ball’s script for $250,000, outbidding several other production bodies. DreamWorks financed the $15 million production and served as the 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 turned down the opportunity.
Spacey was Mendes’ first choice for the role of Lester, even though DreamWorks had urged the director 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.
Released in North America on September 15, 1999, American Beauty was positively received by critics and audiences alike; it was the best-reviewed American film of the year and grossed over $350 million worldwide. 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 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.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged magazine writer who despises his job. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is an ambitious real-estate broker; their sixteen-year-old daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), abhors her parents and has low self-esteem. The Burnhams’ new neighbors are retired United States Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) and his introverted wife, Barbara (Allison Janney); their teenage son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), is a secret marijuana smoker and drug dealer whom the colonel subjects to a strict disciplinarian lifestyle. Ricky, who had been forced into a military academy and mental hospital, spends time recording his surroundings with a camcorder; he keeps dozens of taped videos in his bedroom.
Lester becomes infatuated with Jane’s cheerleader friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), after seeing her perform a half-time dance routine at a high school basketball game. He begins to have sexual fantasies about Angela, during which red rose petals are a recurring motif. Carolyn begins an affair with a business rival, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). When Lester is about to be laid off his job, he blackmails his boss for $60,000 and quits, taking employment serving fast food. He buys his dream car (a 1970 Pontiac Firebird) 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 bought from Ricky and flirts with Angela whenever she visits Jane. Jane becomes involved with Ricky and they bond over what Ricky considers the most beautiful imagery he has filmed: a plastic bag dancing in the wind.
Lester discovers Carolyn’s infidelity, but reacts indifferently. Buddy ends the affair, saying he is facing an expensive divorce. Frank becomes suspicious of Lester and Ricky’s friendship and finds his son’s footage of Lester lifting weights while nude, which Ricky captured by chance and leads Frank to believe Ricky is gay. Carolyn becomes distraught, loads a gun, and drives home. That night, after watching Ricky and Lester through Lester’s garage window, Frank mistakenly concludes the pair are sexually involved. He later beats Ricky and after Ricky falsely admits the charge, he goads his father into kicking him out of the family home. Ricky convinces Jane to flee with him to New York City and tells the vain Angela she is ordinary.
Frank confronts Lester and attempts to kiss him; Lester rebuffs the colonel, who leaves. Lester finds a distraught Angela, who begins to seduce him. After learning that Angela is a virgin, Lester stops and comforts her; the pair instead bond over their shared frustrations. Angela goes to the bathroom and Lester smiles at a family photograph of himself, his wife, and Jane in happier times in his kitchen. A gunshot sounds and blood splatters on the wall. Ricky and Jane find Lester’s body. Carolyn is seen crying in the bedroom, and Frank returns home, bloodied, a gun missing from his collection. Lester’s closing narration describes meaningful experiences during his life; he says that despite his death he is happy, as there’s so much beauty in the world.
Why Did I HAVE to Own It?
I may have gone on and on about it before, but the simple answer is Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes.
I will let you interpret that as you will.
Much like AMERICAN BEAUTY.
And you will.
How Are The Extras?
- Audio Commentary with director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball (this was like having all the classroom study on directing that I wanted…all in one place)
- Exclusive Storyboards with commentary by director Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad Hall ( and this confirmed my studies! Showing me the proper set up for a scene and how to frame it properly)
- American Beauty: Look Closer Making of featurette (this is pretty lacking. I truly wish they had gone more in depth with the process. But…on the other hand…it might have blanketed my perceptions as to what the film is actually about. Perhaps its better just the way it is)
What Format Do I Have It In?
DVD…and, looking at the ZIP amount of bonuses on the BluRay…
HEY! It adds TWO TRAILERS!
Nope…I’ll stick with the DVD 🙂
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