US, 1999, 116 minutes, Colour.
Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney
Directed by Sam Mendes
American Beauty is a dark, satirical reflection on the suburban dysfunction in the realms of middle class America. It is a film reminiscent of The Ice Storm, but it focuses more on the tragic absurdity in the lives of the characters.
American Beauty is a film that irritates. Its very raw revelation about what lies behind the façade of a picture perfect house with a white picket fence around it and American beauty roses growing in the front yard is something we’d rather not gaze upon. This kind of life seems anything but funny, but its irony works.
Lester Burnham is in his forties, has allowed himself to be trapped in a suburban malaise that has kept him in a kind of routine inertia at home and in his job. He tells us as the movie opens that he will be dead within a year. What we see is his last chance at life and happiness. And, to a large extent, in a mildly suburban kind of way, he achieves happiness - which is symbolised (and shown twice) in a plastic bag blown and gusted by the wind among the leaves in patterns and rhythms of beauty which make him realise how much beauty there is in the world.
Lester Burnham seems to be locked into a hard world of advertising and of domestic acquiescence. Perhaps he could have achieved but got lost in superficial edges. In his forties, he notices the beauty of his acidic daughter's friend and this infatuation begins to liberate him: standing up to his wife and daughter, getting himself in shape, defying his young boss and 'blackmailing' him into giving a top redundancy payout, going back to his music and his pot of the 70s and going to work in a burger diner. He loses the pressures of expectations and, when he is killed, he is a freer and less predictable man than he was when the movie began.
American Beauty is British stage director Sam Mendes’ first feature film production. The film won five Oscars, and, in a rare move to a first time film director, an Oscar was awarded to Mendes for his brilliant work. Kevin Spacey also started his career on the stage and won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects. Spacey won the Best Actor Oscar for his personification of Lester Burnham in American Beauty. Annette Bening, another stage-turned-screen actor, was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the strung-out wife. The screenplay is by Alan Ball, who also created, writes, and produces the HBO hit program, Six Feet Under.
Mendes went on to direct such American fare as The Road to Perdition and Jarhead.
1. The title: the rose, symbol? The American garden, home? American suburban surfaces? Realities beneath? The film made at the eve of the millennium? The perspective on the 20th century?
2. The awards and acclaim? In retrospect?
3. The writer and his abilities with satire? The director and his British perspective? From the theatre? The staging of the sequences? The fluidity of the film?
4. The environment of the American town, the affluent homes, the neighbourhood, the gardens? The convention centre? The basketball court? The house for sale? The fast food outlet? The musical score, the songs?
5. The structure of the film, Lester’s voice-over, the camera descending onto the suburb and the house? Lester explaining his death? The reality of his life, the sexuality at the beginning of the day, the fantasies? The fantasies throughout the film? The build-up to his death? The finale and the focus on each of the characters?
6. American families, dysfunctional? The ordinary family and its casual attitudes, the loss of love, the lack of initiative, work, going to seed, too self-satisfied? The angry teenager? The contrast with the martinet, American military background, his son doing drugs, institutionalised, crushing his wife? Angela and her story? Buddy and his relationship, separation? The perspective on relationships?
7. Lester as central, his confiding in the audience, his life and his death, his identity? In the shower, inability to communicate to the family, the breakfast, in a hurry to start the day, Carolyn chiding him, his dropping the case? At work, on the phone, the phoney smile? The interview, the job threat? The request for the job description – and the irony when he presented it? His capacity for blackmail because of the expenses of the boss? At home, the meal, the music playing, Carolyn controlling? Watching his wife in the garden and his comments about her, the past, her fussiness? His losing his job, his not caring? The setting for the crisis of the film?
8. Lester and his future? The basketball match, his focus on Angela, the immediate sexual fantasy, the young girl, the roses? His listening to her conversation with Jane? His trying to phone her and then running? His getting the sack, the financial deal and the blackmail? The interview at the fast food outlet with the young man? The party, his meeting with Buddy, saying that he wouldn't remember himself? His seeing the waiter, Ricky? The discussion about drugs, buying the pot and smoking it? Carolyn’s angry reaction and demands? Angela’s remark about his being fit, his beginning to exercise again? Jogging, meeting Frank while jogging with the neighbours? His greater sense of freedom, at the table, throwing the plate at the wall, demanding the music change? His working at the outlet, hearing Carolyn’s voice, catching her with Buddy? The relationship with Angela, his approach, her saying she was a virgin and his respecting her? The visit of Ricky, buying the pot, his relaxing, Frank seeing him and misinterpreting? Frank’s arrival, the kiss, his resistance? His death – and a seeming smile as he died? His life – to what purpose?
9. Carolyn, once loving, middle aged, fussy, demanding, surfaces? In the garden, her relationship with her daughter – and Lester telling Carolyn that her daughter hated her? The house for sale and the collage of her cleaning and polishing? The collage of her dealing with the clients, her sales pitch? The music at home? Going to the basketball match, proud of Jane? At the party, the relationship with Buddy, admiration? Her seeing Lester in bed and his fantasies? The sexual relationship and its effect? The change in Lester, his throwing the plate? Her taking up shooting and her being a good shot and feeling exhilarated? Singing on the way home? Her dilemma with the gun, finding Lester, hiding the gun? The conversations with Lester about communication and non-communication?
10. The opening with Ricky and Jane, his doing the video, her posing, her angers, his offering to kill her father? Her disdain for her parents, her behaviour at the basketball match? At school, friendship with Angela, discussions about sex? Home, the meals, her spurning her father, his trying to make contact? Her knowing that her father rang Angela? Her flirting with Ricky, walking home with him? Discussions, in his room, sexual relationship, Angela coming home, the clash with her? The finale and what she was left with?
11. Angela, her age, at school, her talk, friendship with Jane? The star cheerleader? As she appeared in Lester’s fantasies, the roses? The reality of her laugh, her boasting? Reaction to Lester’s attention, her gauging herself as successful, potential model? Her flirting? Her angers with Jane and Ricky, her not wanting to be ordinary, Ricky declaring that she was? The flirting with Lester in the kitchen, her declaration that she was a virgin, Lester leaving her alone?
12. Ricky and his video, his back-story, drug dealing, in the institution? At school? His intensity? Walking Jane home? The waiter’s job, a cover for his selling drugs? The friendship with Lester, sharing the drugs, only the best drugs? His sales, his lavish equipment in his room? His relationship with his father, the urine sample and the substitute? His disdain of his father? The discussions with Jane, the sexual relationship? Going to visit Lester, the ambiguity of the view from the window and his father’s interpretation?
13. Frank, the military background, clean-cut, crewcut? The discipline in his life? His relationship with his son, his disapproval? The institution? His wife, his crushing her? His meeting Lester, the two neighbours coming and his disdain of homosexuals? His discussions with Ricky in the car and Ricky’s saying that they were disgusting? Watching Lester? Watching from the window, seeing Ricky and Lester, his suspicions? His going to the house, kissing Lester? His being repelled? His coming and shooting Lester? Going back covered in blood, the gun?
14. Frank’s wife, crushed, vacant, sitting with nothing to say, apologising for the house? Her love for her son?
15. Buddy, the King of Estate Agents, his advertisements, his relationship, at the party, the flirting with Carolyn, meeting Lester? Carolyn and her flattering him, his partner separating? The sexual encounter? At the fast food outlet and their being caught?
16. A portrait of American women, adults, teenagers? Issues and identity in family? Love, relationships, sexuality? Infidelity and commitment? Weakness and strength? Moral and amoral behaviour? Images of American society?