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Who would have thought that a film whose most poignant scene features some leaves and a swirling plastic bag would be a hit? And yet, not only was American Beauty (1999) a worldwide smash with audiences, it picked up scores of awards for its cast and crew, including Oscars® for Best Picture, Actor, Cinematography, Writing, and Director for Sam Mendes. Not bad for his first feature film! Starring Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, a man in the throes of a major mid-life crisis, American Beauty deftly weaves an assortment of characters from an anonymous suburb into a fascinating tale of self-reckoning. Annette Bening costars as his frustrated wife Carolyn and Thora Birch plays their sullen teenage daughter Jane. Powerful performances from Chris Cooper and Wes Bentley round out the featured cast with Mena Suvari serving as the adolescent object of Spacey's increasing obsession.
The story of American Beauty proved polarizing even before the cameras rolled; some actors were as strongly drawn to the project as others were repelled. You can put Spacey in the first camp: "I read the screenplay and nearly fell out of bed. I thought I better meet him [Mendes] quick before someone else read it." The actor was, in fact, Mendes' first choice for the role. In an interview, the director explained, "I've always sensed that Kevin was limited by the roles that were offered to him. You know the most clever guy in the film more than anybody else and here in this part he is the least clever and the blindest and the most lost the fool. I thought here is his chance to be vulnerable and I just felt he would pounce on the role."
Wes Bentley, who plays Thora Birch's video artist boyfriend, described a similar experience with his initial read of the script, retelling, "I was reading American Beauty on the plane and got to the speech about how life was so overwhelming that this character couldn't take it and that was something I could identify with recently in my life. It was like, 'Oh yeah I know what he is talking about.' It moved me to tears. I got off the plane and for the first time in my life I couldn't wait to call my agent. I got so excited to call I said 'I want this role. Get me in a room with Sam [Mendes]. I just need to be in a room with him and let him know I understand this person and I need to be a part of this.'" Not everyone had such a visceral reaction, however; Kirsten Dunst wasn't interested in playing the object of Lester Burnham's lust. Her explanation was simple: "I didn't want to be kissing Kevin Spacey. Come on! Lying there naked with rose petals!?"
Surprisingly enough, the screenplay was written by another Hollywood novice, Alan Ball. A television writer moving on to his first feature film script, Ball would springboard from his success on American Beauty to create Six Feet Under (2001-5), one of the most acclaimed cable television series of the last decade. Like the television show, American Beauty is full of clever references and subtle asides for the watchful viewer to enjoy. The film makes a couple of sly references to Nabokov's seminal novel Lolita; for example, Suvari's nymphet is named Angela Hayes; Lolita's last name was Haze. Spacey's character Lester Burnham not only draws parallels to Lolita's anti-hero Humbert Humbert, his very name is an anagram for "Humbert Learns." In another playful turn, Bening's self-help tapes are narrated by "Dr. Alan Ball." With regards to the film's most famous sequence, Ball was reportedly inspired to write the videocam plastic bag sequence after witnessing something similar at the World Trade Center plaza.
If you think the scene where Spacey and Bentley are smoking marijuana was a little too realistic, just chalk it up to good acting. The two men smoked honey tobacco, but as Spacey explained, "We were laughing for real, because, to be honest with you guys, the whole crew thought we were baked out of our minds. And we weren't, I promise you-we were just dealing with memories."
In case you're wondering who choreographed the drill team's dance routine, it was none other than Paula Abdul! Also, television viewers will immediately recognize supporting cast members like Peter Gallagher from The O.C., Allison Janney from The West Wing, and-think back now-Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap. Even the closing credits hold some surprises, with thank yous to Pete Townshend and Nicole Kidman. The Townshend credit is most likely for the film's use of The Who song "The Seeker," and Nicole's credit refers to a past theatrical collaboration with Mendes. From the opening narration to the last seconds of American Beauty, viewers are well advised to follow the film's tagline: Look closer. As film critic Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine confirmed, "The clever brushstrokes of television writing yield to a depth of characterization that allows for fear, feeling and that network bugaboo, ambiguity. The suburbanites of American Beauty - young and old - have interior lives that encompass different ideas of beauty and truth. You don't peg these people at a glance; they keep springing surprises."
Producer: Alan Ball, Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Stan Wlodkowski
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Alan Ball
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Film Editing: Tariq Anwar, Christopher Greenbury
Art Direction: David Lazan
Music: Thomas Newman
Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Survari (Angela Hayes), Chris Cooper (Col. Frank Fitts).
by Eleanor Quin