American Beauty is now open for discussion

Our November 2007 film selection, American Beauty, is now open for discussion. Members who would like to Post an Official Commentary about this film are welcome to do so (Contact Ron or Roger if you would like to have posting privileges to this blogsite). Anyone, member or not, can place brief comments here by simply clicking on the comments button.


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    Director Sam Mendes is a very well known Theater director in England. He had directed actors like Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes in classical roles. He directed Nicole Kidman in THE BLUE ROOM. He won a Tony for his Broadway revival of CABARET. Considered an “actor’s director”, Steven Spielberg (Filmworks produced the film) personally recommended Mendes for the director’s chair. With an ample budget, Mendes was able to rehearse his actors for two weeks before shooting started. This always tightens dialogue and deepens characterizations. He also encouraged improvisation during the shoot. BEAUTY was his feature film debut. He did his homework, and came prepared with his story boards completed, and the movie clearly in his head. He has been called the “new” Kubrick by some. He is married to Kate Winslet, and they have homes in London and California.

    Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay, is a noted New York playwright. He was having lunch one windy day at the World Trade Center Plaza, and he watched a paper bag frisking and floating in the breeze; giving him the inspiration to write first a play, and then a screenplay. The theatrical version has never been produced. An outspoken gay activist and practitioner, he weaved the homosexual references expertly into the fabric of the story. It was not overdone, and it was certainly not overlooked. Much of the final action of the plot hinged on homophobia and closeted eroticism.

    I read where Terry Gilliam turned down a chance to direct the movie. Chevy Chase, Tom Hanks, and Jeff Daniels were at one time all considered for the lead role of Lester Burnham. Kirsten Dunst turned down the part of Angela Hayes; perhaps resisting the nudity. Jake Gyllenhaal had auditioned for the part of Ricky Fitts. The hand holding the rose, and the sexy stomach on the poster did not belong to actress Mena Suvari –it was model Chloe Hunter.

    One of the most striking things about the movie was the astonishingly good cinematography by veteran cameraman Conrad L. Hall. He won an Oscar for his effort on the film. He gave us some masterful set ups that played lovingly with light and shadow, a bit reminiscent of James Wong Howe. I really noticed this by accident when I viewed the movie in black and white as a mistake of projection. The color red was the prominent motif for much of the movie—deep red roses in vases in nearly every room in the Burnham household, roses dominating the garden along the white picket fence, the only house in the neighborhood with a bright red door, a 1970 red Pontiac Firebird, and of course blood, which makes an appearance as well. In addition Lester’s middle-aged fantasies and dreams about young Angela were dripping with red rose petals, bursting from her unzipped bodice, covering the ceiling as she hovered there, filling the steaming tub that she languished in while “awaiting” him.

    The wonderfully pounding driving musical score was written by veteran composer Thomas Newman. Mendes was interested in unique scoring, percussion and mallet instruments –and this intriguing thwacking moved the plot along, all the while building tension and interest. Later Newman and Conrad Hall teamed up again with Mendes when they made ROAD TO PERDITION (2002).

    Major symbol, the American Beauty rose, is a hybrid wonder. It has no thorns and makes great bouquets—but it is a fragile plant and it tends to rot beneath the roots. While Lester is at the office, in his cubicle, there is a sticker that reads “Look Closer”. This became the tagline for the posters and promotion for the film, and became the “tell” for the viewer to pay close attention to detail, to look beyond and beneath the seemingly perfect surface of Suburbia. In Lester’s cubicle there is also a small poster for THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995).

    Kevin Spacey was excellent, pitch perfect, on the mark as Lester Burnham, a kind of 90’s Willy Loman. Being faced with depression, discontent, unfulfilled sexual needs, and a mid-life crisis, somehow he found the presence of mind to put his world in order. To our delight he told off his dreary supervisor, told him where to shove their job, and then blackmailed the boss for a tidy sum, citing administrative misuse of funds for libation and prostitutes. He rushed away from the white collar stress, and blissfully got a job flipping burgers at Smiley’s, became infatuated with his daughter’s friend, Angela, began pumping iron to impress her, became a stoner buying from Ricky, the kid next door, and he purchased his fantasy car—a 1970 red Firebird. In the midst of all this bizarre behavior, he rediscovered himself, saying that he “was tired of being treated that I don’t exist.”

    Spacey’s Lester had settled for being a loser, a half a man only going through the motions of a marriage, a job, or being a parent. We witness the worm turning, see the strength, compassion, and confidence blossoming within him, and finally we share the singular joy he experiences for just being alive. For me it then became difficult to watch him being cut down mid-stream; first insight and then oblivion. I would have been pleased if the prologue and epilogue, that paean to SUNSET BOULEVARD, had been removed. I would rather have had the shock than the dread of his eminent demise, already postulated by narration from a dead protagonist.

    Annette Bening as the wife, Carolyn, infused the part with a focused, mannered, manic and hectic energy, misdirecting his considerable passion toward her garden and career at the expense of her relationship with her family, and her marriage. She was a walking jabbering divorce waiting to happen. Oddly I detected a slight lisp in her dialogue that I had not noticed in her past performances; maybe it was character driven. Thora Birch, a child actress all grown up at 17 years old, played daughter Jane. Her nude scene was daring and unexpected. She underplayed and worked well with her eyes – her timing and transitions were bang on. We all have known this teenager in our lives. Chris Cooper was very intense, real, and dislikable as Col. Frank Fitts, USMC. It was not clear to me whether he was active duty or retired. Allison Janney played his put-upon wife, Barbara; her almost catatonic stillness was haunting and horrific—a woman who had chosen to shut down rather than live in a battle zone. Wes Bentley was mercurial, magnetic, creepy, and very self-assured as the “strange kid” next door, Ricky Fitts. He played him so clever that Ricky was always two jumps ahead of his parents, his teachers, and his school mates. Beyond being the new kid in school, he was extra hard to get to know. Neighbor Jane was at first creeped out by him, than she became fascinated as she learned to appreciate his intellect and sensitivity, as they became an item. Mena Suvari, also a child actress, was 19 years old when she shot BEAUTY. She was tantalizing and tragic as Miss Popular, Angela Hayes, who incessantly talked about sex to mantle her lack of experience and her lack of courage. Getting by all her life on her looks, nevertheless she had no real self-confidence. She wanted to be a teen model, but one got the feeling that she lacked the drive to make it happen. Two straight actors, Scott Bakula and Sam Robards, were a hoot as the Burnham’s gay neighbors, Jim et Jim.

    PREMIERE Magazine stuck their neck out and named this film one of “The 20 Most Overrated Movies of All Time”. It did not stem the tide of this blockbuster. It swept the Oscars, winning five of them, dominated the Golden Globes, and won over 100 film awards. I loved the film, and have enjoyed repeated viewings. It is a very dark comedy that became a drama as it played out. The tragedy was connected to the humor, and yet I continuously hope that Lester will be spared; and he never is. It is like I feel each time I watch WEST SIDE STORY (1961), hoping that Tony will not be shot during the next viewing, or that Kirk Douglas will make it out of SPARTACUS. Thank God the director edited out the original ending where Jane and Ricky were brought to trial and then jailed for Lester’s murder, as the Colonel’s wife destroyed the bloody t-shirt.

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