Review of AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999): the Long Version

poster-american-beautyAMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) ROOT ROT 

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, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  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 gone on to direct other fine films including ROAD TO PERDITION (2002), and JARHEAD (2005), which turned out to be a strong anti-war film in the guise of a gung-ho actioner.  He has been called the “new” Kubrick by some. He is married to Kate Winslet, and they have homes in London and California.

 

Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE wrote, “Mendes’ skill with actors is abundantly evident. Birch, a former child actress (PATRIOT GAMES), glimmers with grown-up radiance, while Suvari (AMERICAN PIE) uncovers the self-loathing that Angela tries to hide. Newcomer Wes Bentley emerges as a major find, able to hold his own with Spacey, Bening, and Cooper.”

 

James Berardinelli of REEL VIEWS wrote, “Mendes can stake a claim alongside the likes of Kubrick and Egoyan as one whose cinematic vision both challenges and entertains. At times this film evokes elements of Todd Solondz’ controversial HAPPINESS, and Ang Lee’s brilliant THE ICE STORM.”

 

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.

 

Ricky Fitts: It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like this little kid begging me to play with it. For 15 minutes. And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and –this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video is a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me to remember, and I need to remember. Sometimes there is so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.

 

Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE wrote, “Alan Ball, making his feature debut, has previously done TV time on GRACE UNDER FIRE and CYBILL. But there are no network rules to constrict Ball this time. As a result, he’s done something extraordinary: he’s turned the clichés of sitcom upside down. His marvel of a screenplay puts flesh on stereotypes and then testing for signs of humanity, pricks them until they bleed. The clever brushstrokes of television writing yield to a depth of characterization that allows for fear and feelings without 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.”

 

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. The tribute to Bob Fosse Spartanette’s dance routine was choreographed by Paula Abdul. Originally the Angela solo portion was much longer, but Mendes trimmed it for focus. The helicopter shot in the beginning of the movie was set up for a “flying sequence” in which Lester soared over the landscape and then settled down into his bed. That certainly would have tainted the tone of the film, pushing it into a lighter vein; another excellent editing trim.

 

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. Secondary to a short shooting schedule several of the scenes had to be shot at night, and Hall had to light them to appear as day shots. He was very successful in this endeavor.

 

James Berardinelli of REEL VIEWS wrote, “Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall add some wonderful camera work, especially when it comes to close-ups. In most films, we rarely notice this kind of shot because it is used so indiscriminately. However, in AMERICAN BEAUTY, it serves the definite purpose of offering insight into a character’s mindset.”

 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).  

Thomas Newman, “I remember a teacher once asked me, what makes music sad? What a brilliant question. His answer was that music takes on the physical qualities of something sad. Meaning if it’s sad, a melody will move in step-wise manner. It will tend to be slower as you are when you’re sad; it takes on the physical characteristics of an emotional state. Something in the music rings and carries you back to a memory you have that elicits a feeling. I guess what’s wonderful about music is that it’s utterly abstract and yet it has a kind of sinuous, subjective emotional reaction. I like the idea that music can be dimensional, that it is not necessarily playing what’s there.”

 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.

Brad Dupree [reading Lester’s job description]: “My job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge, and, at least once a day, retiring to the men’s room so that I can jerk off while I fantasize about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble Hell.” Well, you have absolutely no interest in saving yourself.

Lester: Brad, for 14 years I have been a whore for the advertising industry. The only way that I could save myself now is if I start firebombing.

Brad: Fine then, you’re fired, effectively immediately.

Lester: Then I guess I’ll have to throw in a sexual harassment charge.

Brad: Against who?

Lester: Against you. Can you prove that you did not offer to save my job if I let you blow me?

Brad: Man, you are one twisted fuck.

Lester: Nope. I am just an ordinary guy who has nothing left to lose.

  

Carolyn Burnham: Your father and I were just discussing his day at work. Why don’t you tell our daughter about it, honey?

Lester: Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go fuck himself, and then I blackmailed him for almost 60,000 dollars. Pass the aspargus.

 

 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.

 

Lester: [prologue] My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.

 

Lester: [last lines] I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, I was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars –and yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined my street –or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper –and the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird, and Janie, and Janie –and Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it’s hard to stay mad when there is so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that is about to burst –and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry –you will someday.

 

Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE wrote, “Kevin Spacey, in a knockout performance, nails every comic and poignant nuance in the role of Lester Burnham, a suburban Everyman whose life is coming apart. We first meet Lester as he is jerking off in the shower. “Funny thing,” he says in voiceover, “This is the high point of my day.”

 

Roger Ebert of THE CHICAGO SUN TIMES wrote, “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 is no longer a loser.”

 

Annette Bening as the wife, Carolyn, infused the part with a focused, mannered, manic  hectic energy, misdirecting her 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. She has appeared in 29 roles since 1986, but her most coveted role is that of being Mrs. Warren Beatty. They were married in 1991 and have four children together. I loved her in THE GRIFTERS (1990), REGARDING HENRY (1991) with Harrison Ford, BUGSY (1991) meeting and bedding and wedding Warren Beatty, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995) with Michael Douglas, THE SEIGE (1998) with Denzel Washington, OPEN RANGE (2004) with Kevin Costner, and her tour de force in BEING JULIA (2004). There is a long-standing rumor, a kind of urban legend, that she was the model for the new Columbia logo. It is untrue, but it is so widespread that she almost believes it herself sometimes. I have always thought the logo resembled Ida Lupino.

 

Carolyn: What are you doing?

Lester: Nothing.

Carolyn: You were masturbating!

Lester: I was not.

Carolyn: Yes, you were.

Lester: Oh, all right! So shoot me. I was whacking off! That’s right. I was choking the bishop, chafing the carrot, you know, saying “hi” to my monster!

Carolyn: Don’t mess with me, Mister, or I’ll divorce you so fast it will make your head spin.

Lester: On what grounds? I’m not a drunk. I don’t fuck other women. I’ve never hit you. I don’t mistreat you. I don’t even touch you since you’ve made it so abundantly clear how unnecessary you consider me to be! But I did support you when you got your license, and some people might think that entitles me to half of what’s yours. So, turn off the light when you come to bed.

   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. Her first film role was when she was 6 years old. She has had 41 roles since 1988.  She was in PATRIOT GAMES (1992), and the photos of her in that film as a child were used again in AMERICAN BEAUTY. Her first major role was in ALASKA (1996) with Charlton Heston as the heavy. She was only 17 years old when she filmed BEAUTY. She was exquisitely strange in GHOST WORLD (2001), and she worked with Chris Cooper again in SILVER CITY (2004).  

Lester: Janie’s a pretty typical teenager –angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that is all going to pass, but I don’t want to lie to her.

 

Jane Burnham: I need a father who’s a role model, not some horny geek-boy who’s gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school. What a lame-O. Someone really should put him out of his misery.

Ricky: Do you want me to kill him?

Jane: Yeah, would you?  

 

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. In one of the earlier drafts of the screenplay, we discovered that Fitts had a gay lover that had died in Viet Nam. I am sad that bit was cut. It could have given even more depth to the Colonel; of course that depended on when it was revealed. The kiss in the rain scene was wonderfully shocking, and it certainly did not need to be deleted.

Colonel Frank Fitts: Where’s your wife?

Lester Burnham: Uh, I dunno. Probably out fucking that dorkey, prince-of-real estate asshole. And you know what? I don’t care.

Frank: Your wife is out with another man and you don’t care?

Lester: Nope. Our marriage is just for show. A commercial for how normal we are, when we are anything but.

 

Ricky: Excuse me for speaking so bluntly, sir –but those fags make me want to puke my guts out.

Frank: [cautiously, after a long pause] Well, me too son. Me too.

 

 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.

Ricky: [after Frank beats him up] Mom, I’m leaving.

Barbara Fitts: Okay. Wear a raincoat.

  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. Wes has appeared in 14 films since 1986. Right after BEAUTY, he had the lead in THE CLAIM (2000), and for a boy from Arkansas he played a great stuffy Brit in THE FOUR FEATHERS (2002) with Heath Ledger. He was a solid heavy vampire ghoul in GHOST RIDER (2007).  

Ricky: [to Jane] I didn’t mean to scare you. I just think you’re interesting.

 

When the funeral procession passes by Jane and Ricky, he tells her about a dead homeless person he once came upon.

 

Jane: What was it like?

Ricky: It’s like God looking right at you, just for a second, and if you’re careful –you can look right back.

Jane: And what do you see?

Ricky: Beauty.

 

When Ricky and Jane are the first to discover Lester after he has been murdered, Ricky bent down and stared at Lester’s open eyes, his face in a hug pool of blood, and Ricky said, “Wow”. In that moment he saw something spiritual, as if God had winked at him, as if Lester had winked at him.

 

Ricky: I was filming the dead bird.

Angela: Why?

Ricky: Because it’s beautiful.

 

Frank Fitts: You need structure –and discipline.

Ricky: [on the floor, his nose bloody] Thank you for trying to teach me, sir. Don’t give up on me, Dad.

 

Angela: Jane, he’s a freak!

Jane: Then so am I! And we’ll always be freaks and we’ll never be like other people and you will never be a freak because you are just too – perfect!

Ricky: She’s not your friend. Jane is just someone you use to feel better about yourself.

Angela: Yeah? Well, at least I’m not ugly!

Ricky: Yes, you are. And you are boring, and you’re totally ordinary –and you know it.

 

 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. She was 19 years old when she filmed BEAUTY. As busy actress, she has appeared in 41 roles since 1995. She was in KISS THE GIRLS (1997), ATOMIC TRAIN (1999), AMERICAN PIE (1999), AMERICAN VIRGIN (1999) [ an intensely busy year for her considering 1999 was the year she did AMERICAN BEAUTY as well ], THE MUSKETEER (2001), was a regular on SIX FEET UNDER for a season in 2001, EDMOND (2005), RUMOR HAS IT (2005), and FACTORY GIRL (2006).

 

Angela Hayes: If people I don’t even know look at me and want to fuck me, it actually means I really have a shot at being a model.

 

Angela: I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary.

 

[after meeting Ricky for the first time]

Angela: What a freak! And why does he dress like a bible salesman?

Jane: He’s just so confident, it can’t be real.

Angela: I don’t believe him. I mean, he didn’t even like look at me once!

 

Two straight actors, Scott Bakula and Sam Robards, were a hoot as the Burnham’s gay neighbors, Jim et Jim.

 

Todd McCarthy of VARIETY wrote, “An acerbic, darkly comic critique of how social conventions can lead people into false, sterile, and emotionally stunted lives, AMERICAN BEAUTY is a real American original. Multilayerd, bracingly resourceful and tweaked to push its many brash ideas to the edge and beyond, this independent minded feature represents a stunning card of introduction for two cinematic freshmen, screenwriter Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes.”

 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 hoped that Lester will be spared; and he never was. 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 without being crucified.  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.   Glenn Buttkus  2007

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About Glenn Buttkus

Former actor and Special Ed teacher for the blind, newly retired, spending my days struggling as poet, photographer, novelist, husband, and grandfather.
This entry was posted in 2004 - 2007, Discussion of Official TFC Selected Films, General Film Related Discussion, Glenn Buttkus and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Review of AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999): the Long Version

  1. marlowe44 says:

    For those of you who are paying attention, you few, you wonders–it is clear that I have put part of this review in the comments section under AMERICAN BEAUTY is Ready for Comments. I rushed to post it, and did not know if I would have time to finish my thoughts on it, to add the flesh to the bones. But Eureka, I did find the time, and thus the “Long Version” came into being. Do not be confused all, just enjoy my scholarship and zeal.

    Glenn

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