American Beauty (1999) 20 years on
Some movies stand the test of time. American Beauty is undoubtedly one of them
With so much new content to watch across the seventy bajillion streaming platforms, I’ve been making a concerted effort to spend a night each weekend watching classic films.
Last week, it was director Sam Mendes American Beauty.
My attention span is crappola nowadays, like seriously terrible, which isn’t great for someone who works mostly as an editor and needs to be able to focus for long stretches. When I’m watching TV, I tend to nearly always be mucking about on my iPad or checking my iPhone or just generally not super focussed on whatever show I’m meant to be watching.
However, occasionally I become transfixed.The iPhone or iPad fall from my hand, so that all I am doing is watching.
American Beauty had this power over me.
I’ve probably watched the film two or three times and it has resonated just as deeply each time sa it did the first. I also listen to the remarkable soundtrack by Thomas Newman often and it always gives me chills, particularly the main theme.
Last weekend — it felt the right time to watch the film again.
Spoilers: The Plot
For those who haven’t seen it, American Beauty follows protagonist Lester Burnham and his comfy (not-so-comfy) middle-class life through what appears from the outside is a midlife crisis or nervous breakdown.
But it is neither of these.
It is more a midlife renewal — a moment of Lester’s nerves becoming stronger, bigger, brighter, not broken.
Of him standing up for himself in a world that he has allowed to push him down.
What unfolds is a great American story…tragedy…beauty. There will be elements in it that many can relate to on some level, no matter how far removed. And while the movie might end in a shocking way (sorry for the spoiler), for me, it ends in the perfect way with a man smiling and content that he has found his peace with himself, the people he loves and life more generally, even if that peace comes at a price.
Lester is played by Kevin Spacey, who, as many know, is Hollywood’s “nowhere man” after a spate of sex offense allegations were levelled against him over the past few years.
American Beauty, for which he won a much-deserved Oscar, BAFTA and SAG awards for, came at the height of his career. It was matched by other stellar performances around the same time in films such as A Time to Kill, L.A. Confidential, The Shipping News and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Many will also know him as the evil politician, modelled on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Frank Underwood in the superb series House of Cards.
But it’s not all about Spacey.
This is a true ensemble piece. Annette Bening as Carolyn (Lester’s wife); Thora Burch as daughter Jane; Wes Bentley as Jane’s love interest, Ricky; and Chris Cooper and Allison Janney as Ricky’s parents…the list could go on. Each actor stands up to the plate in American Beauty to deliver a home-run performance under the impeccable directorial guidance of Mendes.
However, it is the man behind the story that needs to be recognised above all else. Alan Ball’s screenplay is what this amazing ensemble film is hung on — a screenplay that even the best in the business could only ever hope to craft.
I studied screenwriting and even had aspirations to become a screenwriter (probably still do a little, TBH). I’ve had a couple of scripts shortlisted for government funding and even been nominated for an Australian Writer’s Guild award for a short film I wrote.
NOT that this makes me an expert but I do look at screenplays with a slightly different eye to your average punter.
We studied the opening scene of Ball’s screenplay in one of my screenwriting classes. Most people, even the craziest cinephiles, would never lay eyes on an actual screenplay. Their joy is in watching the many strands that come together to make up the final product that keeps them captive for two hours or so in a darkened cinema or lounge room.
As it should be.
If you love film as much as I do, take some time out and read the American Beauty script, and, for the real screen nerds, compare it to this earlier draft. It might take a little to get your head around the format if you’ve not read a screenplay before but you’ll get there — and it will be more than worth your while.
Watch the film again too, maybe even after you’ve read the script.
Initially, like me, given the controversy that still swirls around him, you might feel a little uncomfortable watching Spacey.
But this dissipates as the broader film pulls you into it’s magic, and it’s Lester, not Spacey, you are taking the journey with.
And Ricky and Angela and Barbara and the Colonel and Buddy.