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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: American Beauty – The 20th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Will someone please pass the f***ing asparagus?”. A 20th Anniversary Celebration Of The Five Time Academy Award Winner “American Beauty”. A Brilliant Directorial Debut By One Of Hollywood’s Best Filmmakers Sam Mendes, Led By An Exceptional Performance From One Of The Greats Kevin Spacey. “American Beauty” Is An American Cinematic Achievement & A Stunner.

“American Beauty” is essentially a complex character study, but it’s a movie about a man in his 40’s, who fears growing older, while losing the hope of true love and not being respected by those who know him best. It also asks the question is it wrong for a man in his 40s to lust after a teenage girl? Any honest man will understand what a complicated question this is. It’s wrong morally, certainly and legally. But as every woman knows, men are born with wiring that goes directly from their eyes to their genitals. Some men can disapprove of their thoughts, but they cannot stop themselves from having them.

“American Beauty” is not about a “Lolita” relationship. It’s about yearning after youth, respect, power and beauty. Kevin Spacey’s Lester has thoughts about his daughter cheerleader friend Angela that are impure, but not perverted. 

In 1997, Alan Ball made the move into the film industry after several frustrating years writing for the television sitcoms “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill”. He joined the United Talent Agency, where his representative, Andrew Cannava, suggested he write a spec script to “reintroduce himself to the town as a screenwriter”. Ball pitched three ideas to Cannava: two conventional romantic comedies and “American Beauty”, which he had originally conceived as a play in the early 1990s. Despite the story’s lack of an easily marketable concept, Cannava selected “American Beauty”because he felt it was the one for which Ball had the most passion.

Ball’s “American Beauty” script was partly inspired by two encounters he had in the early 1990s. Around 1992, Ball saw a plastic bag blowing in the wind outside the World Trade Center. He watched the bag float in the air for 10 minutes, saying later that it provoked an “unexpected emotional response”. This became the opening of the film as part of Ricky’s (Wes Bentley) video he had shot. Also in 1992, Ball became preoccupied with the media circus that accompanied the Amy Fisher trial. Ball had come across a comic book telling of the scandal, where he was struck by how quickly it had become commercialized. He said he “felt like there was a real story underneath that was more fascinating and way more tragic” than the story presented to the public, he had then attempted to turn the idea into a play. Ball produced around 40 pages, but stopped when he realized it would work better as a film. He felt that because of the visual themes, and because each character’s story was “intensely personal”, it could not be done on a stage.

Ball did not expect to sell the script, believing it would act as more of a calling card, but “American Beauty”drew interest from several production bodies. Cannava passed the script to several producers, who took it to DreamWorks Pictures. With the help of executives Glenn Williamson, Bob Cooper, and Steven Spielberg who was a studio partner, Ball was convinced he needed to develop the project at DreamWorks; he received assurances from the studio—known at the time for its more conventional fare that it would not “iron the edges out”. In an unusual move, DreamWorks decided not to option the script; instead in April 1998, the studio bought it outright for $250,000  causing an outbidding against Fox Searchlight, MGM and Lakeshore Entertainment. DreamWorks planned to make the film for $6–8 million.

Alan Ball was involved throughout the film’s development, including casting and director selections. The producers met with 20 interested directors, several of whom were considered A-List at the time. Ball was not keen on the more well-known directors because he believed their involvement would increase the budget and lead DreamWorks to become “nervous about the content”. The studio offered the film to Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) and Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), neither of them accepted the offer. Running out of candidates, in the same year, Sam Mendes, who was then a theater director had just revived the musical “Cabaret” in New York with fellow future filmmaker Rob Marshall (“Chicago”). 

Beth Swofford of the Creative Artists Agency had arranged meetings for Sam Mendes to meet with studio figures in Los Angeles to see if film direction for him was a possibility? Mendes came across “American Beauty”in a pile of eight scripts at Swofford’s house, and he knew immediately that it was the one he wanted to make. After reading the script Mendes was immediately reminded of the 1984 film “Paris, Texas”, as it presented contemporary America as a mythic landscape and he saw the same theme within “American Beauty”. Spielberg has been impressed by Mendes’ productions of “Oliver!” and “Cabaret”, and further encouraged him to consider “American Beauty”as his directorial debut. 

Mendes also had support from screenwriter Alan Ball, who had seen “Cabaret”, Ball was impressed with Mendes’ “keen visual sense” and felt he did not make obvious choices. Ball felt that Mendes liked to look under the story’s surface, a talent he felt would be a good fit with the themes of “American Beauty”. Mendes had two meetings with DreamWorks executives, in the second meeting Mendes had pitched the film himself to the studio. The studio then approached Mendes with a deal to direct for the minimum salary allowed under the Directors Guild Of America’s rules of $150,000. Mendes accepted the job, and later recalled that after taxes and his agent’s commission, he only earned $38,000 for directing “American Beauty”.

The films casting is also a vital part of “American Beauty’s” legacy, just as much as the films screenplay. Director Sam Mendes always had Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in mind for the leads from the beginning, but DreamWorks executives were unenthusiastic. The studio suggested they cast bigger stars, weird for them to think that as if Spacey and Bening weren’t already big stars? DreamWorks gave several alternative casting choices, including: Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner and John Travolta to play Lester (Kevin Spacey’s part), and Helen Hunt Or Holly Hunter to play Carolyn (Annette Bening’s part). 

Mendes did not want any of the choices DreamWorks had in mind, as all of them were on very hot streaks at the time. Sam Mendes says he felt they were “weighing the film down” and felt Spacey was the right choice based on his extraordinary performances in the 1995 films “The Usual Suspects” and “Se7en” and 1992’s “Glengarry Glenross”. Spacey was surprised by him being casted. In an interview he said, “I usually play characters who are very quick, very manipulative and smart. I usually wade in dark, sort of treacherous waters. This is a man living one step at a time, playing by his instincts. This is actually much closer to me, to what I am, than those other parts”. Kevin Spacey ended up winning the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Lester in “American Beauty”. It would make for Spacey’s second Oscar win after “The Usual Suspects”. 

Mendes offered Bening the role of Carolyn without the studio’s consent; while executives were upset at Mendes, come September 1998 and DreamWorks had entered negotiations with Spacey and Bening. Spacey had loosely based Lester’s early “schlubby” deportment on a For Walter Matthau. During the progress of the film, Lester’s physique improves from flabby to toned; Spacey had worked out during filming to improve his body. Before filming, Mendes and Spacey analyzed Jack Lemon’s performance in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” because Mendes wanted Spacey to emulate “the way Lemmon had moved, the way he looked, the way he was in that office and the way he was an ordinary man and yet a special man”. Spacey’s voiceover was an idea and throwback to Billy Wilder’s other seminal classic “Sunset Boulevard”, which is also narrated in retrospect by a dead character. Mendes felt the voiceover evoked Lester’s and the film’s loneliness. 

Bening based Carolyn on women from her youth to help structure her performance. Bening said “I used to babysit constantly. You’d go to church and see how people present themselves on the outside, and then you’d be inside their house and see the difference”. To help Bening get into Carolyn’s mindset, Mendes gave her music that he believed Carolyn would listen to. He lent Bening the Bobby Darin version of the song “Don’t Rain On My Parade”, which she enjoyed and persuaded the Mendes to include it for a scene in which Carolyn sings in her car. Bening was nominated for Best Actress, But didn’t get the win. 

For the supporting roles of Jane, Ricky, and Angela, DreamWorks gave Mendes carte blancheon casting. By November 1998, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley and “American Pie’s” Mena Suvari had been cast. Thora Birch was underage at the time and her role called for a nude scene. Because Birch was underage and only 16 at the time she made the film and being within the United States, her parents had to approve her brief topless scene in the movie. Child labor representatives were present on the set for the scene. Wes Bentley who is infamous for being very picky when it comes to roles, had overcame competition from top actors under the age of 25 to be cast. To prepare for his role Mendes provided Bentley with a video camera, telling the actor to go around and film what Ricky would. 

Principal photography lasted 50 days, from December 14, 1998 to February 1999. Sam Mendes’ dominating visual style was deliberate and composed, with a minimalist design that provided a surreal feeling with a bright, crisp, hard edged take on American suburbia. Mendes made minimal use of steady cams, feeling that stable shots had generated more tension. For example, when Mendes used a slow push into Lester and Carolyn’s dinner table, he held the shot because his training as a theater director taught him the importance of putting distance between the characters. He wanted to keep the tension in the scene, so he only cut away when Jane leaves the table. 

Although Mendes did use a hand-held camera for the scene in which Ricky’s father, Col. Fitts beats Ricky. Mendes said the camera provided the scene with a “kinetic off-balance energy”. He also went hand-held for the excerpts from Ricky’s camcorder footage. Mendes took a long time to get the quality of Ricky’s footage to the level he wanted. For the plastic-bag footage, Mendes used wind machines to move the bag in the air. The scene took four takes; two of them that was shot by the second unit did not satisfy Mendes, so he shot the scene himself. He felt his first take lacked grace, but for the last attempt, he changed the location to the front of a brick wall and added leaves on the ground. Mendes was satisfied by the way the wall gave definition to the outline of the bag. 

One technique Mendes avoided using was close-ups, as he believed the technique was overused; he also cited Spielberg’s advice that he should imagine an audience silhouetted at the bottom of the camera monitor, to keep in mind that he was shooting for display on a 40-foot screen. Spielberg who visited the set a few times also advised Mendes not to worry about costs if he had a “great idea” come to him toward the end of a long working day. Mendes said, “That happened three or four times, and they are all in the movie”. Despite Spielberg’s support, DreamWorks and Mendes fought constantly over the schedule and budget, although the studio interfered little with the film’s content. This caused Spacey and Bening to work for significantly less than their usual rates. 

American Beauty”cost DreamWorks $15 million to produce, which was slightly above their projected sum. Mendes was so dissatisfied with his first three days of filming that he obtained permission from DreamWorks to reshoot the scenes. Mendes said, “I started with a wrong scene, actually, a comedic scene. The actors played it way too big and it was badly shot, my fault, badly composed, my fault, bad costumes, my fault and everybody was doing what I was asking. It was all my fault”.

“American Beauty”was edited by Christopher Greenbury and Tariq Anwar; Greenbury began the editing process but had to leave halfway through post-production because of a scheduling conflict with the Farrelly Brothers “Me, Myself and Irene”. Sam Mendes and an assistant took over and edited the film for 10 days, when Mendes realized during editing that the film was different from the one he had envisioned. He felt he had been making a “much more whimsical and kaleidoscopic” film than what came together in the edit. Mendes was really drawn to the emotion and darkness of the story; he began to use the score and shots he had intended to discard to craft the film along those lines. In total, he cut about 30 minutes from his original edit. 

The original opening included a dream sequence in which Spacey imagines himself flying above the town. Mendes spent two days filming against a blue screen, but removed the sequence as he thought it to be too whimsical, like if it were a Coen Brothers movie and deeming it inappropriate for the tone he was trying to set. Mendes has ended up spending more time recutting the first 10 minutes than the rest of the film altogether. He played with several versions of the opening; the first edit included bookend scenes in which Jane and Ricky are convicted of Lester’s murder, but Mendes excised these in the last week of editing because he felt they made the film lose its mystery, and because they did not fit with the theme of redemption. Instead, he wanted the ending to be “a poetic mixture of dream and memory and narrative resolution”. When Alan Ball first saw a completed edit, it was a version with truncated versions of these scenes. He felt they were so short that they “didn’t really register”. Mendes and Ball argued, but Ball was more accepting after Mendes cut the sequences completely; Ball felt that without the scenes, the film was more optimistic and had evolved into something that “for all its darkness had a really romantic heart”.

Alan Ball had based Lester’s story on aspects of his own life. In the film with Lester’s re-examination of his life paralleled the feelings Ball had in his mid-30s and like Lester, Ball put aside his passions to work in jobs he hated for people he did not respect. While the scenes in Ricky’s household reflected Ball’s own childhood experiences. Ball who suspected his father was homosexual and used the idea to create the character of Ricky’s father Col. Fitts, a man who had “gave up his chance to be himself”. Ball said the script’s mix of comedy and drama was not intentional, but that it came unconsciously from his own outlook on life. By the end of filming, the script had been through 10 drafts. 

American Beauty was shot at tin the scope, 2.39:1 aspect ratio in the super 35 format, primarily using a Kodak Vision 35mm film stock. Mendes used the super 35 partly because its a larger scope and allowed him to capture elements such as the corners of the rose petal-filled pool in its overhead shot, creating a frame around Mena Suvari within.

Veteran film composer Thomas Newman scored the film’s soundtrack. He used mainly percussion instruments to create the mood and rhythm, the inspiration for which was provided by director Sam Mendes. Newman “favored pulse, rhythm, and color over melody”, making it for a more minimalist score. The percussion instruments included tablas, bongos, cymbals, piano, xylophones, and marimbas; also featured were guitars, flutes, and other world music instruments. Newman also used electronic music on “quirkier” tracks that employed more unorthodox methods, such as tapping metal mixing bowls with a finger and using a detuned mandolin. Newman believed the score helped move the film along without disturbing the “moral ambiguity” of the script. Newman had said: “It was a real delicate balancing act in terms of what music worked to preserve”.

The soundtrack features songs by Newman, Bobby Darin, The Who, The Guess Who, Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, as well as two cover versions of the Beatles classic “Because” and Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” performed by Annie Lennox. 

An abridged soundtrack album was released on October 5, 1999, and went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album. An album featuring 19 tracks from Thomas Newman’s score was released on January 11, 2000, and won the Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack. Filmmaker magazine considered the score to be one of Newman’s best, saying it “enabled the film’s transcendentalist aspirations”. In 2006, the magazine chose the score as one of 20 essential soundtracks it believed spoke to the “complex and innovative relationships between music and movie storytelling”.

“American Beauty” won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (well deserved for a first time filmmaker), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. In 2000, the Publicists Guild of America recognized DreamWorks for the best film publicity campaign. In September 2008, Empire Magazine named “American Beauty”the 96th “Greatest Movie of All Time” after a poll of 10,000 readers, 150 filmmakers, and 50 film critics. It became the fourth-highest ranked movie from 1999, behind “Fight Club”, “The Matrix”, and “Magnolia”. In 2006, the Writers Guild Of America ranked the screenplay number 38 on its list of the 101 greatest screenplays. On a budget of only $15 million, “American Beauty” ranked in $356.3 million worldwide. 

Alan Ball’s screenplay is the foundation in which “American Beauty” stands. His dialogue is sharp, clever, understated, funny, challenging, and biting, the characters are deep enough to drive the story. First time filmmaker Sam Mendes not only brought Ball’s script to life but also made difficult decisions regarding what to cut and what to focus on. Mendes’ direction is simple but yet impactful and as a directorial debut, it’s quite phenomenal. Mendes finds the balance between it being a light suburban comedy and a dark distressing art film.

In adding to the films excellence and making it one of the great cinematic achievements, is the impressive performances by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening who are absolute powerhouses. With Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper and Mena Suvari rounding out the stunning cast. “American Beauty” doesn’t contain just one thing that sticks out and makes it all work, it has multiple parts that make “American Beauty” an American cinematic achievement and a stunner. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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