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American Beauty (film)

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American Beauty is a 1999 drama film that explores themes of romantic and paternal love, freedom, beauty, self-liberation, existentialism, the search for happiness, and family against the backdrop of modern American suburbia. The film was the screen debut for writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes and starred Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening; all four were nominated for Oscars. In 2000 it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.



Article below this line is likely to contain spoilers.

Lester Burnham (Spacey) is a 42-year-old man living in the suburbs. His wife Carolyn (Bening) is an ambitious realtor; his daughter Jane (Birch) is a typical teenager.

However, Lester finds motivation for transforming himself after meeting Angela Hayes (Suvari), Jane's best friend and classmate. Angela, a beautiful, confident, and supposedly promiscuous cheerleader who aspires to be a model, captivates Lester the moment he sees her perform a school dance routine, and he develops an obvious crush on her, much to Jane's embarrassment. Angela, however, finds Lester "sweet" and later comments to Jane that if he were more muscular, she would "totally fuck him," which Lester overhears. He starts an intensive workout regimen.

Meanwhile, a family consisting of the consevative Colonel Frank Fitts, USMC (Cooper), his catatonic wife Barbara (Janney), and their introspective son Ricky (Bentley) moves next door to the Burnhams. Jane begins to notice Ricky videotaping her through her bedroom window, which secretly flatters her.

In one eventful day, Carolyn begins an extramarital affair with a rival realtor and also decides to begin relieving her stress at a shooting range; Lester quits his job, blackmails his boss for an enormous severance package, and begins work anew at a fast food restaurant; and Jane and Ricky bond over camcorder footage of a plastic bag "dancing" in the wind, which Ricky considers the most beautiful thing he has ever recorded.

The next day Lester calmly catches his wife with her lover at a drive-thru window of the fast food restaurant where he has now taken a job. Carolyn's lover breaks off their liaison, and she angrily drives home with her gun with the intention of confronting her husband, believing him to have ruined her life. Lester calls Ricky to the house for marijuana, raising the suspicions of Col. Fitts, who becomes convinced that his son is gay and subsequently forces him to leave the house. Ricky is happy to oblige.

When Ricky and Jane plan to leave for New York City, Angela, who is visiting Jane's house, accuses both of being "freaks," to which Ricky retorts that she is ugly, ordinary, and boring. At the same time, Lester is confronted and kissed by an emotional Col. Fitts, now revealed as a closeted gay man, but he rejects this advance as a misunderstanding. Lester then finds Angela in tears. His attempt to seduce her derails when she reveals that she is, in fact, a virgin. He cannot bring himself to take her virginity and instead makes her a sandwich in the kitchen. For the first time in a long while, Lester realizes that he is truly happy. As Angela heads to the bathroom, Lester contemplates an old photo of his smiling family - unaware that Frank Fitts is holding a gun to the back of his head.

The movie ends with Lester's description of his life flashing before his eyes, interspersed with scenes of his family and others at the moment of the gunshot.



Alan Ball originally wrote American Beauty for the stage. He saw a paper bag floating in the wind near the World Trade Center plaza and was inspired by it to write the film.[1] Director Sam Mendes eliminated the film's original opening and ending. The film originally began and ended with scenes depicting Ricky and Jane in jail, accused of Lester's murder, and also featured scenes of Lester-as-narrator flying down to visit his neighborhood. In the original version of the script, there was a separate story that included Colonel Fitts having a gay lover who died in Vietnam. It also included a scene in which Lester and Angela had sex.

The brief topless scene of Thora Birch was shot in the presence of her parents and child labor representatives, since she was barely seventeen at that time. Many of the school scenes were shot at South High School, in Torrance, CA, and most of the extras in the gym crowd were South High students. Sam Mendes designed the two girls' appearances to change over the course of the film, with Thora Birch gradually using less makeup and Mena Suvari gradually using more, to emphasize his view of their shifting perceptions of themselves.

The scene where Spacey is masturbating in bed had to be retaken a number of times. Spacey was instructed to come up with many metaphoric descriptions of masturbation (choking the bishop, saying "Hi!" to my monster etc.) that he just kept rambling on and cracking up Annette Bening.[unverified]

Singer and dancer Paula Abdul choreographed the cheerleading scene.[2] During the movie's second dinner scene, Spacey was only supposed to throw the plate of asparagus onto the floor. However, while shooting, Spacey decided to pitch it at the wall. Birch and Bening's surprise reactions are genuine. [3]


The American Beauty rose cultivar is depicted throughout the film; Carolyn grows roses in her garden and has vases of cut American Beauty roses in the home. Also in Jane's first appearance in the film she is shown wearing a dark sweater bearing a rose pattern. Lester's fantasies about Angela are made distinct from reality by the presence of American Beauty rose petals on or about her body. The American Beauty is a flower that looks pretty, as we see in the film, but it is prone to rot underneath easily. Therefore the flower symbolizes a lot in the film; how things can look beautiful on the outside and be somewhat different on the inside. The American Beauty's purpose is just to look pretty, and nothing else. Perhaps this is a reference to Angela who has undefined beauty on the outside but is very bland on the inside. It may also be a reference to Carolyn who is trying to make everything look perfect on the outside when as viewers we can see that it's all quite ugly.

The color red appears numerous times throughout the movie, most notably in the blood splatter when Lester is killed in the final scene. This theme of color follows logically from the appearance of the roses, and the door of the house.

Furthermore, windows are cleverly used throughout the movie as Ricky's movies are all shot through them, during the sex scene with Lester, and throughout many of the other scenes. It can be argued the windows act as a lens that distort the true image of what is happening.

"Look Closer" is a phrase that indefinitely followed this picture from production all the way to movie posters. In a scene at Lester's cubicle you can find the same words written on a small post it note. The film invites its viewers to "Look Closer".

Repression of one's real desires and hiding one's insecurities are recurring motifs throughout the film. Lester claims to be dead inside long before his physical death. During his mid-life crisis, he finds that he enjoys expressing himself again after yielding to Carolyn's personality for so long. Carolyn yearns for success and the appearance of success, so she denies that there are marital problems. After Jane meets Ricky Fitts, her behavior and appearance changes. Frank Fitts is a staunch Marine Colonel who has been repressing his homosexuality for many years. As a result, after Lester declines his advances, Fitts kills Lester. Angela Hayes adopts a self-confident, haughty and promiscuous exterior to hide her own insecurities.

The film makes fun of the excessive emphasis in the USA on rhetoric. For instance, just before some potential buyers arrive at the house Carolyn is trying to sell, she repeatedly says to herself, "I will sell this house". Later, she listens to a self-help tape, which is heavy on rhetoric, which tells her to say to herself over and over again, "I refuse to be a victim".

Beauty is another theme in the film. Angela says, "There is nothing worse than being ordinary." Angela thought she was "ordinary," whereas Lester sees her as anything but. Ricky says in his narrative that even an ordinary plastic bag blowing in the breeze has the ability to be beautiful - it only depends on how it is viewed. Hence all the characters of the film are in some way beautiful, even if they are unaware of it. Template:endspoiler

Soundtrack and score[edit]

The score to American Beauty was composed by Thomas Newman. The soundtrack features songs by artists such as The Who, Free, eels, The Folk Implosion, Gomez, and Bob Dylan, as well as a cover version of The Beatles "Because" performed by Elliott Smith (original Beatles recordings are rare in motion pictures and the rights difficult to obtain). The film also features "Don't Let It Bring You Down" performed by Annie Lennox, though this was not included on the soundtrack.

The Orginal Motion Picture Score was later released on January 11, 2000. This contains 19 tracks composed by Thomas Newman for the film.


Three months in advance of the film's opening, New York Times reviewer Bernard Weinraub described it as "the most talked about film of the moment." The column, which ran on the weekend of July 4, gave few specifics regarding the film itself, but noted that the film was generating "tremendous buzz" within the DreamWorks studio, as the details of how and when the movie would be released were being debated; it also reported that Steven Spielberg (a co-founder of DreamWorks) called the film one of the best he'd seen in years and that Bening was moved to tears at an early screening of the film.[4][5]

The movie premiered on September 8, 1999, in Los Angeles, California, to reviews that generally reaffirmed the advance hype, uniformly praising the cast, script, and cinematography, as well as the first-time direction by Mendes. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthman called it "a dazzling tale of loneliness, desire and the hollowness of conformity." Jay Carr for the Boston Globe called the film "a millennial classic"; the New York Post called it "a flat-out masterpiece." Among the smaller number of critics who expressed negative opinions of the film were J. Hoberman of the Village Voice and Wesley Morris of the San Francisco Examiner, both of whom were critical of the film's script and direction, if not its performances.[6]

On September 11, it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice award just days before its opening. Aided tremendously by the positive press, the film took in $861,531 on its opening weekend in the United States, despite a limited release to only 16 screens. By October, the film was released to a wider audience, and quickly surpassed the film's estimated $15,000,000 production budget. Ultimately, the film would gross $356,296,601 internationally.[7]


The movie dominated the 1999 Oscars, with a total of eight nominations. It also had another 82 wins and 63 nominations at numerous other award ceremonies.



  • Academy Award for Best Actress (Annette Bening)
  • Academy Award for Original Music Score (Thomas Newman)
  • Academy Award for Film Editing (Tariq Anwar)
  • American Cinema Editors, USA: Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film - Dramatic
  • American Comedy Awards, USA: American Comedy Award for Funniest Motion Picture, Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role)
  • Art Directors Guild: Excellence in Production Design Award for Feature Film
  • Awards of the Japanese Academy: Award of the Japanese Academy for Best Foreign Film
  • BAFTA Award for Best Direction (David Lean Award for Direction) (Sam Mendes)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay - Original (Alan Ball)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Wes Bentley)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Thora Birch)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Mena Suvari)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Sound
  • BAFTA Award for Best Production Design
  • BAFTA Award for Best Make Up/Hair
  • Blockbuster Entertainment Awards: Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Actress - Drama, Favorite Supporting Actor- Drama, Favorite Supporting Actress - Drama, Favorite Actor - Drama, Favorite Actress - Newcomer (Internet Only)
  • BRIT Awards: Brit for Best Soundtrack
  • Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: CFCA Award for Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Actress
  • Cinema Audio Society, USA: C.A.S. Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for a Feature Film


  • The bartender at the restaurant where Ricky works is played by producer Bruce Cohen.
  • On the DVD, Sam Mendes says that he gave Steven Spielberg a private screening of the movie, which drove him to tears upon finishing it.
  • The film’s tagline found on the DVD cover, "Look Closer," can be seen on a card or bumper sticker on Lester's desk in the beginning of the movie. The production designer had stuck it there at random, and it was picked up for use as the tagline, according to director Sam Mendes.
  • While the hand that opens the door at the end of the movie - when Ricky and Jane first find Lester - is assumed to belong to the actor Wes Bentley, it is actually the hand of director Sam Mendes.
  • The self-help tapes that Carolyn listens to are made by a certain "Dr. Alan Ball" - Alan Ball wrote the screenplay.
    • The content of the motivational tape Carolyn recites at the end of the film derives from Keith Raniere's Executive Success group (and suspected cult/LGAT).[unverified]
  • The hand and stomach on the film's poster, a reference to a scene featuring Mena Suvari, are actually those of actress/model Chloe Hunter.
  • The filmmakers' original choice for the lead role of Lester Burnham was actor Chevy Chase, but he turned it down because of the screenplay's strong sexual themes, fearing that it would tarnish his family-friendly image.

In popular culture[edit]

Angela Hayes: Jane, he's a freak!
Jane Burnham: Then so am I! And we'll always be freaks and we'll never be like other people and you'll never be a freak because you're just too... perfect!


  1. Statement made during Alan Ball's Oscar acceptance speech
  2. IMDB trivia page for American Beauty
  3. A wikipedia editor speculates that this may be parody of the chilling moment when Marlon Brando threw crockery before two women in A Streetcar Named Desire.
  4. Sragow, Michael (2000-03-30). "American BJ" (in English). Retrieved 2006-07-16. </li>
  5. Weinraub, Bernard (1999-07-02). "At the Movies" (in English). The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-07-05. </li>
  6. Hoberman, J.. "Boomer Bust" (in English). The Village Voice.,hoberman,8285,20.html. Retrieved 2006-07-05. </li>
  7. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named imdbbiz
  8. </ol>

External links[edit]


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