American Beauty

American Beauty Study Guide

American Beauty is a DreamWorks production that was shot in 1999 and released in the United States in 2000. It was the big-screen debut for director Sam Mendes, as well as for writer Alan Ball. The film was produced by Alan Ball, Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, and Stan Wlodkowski. It met with tremendous critical success, and went on to win five Oscars: Best Actor (for Kevin Spacey), Best Cinematography (for Conrad L. Hall), Best Director (for Sam Mendes), Best Picture (for Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks), and Best Screenplay (for Alan Ball). Also nominated were the following: Annette Bening (for Best Actress), Tariq Anwar (for Best Editing), and Thomas Newman (for Best Original Score). The film enjoyed almost universal rave reviews and record-breaking box-office sales.

Alan Ball has said that he was inspired to write the script while sitting in the World Trade Center Plaza in New York and watching a plastic bag blow around in the wind. Ball clearly references this inspiration with Ricky's "beautiful" film-within-the-film, which depicts a plastic bag blowing amongst the autumn leaves in front of a brick wall. The original title, American Rose, carried some of the same meanings as American Beauty. The new title is also a nod to the roses that are lovingly included in the film: specifically, American Beauty roses.

American Beauty tells the story of Lester Burnham, an ordinary American man who finds a way to free himself from his mundane, loveless existence. For one year, Lester lives the opposite of the traditional American Dream: he quits his job, blackmails his boss, gets a job working at a fast-food restaurant, and spends his time smoking pot with the teenage dealer next door and lifting weights in his garage. While this transformation could be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill mid-life crisis, Mendes conveys to the audience that the true crisis was Lester's life: these odd new habits and beliefs are his redemption. Meanwhile, Lester's deeply repressed wife, Carolyn, is having an affair with a local real-estate giant, and Lester's daughter, Jane, is falling in love with the dealer who lives next door. Just as Lester declares in the opening moments of the film, the story ends with his death. Though the audience momentarily contemplates the possibility that Lester's wife or daughter will prove to be the murderer, we eventually learn that Lester has been killed by his neighbor, Colonel Fitts, in the wake of Colonel Fitts' startling revelation that he harbors repressed homoerotic desires for Lester. Despite the fact that Lester's new lifestyle is what ultimately leads to his death, the beatific smile that glows on Lester's face at the moment he meets his end suggests that the freedom and happiness he experienced during his last year were more than compensation for the fact that his time was cut short.

Many critics (and especially European critics) were intrigued to note that the American public fell in love with a film that is at heart an insightful critique of modern American life. Lester Burnham rejects the trappings of middle-class success in order to find true happiness. He likewise abandons the idea that money or things can bring one pleasure, and separates his personal identity from his choice of employment. Meanwhile, Carolyn Burnham, the archetype of American industry, is ridiculed for her desire to appear perfect in public and desperate need to protect her $4,000 couch from being soiled (at the expense of her relationship with her husband).

In fact, American Beauty has artistic roots in many American classics, which frequently offer scathing critiques of American culture and society. Lester Burnham's lust for the young Angela Hayes recalls Humbert Humbert's passion for the young Dolores Haze in Lolita. Many viewers have noted that "Haze" is a homophone for "Hayes", and some have gone so far as to point out that "Lester Burnham" is an anagram for "Humbert learns." Lester's original situation is also reminiscent of Willy Loman's circumstances at the beginning of Death of a Salesman. More generally, Jane and Rickie's passion recalls an updated and modified Romeo and Juliet.