AMERICAN BEAUTY (DIR:SAM MENDES) (SCR: ALAN BALL)
The Academy's decision for best picture of 1999 was a bit of a surprise: Sam Mendes's AMERICAN BEAUTY is no sweeping epic or period piece, instead it was the first modern dramatic film to win best picture since 1988's RAIN MAN. It's also a dark, satirical and often hilarious look at modern American suburban life, not the stuff of most Oscar winners. Even more surprising, both director Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball had never worked on a feature film before. Personally, I think it was an excellent, perhaps even bold choice, and I assume the Academy responded to the fact that the film is multilayered and open to a number of interpretations, along with being highly entertaining.
Ball began working on the script, which he originally intended to be a play, in the early 1990's, and he based it on the then media circus that was surrounding teenager Amy Fisher and her obsessive love for a middle aged man. He shelved the idea for a few years while he worked as a TV sit com writer. Frustrated with the limitations of television, he decided to try pitching movie ideas, and revived and rewrote his play. The script bounced around for a while before the Dream Works studio decided to buy it. Many directors, some of them big names Robert Zemeckis and Mike Nichols, were considered. Meanwhile, veteran theater director Sam Mendes was looking to break into films, and when Ball's script wound up in a pile on his desk, he immediately was drawn to it (ironically for such an American story, Mendes was born in England). It turned out that Ball had seen Mendes's theater version of CABARET and thought he would be a good choice. Together they convinced Dream Works to hire him. Despite the studio's desire for a big star like Bruce Willis for the movie's lead role of Lester Burnham, Mendes had already decided on Kevin Spacey, who was known mostly for supporting roles in films like THE USUAL SUSPECTS and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Mendes also cast Annette Bening as Lester's wife Carolyn, and young unknown actors Thora Birch, Mena Suvari and Wes Bentley for the teenager roles. Because the film's setting is never identified, it's anytown feel was captured mostly on Hollywood sound stages, with a few exteriors done in Sacramento, California. The production of the film went quickly, and it's final budget was a modest $15,000,000. After an initial limited release, strong reviews and word of mouth would propel it to gross over $150,000,000 in the US, a rare feat for a drama lacking big stars.
It tells the story of Lester and Carolyn Burnham, a middle aged suburban couple with a high school aged daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). Their marriage is mostly loveless and their daughter is alienated from them. Lester becomes sexually obsessed with his daughter's cheerleading partner Angela (Mena Suvari). While pursuing her, Lester also quits his job, starts smoking pot and buys a new car. Meanwhile his daughter finds herself drawn to next door neighbor (and pot dealer) Ricky (Wes Bentley), and Carolyn starts an affair of her own.
The film is narrated in funny, bright tones by Spacey's character Lester, who blithely mentions right away that he is speaking to us from beyond the grave; it is a tribute to Ball's excellent script that the narration is used sparingly, mainly at the beginning and end of the film, without falling into the usual trap of "over explaining" that film narration often does. And it's appropriate that Lester's narration is only sporadic in that this film is not just about one man facing a mid life crisis, but a whole group of interconnected people facing their own problems. And what problems we see! Ball and Mendes rip the facade of bland suburbia away and shows the lies and desperation underneath: from infidelity and drug use to repressed homosexual urgings and dysfunctional families. And all of the characters feel true, like people we all know, without being wholly good or bad, and with layers that aren't readily apparent. (He even gets the teenage characters right!) For example, Wes Bently's Ricky seems creepy and odd when he first appears videotaping Jane without asking her, but we eventually see him as a gentle, poetic soul who videotapes things because he sees the beauty in everything around him and wants to remember as much as possible.
Spacey won a best actor award for his performance, and it's easy to see why; although his Lester never shows big emotions (he seems calm even when hurling a plate at the wall), we always know what he is thinking, and Spacey makes his transformation from pudgy shlub to buff dynamo more than just a physical one. The film's attitude towards him always seems complicated: while it's hard to condone his lust for a teenage girl, it is that lust that reawakens something in him, making him a better man, pushing him to leave his boring job and stand up to his overbearing wife, often in hilarious fashion. (I love the way he yells "I rule!" after telling his wife he's bought a new car.) While he may seem silly as a 42 year old man trying to act like a 22 year old, his attempt to recapture his youth at least makes him happier, so it's hard to condemn. The real make or break point comes for him at the film's end, when he finally has a chance to have sex with Angela and she tells him that she's a virgin, and then he realizes the absurdity of the situation and calls it off; but the realization that he can't be young again doesn't depress him, indeed it seem to push him into a state of serene acceptance, one in which he is glad to hear that his daughter is in love and reminisces of good times with his wife . It is the film's final act of cruel irony that Lester's final moment of bliss comes seconds before he is shot and killed. But, is this a happy ending or a sad ending? His narration from beyond the grave is clearly coming from a better place, so did his final moment of realization prepare him for the after life? Was it a revelation that made him a better man at the best possible moment, gaining him a trip to heaven? By resisting temptation, was he made holy? It almost looks like he's is praying as the gun appears behind his head. There are no easy answers given, in fact the last lines of the film clearly imply that only death can truly explain everything ("You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure." Lester intones, "but don't worry... you will someday."), but the fact that such thought provoking questions are even being raised is a rare and wonderful thing in a Hollywood film.
Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari
Along with Spacey, every other performance in the film is excellent, with even minor roles being filled out by good actors. Bening is very good as Carolyn, as she finds a sympathetic side to a cold, perfectionist woman who could come across as just a shrew. I love that way that she gives herself a pep talk when trying to make a real estate sale ("I will sell this house today.") and then cries and slaps herself when she fails, showing that she is just as hard on herself as she is on others. And then there's Chris Cooper as Col. Frank Fitz, perhaps the film's most tragic character, a repressed gay man who's outwardly homophobic to cover his own self loathing; although his actions are terrible, as when he beats his son, we still feel sorry for him when he makes a clumsy attempt to kiss Lester, and Cooper sunken, beaten expression in that moment movingly conveys the tragic sense of longing the character feels. Also memorable is Alison Janney as Fitz's wife Babara; even though she only has a few scenes, she perfectly shows the years of being trapped in a loveless marriage in her almost catatonic eyes.
Yes, this is a great and though provoking movie, and I can't really find any serious flaws in it; even Conrad Hall's cinematography expertly captures the suburban locations in cool, stark and almost colorless beauty ( a look that contrasts nicely with Lester's fantasy sequences, which almost burst with color), while Thomas Newman's unusual, electronic score fits perfectly. It's an both a unlikely Oscar winner and an unlikely Hollywood movie in general, the kind of film rarely made, and rarely made right.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
1999 was a very good year for Hollywood, with a surprising number of good oddball films like Spike Jonez's BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and PT Anderson's MAGNOLIA somehow getting made, and while I certainly enjoyed those two films, I think AMERICAN BEAUTY holds up as a modern classic that people will watch years from now to see how Americans in 90's lived.