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.
The beauty in the american dream
The movie American Beauty shows what can happen when one achieves the American dream and it is not what many would expect. The director Sam Mendes shows us what we sacrifice in our lives when we achieve the American dream because life tends to go stale within the confines of a picket-fence, consumerist, and career-driven version of the American dream (journal). The main character Lester Burnham played by Kevin Spacey is a man who is growing older and is unloved by his daughter; ignored by his wife and unnecessary at work because their life is so mundane and consumed by the American dream. American Beauty displays the family as trapped by the ideology of the American dream and the need to find balance and escape from the reality of the American dream, breaking away from the norm; the movie is a tale of liberation, to live with satisfaction after you achieve what is considered the American dream.
To summarize the film, the main character Lester Burnham is a 42 year old father, husband and advertising executive. His wife Carolyn is an unsuccessful realtor and his 16 year old daughter Jane is unhappy and struggles with self- esteem issues. Lester is a depressed man that hits his midlife crisis and he meets his daughters’ friend Angela and immediately develops an infatuation for her that is obvious to his family. Lester then crashes and makes a life changing choice by black mailing his boss, quits his job and trades his current car for a nice red sports car. Through the course of the film his wife cheats on him with a rival real estate agent and his daughter develops a romantic relationship with the neighbor’s son, Ricky who Lester purchases marijuana from. Ricky’s father Col. Fitts notices the growing relationship between his son and Lester and suspects that they are having a homosexual affair. While his family is falling apart Col. Fitts witness what he thinks is an act homosexuality between his son and Lester, he is filled with rage and murders Lester in his home. The film concludes with the narration of Lester being content with his death and the realization that there is so much beauty in the world and he is felt with so much gratitude for every single moment of his stupid little life (American Beauty).
The director uses cinematography and characters to develop the overall theme of the movie. An example of cinematography is how the director uses colors in the background or objects in scenes to convey a message. The Burnham family is a symbol by having a white picket fence, blue window shutters, and red roses; red, white, and blue are true American colors. The film also utilizes the color red to represent the color of desire, Lester with the red Pontiac and red rose pedals for his desire for Angela, also Carolyn with the red roses (Journal). In scenes throughout the movie when Lester desires Angela she is encased in red roses, his desire for her overcomes him in multiple scenes. In many scenes involving Carolyn she has red roses in the scene and when she sees her love affairs billboard his background of the ad is red displaying her desire for him. That shows how the family is trapped in the ideology of the American dream and the need to desire something else in order to be happy.
Material possessions and looking successful is a recurring theme throughout the film. There is scene where it opens up and reveals the family’s home; it focuses on Carolyn trimming her vibrant red roses with matching red garden shears emphasizing the color red for desire. Another instance is where Carolyn cannot sell a house; she abuses herself in front of a mirror: she cries and slaps herself in the face because all she wants is to be a successful real estate agent. (Ebert) Carolyn’s obsession with materials and success clouds her happiness and even causes herself to cheat on her husband with another what she considers successful man.
In a comparison of scenes of the Burnham family we see an important shift of how the family operates after Lester decides that he is not going to be tied down to the American dream. The first scene of dinner, the room is lit bright with light blue wallpaper decorated with happy family pictures and classical music playing in the background. The family dines on a formal dinner table with lit candles as the center piece, again showing how Carolyn is obsessed with material possessions trapped in the American dream. During dinner Jane wonders why they have to listen to the type of music playing; a classical type of song that shows sophistication and success. The family tries to interact with small talk that ends up ending dinner due to some confrontation between the family members because Carolyn is disgusted with Lester and Lester’s relationship with his daughter has become distant. To compare this scene with next dinner scene after Lester has decided to liberate himself the family is upbeat and Carolyn and Lester bicker at one another Jane tries to leave but Lester shouts at her to sit down. Jane becomes shocked of his new side and decides to sit down, Lester explains that he is tired of being ignored and treated like he does not exist. Carolyn tries to interrupt him but Lester throws a plate against the wall with an intended effect to shut Carolyn up and everyone sits at dinner quietly. Soon after a pause Lester says they will start alternating dinner music (American Beauty). This shows the need to find a balance outside of the American dream, while consumed with all the materials and desires the family has been broken, when Lester liberates himself he finds a new happiness, identity and wants to share it with his family.
Due to the fact that Carolyn is so obsessed with the American dream, it damages her intimacy with her husband. Lester gets upset with Carolyn is when he is trying to engage with her sexually and ends up in an argument because she cares about her furniture more than her intimacy with her husband. The director shows Lester and Carolyn in a living room and Lester is trying to kiss her and they begin to experience passion. They lay on the couch and while Carolyn is about to submit to the intimacy she notices out of the corner of her eye that Lester is about to spill beer on the couch and ceases the sexual advance. He then yells “It’s just a couch!” but then she replies that it’s not just a couch because it cost thousands of dollars and is made of Italian silk (Fredonia). If Carolyn were to find a balance and prioritize differently, her marriage would not be so dysfunctional.
Lastly, Ricky the neighbor’s son is a character that embodies the word beauty in American Beauty. Ricky is not a victim of the American dream; he is detached from the conformed world and searches for all the beauty in it. There is a scene where Ricky films a plastic bag floating in the air; being thrown around aimlessly by the wind. The bag being stuck in the vortex of the winds is a situation of complete freedom and Ricky finds so much beauty in it. He even says “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is going to cave in.” (American Beauty) Ricky does not struggle in the world because he is not consumed by the American dream, he is the only character in the dream that is truly happy and set free other than the fact that he lives under the roof of a controlling father. But that is why he makes the decision to leave his house and move to New York. Since Ricky is not trapped in the ideology of the American dream he sees so much beauty, he feels like he can connect with everything around him including god; he has found the balance in his life (Journal).
American Beauty is a film that focuses on the harsh reality of American families that struggle to find happiness in the search for a reachable dream. It is the cultural tendency to be all work and no play that we may lose ourselves and our families. Even after the Burnham’s achieved the American dream they displayed the need to escape from the pressure of desire in order to find happiness in their lives. Without the dramatic lifestyle change and death of Lester, his family would not have ever reflected on their lives to make the necessary adjustments to find happiness within themselves and between the relationships of the family. Sam Mendes delivers his message of the consequences of achieving the American dream by showing all the misfortunes of this family and encourages society to find the beauty in the world by prioritizing your life properly so life is not gone to waste.
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