Thursday, September 17, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "American Beauty" (1999)

Mena Suvari in American Beauty
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

American Beauty
Release Date: September 17, 1999
Director:  Sam Mendes
Written By: Alan Ball
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, Thora Birch
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 122 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Sam Mendes)
-Best Actor (Kevin Spacey)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Cinematography

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actress (Annette Benning)
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Cider House Rules
-The Green Mile
-The Insider
-The Sixth Sense

And the winner is...

When it comes to films from the 90's to win Best Picture, there are few as immediately divisive as director Sam Mendes' American Beauty. While some accuse it of using the dated "gay villain" archetype, others find rich subtext about American society at the turn of the millennium. It could be that it was only one of two films in the 10 years to not be a period piece (the other being The Silence of the Lambs), and thus would be more dated and controversial. While the film, only 16 years later, seems like a strange and different version of American suburbia, there's still an intriguing portrait of society and its many morals on display. With a stellar cast and one of Kevin Spacey's most iconic performances, the black comedy continues to live on as an anomaly of sorts. Is it great for chastising what now seems obvious, or is it the opposite? It's up to the viewer to decide for themselves by, as the tagline suggests, looking closer.

The story's production starts from the humblest of places. Writer Alan Ball was growing weary of his job writing for various TV shows such as Grace Under Fire and Cybill. When he pitched three different stories to his manager - the two others being more conventional sitcom fare - the rough outline for American Beauty was among them. His manager chose the third one because he felt it was closest to Ball's heart. The story goes that he came up with the concept after noticing a plastic bag floating while sitting near the World Trade Center. The script, which he started in 1992, was also supposed to be more based around the murder of Mary Jo Buttafuoco (wife of Joey), as done by Amy Fisher, a.k.a. "The Long Island Lolita." However, the murder became less relevant to the plot and was eventually extinguished. The same goes for a subplot of a war veteran whose gay lover died in combat - though that character made it to the final draft as Frank Fitts. While the film is rich with references to writer Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," the most interesting subliminal reference is that of protagonist Lester Burnham, which is an anagram for "Humbert learns" - a reference to the book's narrator.

Ball eventually got the shot to make it with help from producer Steven Spielberg. When choosing who should direct, he turned to an unlikely source: Sam Mendes. He was not a director at the time, but was very involved in theater. He received acclaim for his work on the revamped Cabaret theatrical production (with the help of Rob Marshall - who would go on to direct Best Picture winner Chicago). Mendes came across the script and was in love with it, having been a fan of similarly challenging films such as Paris, Texas. This helped to lower overall costs, which Ball feared if they went with a more popular director. While Mendes plead his case, it was Ball who thought that his desire to look under the surface was a perfect fit. Add in his astounding theatrical skills for Cabaret, and a bond was quickly formed.

The film had a familiar slew of odd casting calls. Among them was Kirsten Dunst, who tried out for Angela - Mena Suvari's role. She refused to do it on the grounds that she thought that kissing Spacey would be too gross. Likewise, the final actor to be finalized was Chris Cooper, who took on the role of Frank Fitts. Cooper was reluctant to play the role because he found it conflicted too much with his interests. A portion of him felt uncomfortable doing it. However, it was his wife who convinced him to do it because she believed that the discomfort would help him bring something more substantial to the role. While Spacey was always considered for Lester, an interesting alternative was Tom Hanks. Hanks would go on to work with Mendes on the film The Road to Perdition.

American Beauty is a case of a film being made in post-production. While there were a lot of interesting stories on set, it was the final film that threw the cast for a surprise. There were supposed to be wraparound segments that pinned Lester's murder on the teenage characters. Mendes took them out and shifted more focus onto the teenagers. Among the subtle cues that the director brought to the film, he had Angela wear more make-up and Jane (Thora Birch) wear less to signify changes. Since Birch was 17 at the point of filming, she was required to have parental consent to her brief nude scene. Her parents were on set to supervise. The routine that the school's cheerleading team performed was actually choreographed by Paula Abdul. Many scenes were improvised, largely regarding Lester's more immature phase.

What would become the opening shot was actually intended to be a floating body falling into Lester in his bed. The film, which meant to be vague on the actual location, shot mostly in California. This is problematic to details, especially since most of the area codes and information register as Chicago, Illinois area. To make matters more confusing, there are scenes where Lester is driving around a clearly Burbank, CA street. When Lester works at Smileys (actually a Carl's Jr.), there is a scene where his costar and him don't have any discernible shadows from the sun. This was caused by changing the scene from night to day. While the remainder of the film has continuity with visual cues of rose petals on white backdrops and classicist cinematography, these brief changes can be distracting to those not in the know. Likewise, Thomas Newman's score had a marimba part that was actually done by accident. The marimba player was messing around in between takes, not realizing that he was being recorded.

While most can likely understand a literal interpretation of "American Beauty," it is actually a reference to a flower that is beautiful on the outside, but rots at the core. It serves as an apt metaphor for the film's subject. The "look closer" tagline was actually thanks to a set designer decorating Lester's desk. Mendes didn't notice this until post, and added it to the marketing. When it came time for Oscars consideration, there wasn't a clear favorite in 1999. As a result, parent company Universal launched a campaign that would hopefully go different than their previous year's effort for Saving Private Ryan (which lost to Shakespeare in Love). This featured a website designed by with various sources of information. Mendes held various Q&A's. While mailing was illegal, Universal hired three veteran consultants to reach out to voters. The iconography also was incorporated into bookstores and various locales across the voting area's residence. Then, of course, there was advertisements in various publications.

This put American Beauty over the edge and eventually settled it as the favorite. It won five Oscars. It placed Mendes on a very short list for Best Director winners who won for their first film. It became the first film for Universal to win Best Picture. Since the film was a modern commentary on societal normality, it made sense that former Best Picture winner The Apartment was a strong influence on the film. Since both are dark comedies, they share a certain similarity. During his acceptance speech, Spacey made a loving tribute to The Apartment actor Jack Lemmon, even dedicating the award to him. In tangential news, this was also the year that 55 Oscar statues were stolen from a loading dock two weeks before the ceremony. Nine days after the reported theft, 52/55 were found in a Food 4 Less garbage bin. They found the thieves, who plead no contest.

The legacy of  American Beauty is one of an odd reputation. To summarize, Empire named it among the 100 greatest films in history. Meanwhile, Premiere named it among the most overrated movies. Many scholars have gone about dissecting the film's various themes including sexuality and repression, conformity and beauty, imprisonment and redemption, and temporality and music. Speaking as Mendes had an attentive eye and a desire to look underneath the story's surface, this can easily be seen as a compliment. Even if the film has become very divisive in the years since, its iconography continue to remain specific. The rose-petaled imagery over a naked abdomen (which is model Chloe Hunter's, not Suvari's) has been parodied countless times. 

Even if the film has faded slightly into obscurity, it remains a perplexing look into a culture that is vastly different from now. Maybe the ideals aren't as strong as they are now, but that's to look through a haphazard hindsight view. Much like Kramer vs. Kramer or Ordinary People before, it's a film that far better encapsulates cinema in that era than any of the many period pieces could. Mendes, who has gone on to an impressive career, brought a special eye to the work and made a lasting film about questionable characters. He turned contemporary life into art. Even if Lester doesn't seem like a "real" character to you, there's some truth in him that, much like the namesake's flower, is a little rotten at the core. It's a bold, strange film to win Best Picture, but not a totally undeserved one. It may be dated and ridiculed, but it still provides hope for those looking for faith in modern cinema addressing modern issues instead of burying their head in the past.

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