American Beauty is a 1999 American drama film directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. Kevin Spacey stars as office worker Lester Burnham, who has a midlife crisis when he becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter’s best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Annette Bening co-stars as Lester’s materialistic wife, Carolyn, and Thora Birch plays their insecure daughter, Jane; Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper and Allison Janney also feature. The film has been described by academics as a satire of American middle class notions of beauty and personal satisfaction; analysis has focused on the film’s explorations of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, beauty, materialism, alienation, self-liberation and redemption.
Ball began writing American Beauty as a play in the early 1990s, partly inspired by the media circus around the Amy Fisher trial in 1992. He shelved the play after realizing the story would not work on stage. After several years as a television screenwriter, Ball revived the idea in 1997 when attempting to break into the film industry. The modified script had a cynical outlook that was influenced by Ball’s frustrating tenures writing for several sitcoms. Producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen took American Beauty to DreamWorks; the fledgling film studio bought Ball’s script for $250,000, outbidding several other production bodies. DreamWorks financed the $15 million production and served as the North American distributor. American Beauty marked acclaimed theater director Mendes’ film debut; courted after his successful productions of the musicals Oliver! and Cabaret, Mendes was nevertheless only given the job after twenty others were considered and several “A-list” directors turned down the opportunity.
Spacey was Mendes’ first choice for the role of Lester, even though DreamWorks had urged the director to consider better-known actors; similarly, the studio suggested several actors for the role of Carolyn until Mendes offered the part to Bening without DreamWorks’ knowledge. Principal photography took place between December 1998 and February 1999 on soundstages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, California and on location in Los Angeles. Mendes’ dominant style was deliberate and composed; he made extensive use of static shots and slow pans and zooms to generate tension. Cinematographer Conrad Hall complemented Mendes’ style with peaceful shot compositions to contrast with the turbulent on-screen events. During editing, Mendes made several changes that gave the film a less cynical tone.
Released in North America on September 15, 1999, American Beauty was positively received by critics and audiences alike; it was the best-reviewed American film of the year and grossed over $350 million worldwide. Reviewers praised most aspects of the production, with particular emphasis on Mendes, Spacey and Ball; criticism tended to focus on the familiarity of the characters and setting. DreamWorks launched a major campaign to increase American Beauty’s chances of Academy Award success; at the 72nd Academy Awards the following year, the film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Spacey), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.