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American Beauty is a 1999 American drama film, directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a disaffected middle-aged office worker who has a midlife crisis and becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter's best friend. The film co-stars Annette Bening and Thora Birch as Lester's wife and daughter respectively. Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley and Chris Cooper also feature. American Beauty marked acclaimed theater director Mendes' film directorial debut; it was also Ball's first produced film screenplay. The film was financed by DreamWorksmarker, which bought Ball's spec script for a six-figure sum in 1998.

Spacey was Mendes' first choice for the role of Lester, though DreamWorks had urged the director to consider better-known actors; similarly, the studio suggested several actors for the role of Carolyn—Lester's wife—until Mendes cast Bening without DreamWorks' knowledge. Principal photography took place between December 1998 and February 1999 on soundstages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbankmarker, California and on location in Los Angeles. The film underwent several changes during editing that affected its tone and eliminated expository bookend scenes. American Beauty was positively received by critics and audiences alike; it was the best-reviewed American film of 1999 and grossed over $350 million worldwide. It won the 1999 Academy Award for Best Picture, and was nominated for and won numerous other awards and honors, mainly for the direction, writing, and acting.


Lester Burnham (Spacey) feels his office job has few prospects for advancement and despises his superiors. His wife, Carolyn (Bening), is an ambitious real-estate broker; their 16-year-old daughter, Jane (Birch), abhors her parents, has low self-esteem and is saving money for a breast augmentation operation. The Burnhams' new neighbors are retired United States Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts (Cooper), his dissociative wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), and their teenage son, Ricky (Bentley).

After watching a high school basketball game at which Jane is a cheerleader, Lester develops an infatuation with Jane's sexually precocious friend and classmate, Angela Hayes (Suvari). His recurring fantasies entail a sexually aggressive Angela among red rose petals. Frank controls Ricky with a strict disciplinarian lifestyle and gives him regular drug tests. Ricky, a cannabis smoker and drug dealer, evades detection through the use of clean urine samples obtained from a client. Ricky frequently uses a hand-held video camera to record his surroundings and keeps hundreds of taped videos in his bedroom. Carolyn begins an affair with a business rival, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Lester is informed he is to be laid off, but blackmails his boss, quits his job and takes up low-pressure employment at a fast food chain. He buys his dream car, starts lifting weights and begins running to improve his physique and impress Angela, whom he overheard telling Jane that she would find him sexually attractive if he had muscle. He also takes up smoking cannabis, which he buys from Ricky. Lester continues to fantasize about Angela and flirts with her whenever she visits Jane. The girls' friendship wanes and Jane becomes romantically involved with Ricky; the lovers bond over Ricky's camcorder footage of what he considers the most beautiful imagery he has filmed: a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

Lester discovers Carolyn's infidelity, but reacts indifferently. Buddy breaks off the affair with the excuse that it could lead to a financially ruinous divorce for him. Frank becomes suspicious of Lester and Ricky's friendship and searches his son's room. He finds camcorder footage that Ricky had captured by chance—Lester's lifting weights in his garage while nude. Frank mistakenly concludes that Ricky and Lester are engaged in a sexual relationship after watching their drug rendezvous through the garage window. After Ricky returns home, Frank beats him and accuses him of being gay. Ricky falsely admits the charge and goads Frank into turning him out of their home. Ricky convinces Jane to flee with him to New York City. Angela protests and Ricky answers her vanity by calling her ordinary.

Carolyn loads a gun and drives home. Frank confronts Lester in the garage and attempts to kiss him; Lester rebuffs the advance and Frank flees. Moments later, Lester finds a distraught Angela; she asks him to tell her she is beautiful. He does, and she begins to seduce him. After learning that Angela is a virgin, Lester halts and the pair instead bond over their shared frustrations. Angela tells Lester that Jane is in love, and Lester tells Angela he is happy. While Angela goes to the bathroom, Lester smiles at a family photograph in the kitchen. A gunshot rings out and blood spatters on the wall in front of Lester. Ricky and Jane find him dead. The actions of the other characters in the moments before and after his death are shown: Frank's returning home, bloodied, a gun missing from his collection; Carolyn's crying in their bedroom; Jane, Ricky and Angela reacting to the gunshot. Lester's closing narration explains that despite his death he is happy, as it is hard to be mad when there is so much beauty in the world.



In 1997, Alan Ball signed with the United Talent Agency (UTA) with the intent of making the transition from writing for television to films. After Ball experienced frustration writing for the situation comedies Grace Under Fire and Cybill, his UTA representative, Andrew Cannava, suggested that Ball write a spec script to "reintroduce [himself] to the town as a screenwriter". Ball pitched three ideas to Cannava: two conventional romantic comedies and American Beauty. Ball had been preoccupied with the idea of writing the story behind a "lurid tabloid murder case"; he attempted to turn the idea into a play in the early 90s, but later felt it would work better as a film. Despite the story's lack of an easily-marketable concept, Cannava advised him to write American Beauty because he felt it was the one for which Ball had the most passion. While the film was in development, Ball continued to work in television, creating another situation comedy, Oh, Grow Up. His anger and frustration at having to accede to network demands on the show, and during his tenures on Grace Under Fire and Cybill, informed his writing of American Beauty. Ball noted, "My experience with the television show is that I bent over backwards to address every single note that everyone gave me, and they seemed to end up not liking it ... My experience with the movie was that I just wrote something ... I wrote it from the heart, I didn't go through development, I didn't have a lot of network executives or studio executives giving me notes, and it became this thing that seemed to really work."

Although Ball did not expect to sell the script—he believed it would act more as a calling card—American Beauty drew interest from several production entities. DreamWorksmarker became aware of the script through producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen. With the assistance of DreamWorks executive Glenn Williamson—with whom Ball had previously worked—and Steven Spielberg in his capacity as studio partner, Ball was convinced to develop the project at DreamWorks; he received assurances from the studio—known at the time for its less edgy fare—that it would not "iron the [edges] out". In April 1998, DreamWorks acquired the script for $250,000, outbidding Fox Searchlight Pictures, October Films, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Lakeshore Entertainment. With Jinks and Cohen attached as producers, DreamWorks planned to make the film for $6–8 million.

In the same year, theater director Sam Mendes revived the musical Cabaret with fellow director Rob Marshall. Beth Swofford of the Creative Artists Agency arranged meetings for Mendes with studio figures in Los Angeles to see if film direction was a possibility. He had wavered over potential directing projects before, feeling that he lacked the necessary experience, but at Swofford's house he came across American Beauty in a pile of eight scripts. He met with Spielberg, who had seen Cabaret and encouraged him to read the script. Mendes said that when he read it, "the script took the decision out of my hands ... I wanted to do it so much." Inspired early in his career by how the film Paris, Texas (1984) presented contemporary America as a mythic landscape, Mendes saw the same presentation in American Beauty, as well as parallels with his own childhood experiences:
All those things I ... described about discovering how contemporary American could be mythic somehow met my own experiences, my own upbringing as an only child.
There are two only children in the movie.
There are two basically dysfunctional families.
They live in suburbia.
I lived on the outskirts of Oxford in the oddest house you can imagine.
With very odd neighbors, exactly in the same way as the movie.
So there were all these things in the movie that chimed with my own experiences.

Several A-list directors were interested in the project, although Ball was not keen on their involvement as he believed the inevitable budget increase would lead to DreamWorks' becoming "nervous about the content". Nevertheless, the studio offered the film to Mike Nichols and Robert Zemeckis; neither accepted. While several directors lobbied DreamWorks, Jinks and Cohen saw Cabaret and arranged a meeting with Mendes. He pitched for the film with DreamWorks executives, finding the support of Jinks, Cohen and Ball; the writer had also seen Cabaret and was impressed with Mendes' "keen visual sense" and the way in which he did not make obvious directorial choices. Ball felt that Mendes preferred to look under the surface of the material, something he felt would be a good fit with the themes of American Beauty. The studio approached Mendes with a deal to direct for the minimum salary allowed under Directors Guild of Americamarker rules—$150,000. Mendes accepted, and later recalled that after taxes and his agent's commission, he only earned $38,000. In June 1998, DreamWorks confirmed that it had contracted Mendes to direct the film.


"I think I was writing about ... how it's becoming harder and harder to live an authentic life when we live in a world that seems to focus on appearance ... For all the differences between now and the [1950s], in a lot of ways this is just as oppressively conformist a time ... You see so many people who strive to live the unauthentic life and then they get there and they wonder why they're not happy ... I didn't realize it when I sat down to write [American Beauty], but these ideas are important to me."
—Alan Ball, 2000
Although Ball was not inspired by one specific incident, he was informed by the media circus around the Amy Fisher trial in 1992; he said he "felt like there was a real story underneath [that was] more fascinating and way more tragic" than the story presented to the public. Early drafts drew on aspects of the trial for bookend scenes (excised in post-production) in which Ricky and Jane are prosecuted for Lester's murder. Ball later felt the scenes were unnecessary, and said they were a reflection of his "anger and cynicism" at the time of writing (see Editing). Ball and Mendes revised the script twice before it was sent to the actors, and twice more before the first read-through. During rehearsals, several improvisations by the actors were incorporated into the shooting script; by the end of principal photography the script had been through ten drafts. Ball said the script's mixing of genres—comedy and drama—was not intentional, but that it came unconsciously from his own outlook on life, of which humor is a "major part". He said that the juxtaposition produced a starker contrast, giving each more impact than if they appeared alone.

Ball identified with Lester and Ricky, feeling he was "equal parts" both. He drew on his own childhood experiences to craft scenes set in Ricky's household. He said, "I grew up in a household with a somewhat troubled father figure and a somewhat shut-down mother figure, so Ricky's household certainly resembles mine in ways. My father was never violent, but he was deeply conflicted in certain ways that are similar to the Colonel." Lester's story mirrors Ball's own—out of necessity, putting youthful passions on hold to work for people for whom he had no respect, in jobs he "detested". Lester's reassessment of his life parallels Ball's too—the common realization in middle-aged men that what seems important has actually dampened the passion they once had for life. Yet Lester's rebellion against society is tempered by the practicality of having to live within it; Ball felt that although some would judge Lester harshly for lusting after a sixteen-year-old, that he was finally "feeling something" was anything but disgusting, and he achieves redemption through his decision not to have sex with Angela.

In the first draft of the script Lester and Angela did have sex; by the time of shooting, Ball had rewritten the scene to the final version. Ball said his anger had blinded him to the idea that to complete his emotional journey, to achieve redemption, Lester needed to not go through with it. Although the film depicts Lester rediscovering his youthful passions, "regressing to childhood", when he is confronted with a real child—through Angela's admission that she is a virgin—he reverts to becoming a father, in Ball's words, "the father he can't be to his own daughter". Also present in the first draft was a flashback to Colonel Fitts' time in the Marines that unequivocally established his homosexual leanings. In love with another Marine, Fitts sees the man die and comes to believe that he is being punished for the "sin" of being gay. Ball removed the sequence because it did not fit the structure of the rest of the film—Fitts was the only character to have a flashback—and because it revealed too much to the audience. He said he had to write it for his own benefit to know what happened to Fitts, even though what remained in later drafts was merely subtext.

The final draft features a scene in Angela's car in which Ricky and Jane have a conversation about death and beauty; the scene differed from earlier versions, which set it as a "big scene on a freeway". The change was a practical decision, as the production was behind schedule and needed to cut costs. Ball agreed on condition that the scene retained a line of Ricky's where he muses on seeing a dead homeless woman: "When you see something like that, it's like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you're careful, you can look right back." Jane asks: "And what do you see?" Ricky: "Beauty." Ball said, "They wanted to cut that scene. They said it's not important. I said, 'You're out of your fucking mind. It's one of the most important scenes in the movie!' ... If any one line is the heart and soul of this movie, that is the line."


By September 1998, DreamWorks had entered negotiations with Spacey and Bening for the lead roles. DreamWorks had suggested Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner, or John Travolta for the role of Lester, but Mendes had Spacey in mind following his performances in the 1995 films The Usual Suspects and Seven, and 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross. Spacey was surprised that Mendes wanted him. He said, "I usually play characters who are very quick, very manipulative and smart ... I usually wade in dark, sort of treacherous waters. This is a man living one step at a time, playing by his instincts. This is actually much closer to me, to what I am, than those other parts." Mendes said that he did not want a big star "weighing the film down", and that Spacey was an actor "capable of making the hair stand up on the back of your neck". The actor loosely based Lester's early "schlubby" physical deportment on Walter Matthau. Over the course of the film, Lester's physique improves from flabby to toned; because Mendes shot the scenes out of chronological order, Spacey alternated postures to portray the stages. Before filming, he and Spacey analyzed Jack Lemmon's performance in The Apartment (1960), as Mendes wanted Spacey to emulate "the way [Lemmon] moved, the way he looked, the way he was in that office and the way he was an ordinary man and yet a special man". Spacey's voiceover is a throwback to Sunset Boulevard (1950), which is also narrated by a dead character in retrospect. Mendes felt it evoked Lester's loneliness.

DreamWorks suggested Helen Hunt or Holly Hunter for the role of Carolyn, but Mendes had already offered the part to Bening without the studio's consent. While executives were upset at Mendes, he was ultimately able to cast her. Bening recalled women from her youth to help her perform the part: "I used to babysit constantly. You'd go to church and see how people present themselves on the outside, and then be inside their house and see the difference." Bening and a hair stylist collaborated to create a "PTA president coif" hairstyle, and Mendes and production designer Naomi Shohan researched mail order catalogs to better establish Carolyn's environment of a "spotless suburban manor". Mendes also lent Bening the Bobby Darin version of the song "Don't Rain on My Parade", which she enjoyed and persuaded the director to include for a scene in which Carolyn sings in her car.

By November 1998, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari had been cast as Jane, Ricky and Angela, respectively. Bentley overcame competition from top actors under the age of 25 to be cast in the role. Peter Gallagher and Alison Janney were cast (as Buddy Kane and Barbara Fitts) after the filming began in December 1998. Chris Cooper plays Colonel Frank Fitts, Scott Bakula plays Jim Olmeyer, and Sam Robards plays Jim Berkley.


Principal photography took place over 50 days between December 14, 1998, and February 1999. Mendes filmed American Beauty on soundstages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbankmarker, California, and at interior and exterior locations in Hancock Park and Brentwoodmarker in Los Angeles. Aerial shots were captured in North California, and many of the school scenes were shot at South High Schoolmarker in Torrancemarker, California, where most of the extras in the gym crowd were South High students. The film is set in an upper middle class neighborhood in an unidentified American town. Production designer Naomi Shohan said the initial plan was to set the film in a "New Jerseymarker-ish" neighborhood, before considering a "high-end" suburb outside Chicagomarker. Shohan likened the locale to Evanston, Illinoismarker, but said, "it's not about a place, it's about an archetype ... The milieu was pretty much Anywhere, USA—upwardly mobile suburbia." The intent was for the setting to reflect the characters, who were also archetypes. Shohan said, "All of them are very strained, and their lives are constructs." The Burnhams' household is set up in direct opposition to the Fitts'—the former a pristine ideal, but graceless and lacking in "inner balance", leading to Carolyn's desire to at least give it the appearance of "perfect all-American household"; the Fitts' home is depicted in "exaggerated darkness [and] symmetry".

The production found it difficult to find buildings that were appropriate for the Burnhams' and Fitts' homes. On the Warner backlot's "Blondie Street", they selected two adjacent properties, one of which director of photography Conrad Hall had filmed for Divorce American Style (1967). The production rebuilt the houses, incorporating several false rooms to give lines of sight between Ricky and Jane's bedroom windows, and between Ricky's bedroom and Lester's garage. The garage windows were designed specifically to obtain the crucial shot toward the end of the film in which Frank—watching from Ricky's bedroom—mistakenly assumes that Lester is paying Ricky for sex. The house interiors were shot on the backlot, on location, and on soundstages when overhead shots were required. The location interiors for the Burnhams' home were shot at a house close to Interstate 405 and Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles; those for the Fitts' home were shot in the city's Hancock Park neighborhood. Ricky's bedroom was designed to be cell-like to suggest his "monkish" personality, while at the same time blending with the high-tech equipment to reflect his voyeuristic side. The production deliberately minimized the use of red, as it was an important thematic signature elsewhere. The Burnhams' home uses cool blues, while the Fitts' is kept in a "depressed military palette".

Mendes made very little use of steadicams, as he felt that stable shots generated more tension. The only hand-held work was for the scene in which Frank beats Ricky—which Mendes said provided the film with a "kinetic ... off balance energy"—and for the excerpts of Ricky's camcorder footage. Ironically, it took Mendes a long time to get the quality of Ricky's raw footage to the level he wanted. Mendes tried to avoid close-ups, as he believed them to be an overused technique; he also cited Steven Spielberg's advice that he should imagine a row of audience figures silhouetted at the bottom of the camera monitor, to remind him that he was shooting for display on a 40-foot screen rather than for television. Spielberg—who visited the set a few times—also advised Mendes to not worry about costs if he had a "great idea" toward the end of a long working day. Mendes said, "That happened three or four times, and they are all in the movie." He included several homages to other films: shots of family photographs in the characters' homes were inserted to give them a sense of history, but also as a nod to the way that Terrence Malick used still photographs in Badlands (1973). The slow push in to the Burnhams' dinner table is a homage to a similar shot in Ordinary People (1980); Mendes said he held the shot for a long time because his training as a theater director taught him the importance of putting distance between the characters. He wanted to keep the tension in the scene for as long as possible, and only cut away when Jane left the table. The shot of Lester's jogging was a homage to Marathon Man (1976).

Mendes watched several films to better his ability to bring a "heightened sense of style" to proceedings: The King of Comedy (1983), All That Jazz (1979) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). Mendes was so dissatisfied with his first three days' filming that he obtained permission from DreamWorks to reshoot the scenes. He said, "I started with a wrong scene, actually, a comedy scene. And the actors played it way too big ... It was badly shot, my fault, badly composed, my fault, bad costumes, my fault ... And everybody was doing what I was asking. It was all my fault." Aware that he was a novice, Mendes drew on the experience of his director of photography, Conrad Hall: "I made a very conscious decision early on, if I didn't understand something technically, to say, without embarrassment, 'I don't understand what you're talking about, please explain it.

Mendes encouraged some improvisation; for example, the scene in which Lester is masturbating in bed beside Carolyn. The director asked Spacey to think of several euphemisms for the act in each take. Mendes said, "I wanted that not just because it was funny to hear him say 'chasing the carrot' ... but because I didn't want it to seem rehearsed. I wanted it to seem like he was blurting it out of his mouth without thinking. [Spacey] is so in control—I wanted him to break through." Spacey obliged, eventually coming up with 35 phrases, but Bening could not always keep a straight face, which meant the scene had to be shot ten times.


"I said it doesn't really work and you should put the stuff at the beginning back in ... The next day I saw it again with all of the ending removed and it really worked ... That other stuff worked on the page but not really on screen because the movie that evolved was one that for all its darkness had a really romantic heart. It was hopeful and optimistic. And for those kids to go to jail for a crime they didn't commit, especially after seeing the heartbreaking performances of [Bentley and Birch], it was too cynical. And the movie itself ended up not being cynical at all. So I was fine with it."
—Alan Ball on Mendes' desire to cut the trial scenes
Ball's screenplay was bookended by scenes in which Jane and Ricky are convicted of Lester's murder, after being framed by Frank. Mendes filmed the scenes, but trialled several versions of the opening; he said that he spent more time re-cutting the first ten minutes than he did the rest of the film. The first version was true to Ball's screenplay; Mendes excised these scenes in the last week of editing, as he felt they made the film lose its mystery. Ball was not happy when he saw that Mendes had eliminated much of Jane and Ricky's trial, but was more accepting after Mendes made further cuts that eliminated the sequences completely; Ball felt that without those scenes the film had a more optimistic tone, as it had evolved into a film that "for all its darkness had a really romantic heart".

The second part of the opening was a dream sequence in which Lester imagines himself flying above the town before arriving at his own front door. Mendes spent two days filming Spacey against bluescreen, but removed the sequence from the edit as he felt it was too whimsical—"like a Coen brothers movie"—and inappropriate for the tone of the rest of the film. The opening in the final cut reused a scene from the middle of the film in which Jane tells Ricky to kill her father. Originally, this scene was to be the revelation to the audience that the pair were not responsible for Lester's death, as the wider context of the scene—the way it was scored and acted—made it clear that Jane's request was a joke, or a game in which she is playing the part of a "teenage murderess". This is not clear from the portion of the scene that is used in the opening, and in the final cut Mendes included a reaction shot of Ricky that left a lingering ambiguity to his guilt, as he wanted to keep audiences' options open. The subsequent shot—an aerial view of the neighborhood—was originally intended as the plate shot for the bluescreen effects in the dream sequence.

Mendes extensively re-cut the scene in which Carolyn attempts to sell a house. He found it difficult to get the tone right, as he wanted the Carolyn to be realistic and not appear too ridiculous. Bening improvised many of her lines, and Mendes had to cut most of the potential buyers' comic dialogue because it made the sequence too long. Mendes also cut much of the dialogue between Frank and Barbara, as he felt that everything that needed to be said about the pair—their humanity and vulnerability—was conveyed effectively through their shared moments of silence. In total, Mendes cut about 30 minutes from his original edit.


Conrad Hall was recommended to Mendes by Tom Cruise, due to the cinematographer's work on Without Limits (1998), which Cruise had executive produced; Mendes was directing Cruise's then-wife Nicole Kidman in the theater production The Blue Room during American Beauty gestation. Hall was involved for one month during pre-production; his ideas for lighting the film began early, with his first reading of the script, and further passes allowed him to refine his intended approach before he first met with Mendes. Hall felt that Mendes had a strong sense of the film's visual direction from the start; in that meeting, Mendes showed Hall storyboards of the film's opening shot. The director's visual sense surprised Hall, whose experience was that first-time directors were not strong in this area. Hall was initially concerned that audiences would not like the characters, to which Mendes replied that to be able to identify with them he had to look at the "dark areas" within himself. Only during cast rehearsals did Hall feel able to properly conceive the film's look, as he finds it difficult to fully visualize scenes ahead of time; the drama of the script was given life in these rehearsals, allowing Hall to express his inner feelings through the visuals.
"I didn't fully understand [Mendes'] idea to begin with, but once the actors got hold of those wonderful words and started to react to one another, that's where the magic happened. That's where drama can occur, and that's where the palette for the visuals can become extraordinary. You can preconceive all sorts of ways to do a film—whether you should shoot quickly, shoot more traditionally, or any other technique—but to choose those ideas in advance is too hard. For me, [inspiration] comes from watching the actors rehearse with the director."
—Conrad Hall only felt able to identify with the characters during cast rehearsals, which gave him fresh ideas on his approach to the visuals.
Hall described the film's look as "quiet and simple", with "a certain sense of peace, compositionally", evoking classicism. He believed this approach contrasted with the turbulent events depicted, allowing audiences to better take in the action. Hall said that he and Mendes would first discuss the intended mood of a particular scene, but that he was subsequently able to light the shot in any way he felt necessary. In most cases, Hall first lit the scene's subject by "painting in" the blacks and whites, before adding the fill light, which he reflected from beadboard or white card on the ceiling. This gave Hall better control over the placement of the shadows, while keeping the fill light unobtrusive and the dark areas free of spill. Hall shot American Beauty in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio in the Super 35 format, using Kodak Vision 500T 5279 35mm film stock. He shot the whole film at the same T-stop (T1.9); given his preference for shooting that wide, Hall favors high-speed film stocks to allow more subtlety in the lighting effects. He used Panavision Platinum cameras with the company's Primo series of prime lenses and zoom lenses. Hall employed Kodak Vision 500T 5274, and EXR 5248 stock for some scenes that required daylight effects. He had difficulty adjusting to the Vision series of stocks, which he said provided too much contrast. Hall eventually contacted Kodak, who sent him a batch of 5279 that was 5% lower on contrasts. Hall used a 1/8" Tiffen Black ProMist filter for almost every scene, which he said in retrospect may not have been the best choice, as the optical steps required to blow Super 35 up for its anamorphic release print led to a slight amount of degradation; therefore, the diffusion provided by the filter was not required. Hall felt upon seeing the film in a theater that the image was slightly unclear, and that had he not used the filter, the diffusion effect provided by the Super 35–anamorphic conversion would have resulted in an on-screen image closer to how he intended it to look.

Hall said that one of the most difficult scenes to light was the scene at the beginning of the film that depicts Jane and Ricky in the latter's bedroom. The shot begins with a hand-held camera video image that pans around the room; the confined space made it difficult for Hall to place lighting equipment out-of-shot. He used three lights: a Kino Flo was hidden in a shelf and used as the backlight on Ricky, as a sidelight, and a downlight onto the bookshelf; a low power light that was aimed at a piece of beadboard behind the bed; and the fill light. The most difficult aspect was ensuring the television set did not reflect any of the light sources. The later shot that depicts Lester and Ricky behind a building sharing a cannabis joint was a result of a misunderstanding between Hall and Mendes. Mendes had asked Hall to set the shot up in his absence; Hall assumed the characters would look for an area of privacy and set the scene up accordingly, with Lester and Ricky in a narrow passageway between a truck and the building. When Mendes returned, he indicated that the point of the scene was that the characters were smoking the joint in the open, that they did not care if they were seen. The truck was removed and Hall had to rethink his lighting scheme, as he had intended to use the top of the truck. He lit it from the left, with a large light that crossed the actors, and with a softer light from behind the camera. Hall felt the consequent wide shot "worked perfectly for the tone of the scene".

The scene toward the end of the film where Lester encounters Angela in his living room begins with a shot of Lester in silhouette against the doorway, with the light only on his face. Hall wanted to make the light imperceptible enough that it would not spill into the dark areas around Lester, so he used a low power light in place of a fill light, a diffusion glass across the barn doors, and flags to prevent spill. Hall attempted to keep the bouquet of roses in-frame throughout, but instead of keeping them well lit, he aimed low-power, narrow-focus lights at the back edges of the flowers to keep them dark while suggesting a red tinge. Hall lit the edges of other objects to provide definition, and a rain effect on the foreground cross light through the windows for consistency—rain, or the suggestion of it, features in every shot in the last part of the film. Lester approaches Angela and the shot switches to a wide silhouette of the pair against the French windows. Lester and Angela are lit from one light above, and from several through the doors. Hall added material to the windows to make the rain run a little slower, intensifying the light; he said the strength of the outside light was unrealistic for a night scene, but that his liking for strong contrasts made it acceptable. Hall added the fill light and lit the roses to finally show them in full. The result was an image of low color saturation—almost bordering on black-and-white—with a hint of red from the roses. Hall said he did not like to create depth through contrasting colors, but via a color's saturation. He said, "I don't like the separation in an image to be due to the fact that a couch is gray and the walls are orange. Instead, I do it by treating the colors as values of gray and then lighting for depth."

Lester and Angela move to the couch. For each close-up, Hall attempted to keep rain in the shot. He lit the scene through the window onto the ceiling behind Lester. Hall said the ceiling light was the most important component of the shot: at 12–32 fc, it allowed Hall to shape the darkness and provide the contrast necessary to keep these areas black. Lester has only a low-power edge light on him to suggest a stray piece of light rather than full illumination, which Hall said would have created a different mood. Hall kept the subsequent wider shot simple, with a structured framing from the light on Angela's back and the light on the couch. Hall described the looser framing as intending to give "peace and comfort", allowing the viewer room to breathe. He placed the fill light behind Lester and Angela; this prevented spill onto their faces, but was of an intensity that allowed Hall to light the couch without also lighting the back wall, which he preferred to keep dark with the couch's silhouette. Hall used rain boxes throughout the scene, which he could light through to produce a rain pattern where he wanted, without lighting the entire room.


The score was composed by Thomas Newman and recorded in Santa Monicamarker, California. The score features "an unusual collection of moods and colors created largely by percussion instruments" for which inspiration came from Mendes. Newman recalled, "Sam wanted things that hammered and thwacked a bit. He was interested in percussion and mallet instruments, so I started working on various ideas that involved xylophones and marimbas." Percussion instruments included tablas, bongos, and cymbals; other instruments included guitars, piano, flute, and world music instruments. Newman believed the score helped move the film along without disturbing the "moral ambiguity" of the script: "It was a real delicate balancing act in terms of what music worked to preserve that ambiguity."

The soundtrack features songs by Newman, Bobby Darin, The Who, Free, Eels, The Guess Who, Bill Withers, Betty Carter, Peggy Lee, The Folk Implosion, Gomez, and Bob Dylan, as well as two cover versionsThe Beatles' "Because" performed by Elliott Smith, and Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down" performed by Annie Lennox. Produced by the film's music supervisor Chris Douridas, an abridged soundtrack album was released on October 5, 1999 and went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album. An album featuring 19 tracks from Newman's score was released on January 11, 2000.


Imprisonment & redemption

Mendes called the film a "rites of passage" about imprisonment and escape from imprisonment. He intended the opening scenes to portray a boring day, to show the drabness of Lester's existence through his gray, nondescript workplace and characterless clothing, and to set up stock characters from whom the outer layers would be peeled over the course of the film. Lester is depicted as trapped man; the shot of him in a shower cubicle evokes a "jail cell", the first in a series of shots that have the character trapped behind bars or within frames: in his work cubicle and car, behind a white picket fence and a window frame, and his reflection behind columns of numbers on a computer monitor. An early scene showing the Burnhams' leaving home for work and school was not in the original draft of the script; it was inserted at a late stage to show the low point that Carolyn and Lester's relationship had reached. The academic and author Jody W. Pennington argues that Lester's journey is the story's center. The film depicts several turning points in Lester's life; the first is the sexual awakening he has as a result of meeting Angela. Lester feels that he has awakened from a coma and begins to discard the responsibilities and trappings of the comfortable life he despises. Later, at a party with Carolyn, Lester is at his "lowest ebb" when he meets Ricky—according to Mendes, another turning point. The two share a joint; Lester's "soul is released" and he begins to overtly rebel against Carolyn. Lester's next significant turning point is the scene in which Carolyn discovers him masturbating; his angry retort is the first time he can say out loud what he thinks about her. A further awakening occurs in Ricky's bedroom, where Lester has gone to buy cannabis; having regressed to the behavior of his youth, Lester is almost childlike, while Ricky is the adult. Though it ultimately leads to his death, Lester is redeemed through the awakening knowledge of his own repression and middle class angst. His final turning point is the scene in which he and Angela almost have sex. After she confesses her virginity, he ceases to think of her as a sex object, but as a daughter. He hugs her close and "wraps her up". Mendes called it "by far the most satisfying end to [Lester's] journey there could possibly have been". In Lester's final scenes, Mendes wanted to convey that Lester was at the end of a "mythical quest". After Lester gets a beer from the fridge, the camera pushes in toward him, then stops facing a hallway down which Lester walks "to meet his fate". Having begun to act his age again, he achieves closure. As he stares smiling at a photo of his family, the camera pans slowly from Lester to the kitchen wall, onto which blood spatters as a gunshot rings out; Mendes used the slow pan to reflect the peace of Lester's death. His body is discovered by Jane and Ricky. Mendes said that Ricky's staring into Lester's dead eyes is "the culmination of the theme" of the film: that beauty is found in places it is least expected.

Conformity & beauty

Professor Roy M. Anker argues that the thematic center of the film is its direction to the audience to "look closer". The first scene of the film proper is an aerial shot of the suburb in which the events unfold, presenting the audience with a familiar tableau from an unfamiliar vantage point. Coupled with Lester's narration—in which he states that in less than a year he will be dead—the sequence generates "wonder [and] apprehension", forcing audiences to contemplate their own mortality and consider the fundamental beauty of their everyday lives. Lester's announcement of his impending death immediately creates a series of mysteries for the audience to ponder, as Anker sets forth: "... from what place exactly, and from what state of being, is he telling this story? ... if he's already dead, why bother with whatever it is he wishes to tell about his last year of being alive? ... There is also the question of how Lester has died—or will die." The scene that the sequence follows—Jane's videotaped discussion with Ricky about the possibility of killing her father—adds further mystery.

Through its examination of Lester's life, death and rebirth, the film goes on to satirize American middle-class notions of meaning, beauty and satisfaction. Even after Lester's life begins to turn around after meeting Angela, he is governed by selfishness. It is the prospect of sexual fulfillment that delivers him from the docility of his life with Carolyn, and so he remains a "willing devotee of the popular media's exultation of pubescent male sexuality as a route to personal wholeness". Carolyn attempts to create a life of "house beautiful" domestic bliss, similarly concerned with preset notions of what constitutes happiness; from her SUV to the clothes she wears to tend the garden, Carolyn's world is a "fetching American millennial vision of Pleasantville, or Eden". The Burnhams—Jane included—are not aware of that they are "materialists philosophically, and devout consumers ethically" who expect to find happiness through the "rudiments of American beauty". Anker argues that "they are helpless in the face of the prettified economic and sexual stereotypes ... that they and their culture have designated for their salvation."

Ricky's view of beauty is the polar opposite of the Burnhams'. He sees it in everything around him, in the minutiae of everyday life. He captures as much of it as he can on his camera for fear of missing something. He shows Jane what he considers the most beautiful thing he has filmed: a plastic bag, tossing in the wind in front of a wall. He says that capturing the moment was when he realized that there was "an entire life behind things", and says he feels that "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." Anker argues that Ricky, in looking past the "cultural dross", has "[grasped] the radiant splendor of the created world" to see God. The Burnhams begin to glimpse the idea of beauty in ordinariness; Jane has come to understand through Ricky, while Carolyn only sees the beauty of the life with which she was so dissatisfied after Lester dies. It is only at the end that Lester forswears his previous notions of personal satisfaction. On the cusp of having sex with Angela, he returns to himself after she admits her virginity and suddenly appears to him as a child. He begins to treat her as a daughter, and in doing so sees himself, Angela and his family "for the poor and fragile but wondrous creatures they are". He looks at a picture of his family with him in happier times, and dies having had an epiphany that infuses him with "wonder, joy, and soul-shaking gratitude"—he has finally seen the world as it is.

Although American Beauty argues the case against conformity, it acknowledges the human need for it, revealing the repression of people—be they heterosexual or homosexual—who want to fit in. The film's instruction to middle class audiences (reached through its "art house" appeal) is to reject material attachments; it presents the idea that only those wealthy enough—and clever enough to style their actions sympathetically—have the freedom to eschew material trappings to find an inner self. It overtly attempts to induce its audience into a similar rebellion against their own repression. In its a critique of "narcissistic conformity", the film presents a desire even its gay characters to fit in. Jim and Jim, the Burnhams' other neighbors, are a satire of "gay bourgeois coupledom". In effect, they are "the same"; depicted humorously, Jim and Jim are clones that replicate suburban respectability, and are no less guilty of investing in the conformity that the film criticizes in heterosexual relationships. Despite their desire for conventionality, they are clearly "glad to be gay", a contradiction that may seem strange to heterosexual audiences.

Red becomes an important thematic signature; the American Beauty rose features prominently throughout. When Lester fantasizes about Angela, she is naked, surrounded by rose petals; the rose symbolizes his desire for her. The rose also represents a "façade for suburban success" when associated with Carolyn. Virtually every shot of the Burnhams' home includes roses; there, they represent "a mask covering a bleak, unbeautiful reality". Carolyn cuts the roses, puts them in vases—where, out of the earth, they adorn her "meretricious vision of what makes for beauty" and begin to die. Carolyn feels that "as long as there can be roses, all is well." Mendes said all the red items were chosen intentionally. The roses in the Angela–Lester seduction scene symbolize Lester's previous life and Carolyn; the camera pushes in as Lester and Angela get closer, finally taking the roses—and thus Carolyn—out of the shot. Lester's epiphany at the end of the film is expressed via rain and the use of red, building to a crescendo that is in deliberate contrast to the release Lester feels.


Pennington argues that American Beauty defines its characters through their sexuality. Lester's attempts to relive his youth are a direct result of his lust for Angela, and the state of his relationship with Carolyn is in part shown through their lack of sexual contact. At the beginning of the film, Lester's masturbating in the shower ("the high point" of his day) shows how "desolate" his life is; later, his masturbating in bed beside Carolyn is a manifestation of his new-found assertiveness. Also sexually frustrated, Carolyn embarks upon an affair with a business rival. She changes from a "cold perfectionist" into a more carefree soul who "[sings] happily along with" the music in her car. Jane's insecurity is initially depicted through her desire to have a breast augmentation operation. She and Angela make constant references to sex, through the latter's descriptions of her previous sexual encounters (later revealed to be invented), and the way in which they address one another ("total prostitute"; "total slut"). Their scenes of nudity—when Jane allows Ricky to see her topless through her bedroom window, and when Angela and Lester almost have sex—are expressions of the characters' extreme vulnerability. Colonel Fitts reacts with disgust to meeting Jim and Jim; he asks, "How come these faggots always have to rub it in your face? How can they be so shameless?" To which Ricky replies, "That's the thing, Dad—they don't feel like it's anything to be ashamed of." Rather than just homophobia, Fitts' reaction is, according to Pennington, an "anguished self-interrogation". He is so ashamed of his own homosexuality that it drives him to kill Lester after the latter rejects his advances.

The film simultaneously affirms taboos against incest, while comparing them to those against homosexuality, a recurrent theme in Ball's work. Rather than making a distinction between these taboos, American Beauty focuses on the violence that stems from their denial. The film implies two unfulfilled incestuous desires: Lester's pursuit of Angela is a manifestation of his longing for his own daughter, while Colonel Fitts' repressed homosexuality—a result of his previous military homosociality—manifests in the severe, sexualized discipline with which he controls Ricky; "longing looks" accompany Fitts' attack upon his son. Fitts can be read as a representation of Ball's father, whose unfulfilled homoerotic desires led to his own unhappiness. Ball rewrote the character several times, each time delaying the revelation of his homosexuality, which feminist author and academic Sally R. Munt says is a possible expression of Ball's deferment of his own incest fantasies. Fitts' behavior is at first humorous, but this presentation is eventually replaced by a depiction of the "erotic, tender, yet murderous violence" within him.

Music & temporality

The exploration of temporality in American Beauty is not an overt theme; the film has a traditional narrative structure for the most part, and only deviates with the opening scene of Jane and Ricky that, narratively, occurs in the middle of the story. Although the film takes place over one year, it is narrated by Lester at the moment of his death, placing the story "in the interstices between life and death"; Dr Jacqueline Furby says that the plot "occupies ... no time [or] all time", citing Lester's narrated claim that a person's life does not flash before their eyes before they die, but "stretches on forever like an ocean of time". Furby argues that a "rhythm of repetition" forms the core of the film's structure. Two scenes see the Burnhams' sitting down to eat an evening meal together, shot from exactly the same angle; each image is broadly the same, with minor differences in object placement and body language that reflect the changed dynamic brought on by Lester's new-found assertiveness. Another example is the manner in which Jane and Ricky film each other; with Ricky filming Jane from his bedroom window, she removes her bra. The image is reversed later on for a similarly "voyeuristic and exhibitionist" scene in which Jane films Ricky while he reveals a vulnerability.

A "point of view" shot shows events from a character's perspective; therefore, the act of observation can be scored in the same way as other screen activity. As well as scoring these perceptions of space, American Beauty scores observations of time. Lester's fantasies are emphasized by slow motion and "repetitive motion episodes", one of which is the gymnasium scene where Lester first encounters Angela. As the cheerleaders perform their half-time routine to "On Broadway", the film depicts Lester's growing fixation on Angela. Time slows to represent his "voyeuristic hypnosis", and Lester begins to fantasize that Angela's performance is for him alone. The narrative underscore of the pep band is replaced by discordant, percussive music that lacks melody or progression. This non-diegetic score is an important to creating the narrative stasis in the sequence; it conveys a moment stretched to an indeterminate length, during which the observer determines the pace and scope of their inquiry to see nothing less than they require. The aural sensations are more reminiscent of visual ones; Lester—and the score—are staring at Angela. The sequence ends with the sudden reintroduction of "On Broadway" and teleological time.

Use of pop songs

According to Drew Miller of Stylus, while the pop music used in the film is not "as memorable nor as crucial to [its] emotional tenor" as the score, the songs are not filler; instead, they "give unconscious voice" to the characters' psyches, and sometimes—through their lyrics—complement the subtext of a particular scene. The use of Peggy Lee's version of Bali Ha'i at the beginning of the film—in conjunction with "wholesome" images of the Burnhams' and their strained happiness—is intended to convey to the audience the "resurrected innocence of a bygone era". Early in the film, the musical accompaniments to the Burnhams' family dinners are controlled by Carolyn. A "maternal American archetype, she chooses upbeat 1940s and 1950s tunes with "lavish" backing; in the words of Jane, "elevator music". Later, she plays "Call Me Irresponsible", a more discordant tune that conveys the "escalating tension" at the Burnhams' dinner table. Its lyrics reflect Carolyn's attitude to the behavior of Lester, who at that point has just given up his job. Toward the end of the film, Carolyn sings to “Don't Rain on My Parade”, which echoes the way in which life has "figuratively and literally [rained] on her parade".

The most obvious use of pop music to portray a character comes during Lester's regressing to the behaviors of his youth—in the same way that the counterculture of the 1960s combated the repression of 1950s America through music and drugs, Lester begins to smoke cannabis and listen to rock music. Using music from the 1940s through to the 1990s, Mendes' choices "progress through the history of American popular music"; although some may be overfamiliar to the audience, there is a parodic element to the meticulously chosen tracks, "making good on [the film's] encouragement that viewers look closer". Lester's singing to "American Woman"—a song especially recognizable to modern audiences—is difficult to watch without making "peripheral assiciations" to its previous uses. When Jane plays "Cancer for the Cure", the audience only hears a few moments of it before she is forced to switch it off as her parents return home—again inviting the audience to look closer (this time for the song's "homicidal references", which presage the end of the film and Jane feelings toward her parents). The moment reinforces her status as one whose voice is "cut short" throughout the film, as does the film's refusal to associate her with as clearly defined genres as her parents.

Toward the end of the film, Newman's score is given precedence; the use of pop songs becomes more infrequent, their "conspicuous absence [creating] a disturbing tempo" that matches the tension in the visuals. The exception is the use of "Don’t Let it Bring You Down" during Angela's attempted seduction of Lester. At first appropriate, its tone becomes discordant as the seduction is brought to a halt by Angela's revelation that she is a virgin. The lyrics, which speak of "castles burning" are a metaphor for Lester's view of Angela—"the rosy, fantasy-driven exterior of the 'American Beauty —as it burns away to reveal "the timid, small-breasted girl who, like his wife, has willfully developed a false public self".

Authorial intent

The DVD edition provides new avenues of interpretation for viewers of the film; the surface enhancements of DVD editions—promotional and marketing material, improved technical facets—offer but one type of reconstruction. Others come through extensive commentaries from writers and directors. Though they might not necessarily be the most reliable analyzer of their own work, self-conscious filmmakers can offer a reorientation that in effect offers viewers a "new edition" of the film; the commentary can also highlight the limitations of holding authorial intent paramount over other interpretations. American Beauty s commentary provides a clear disconnect between intent and chance. Throughout, Mendes and Hall attempt to offer insight into their intent with particular scenes, but often Hall will contradict Mendes' praise of his work; what Mendes sees as thematic choices, Hall explains as accidental based on practical lighting considerations or simple pleasing imagery. One example is a scene in which Hall shot Spacey in a way that Mendes believed intentionally diminished Lester; Mendes says, "Conrad's added something so beautiful to the shot ... the way the light hits Lester ... it pulls him down away from the wall ... [Hall has] also done something very crucial, [cutting] his feet off at the bottom of the frame." Mendes believed the shot "effectively diminishes Lester both by cropping him and pushing him down the frame, making him even less authoritative in the face of Brad, the consultant, who is consistently shot from below." Hall corrects Mendes by saying that the shot was constructed without such an intent, and that it came about merely because he wanted the ceiling lamp in the frame; the independent intents of the filmmakers do not converge, yet their applications collide.



DreamWorks contracted the website to create the official website for American Beauty, which marked the first time that the commercial website created a special section devoted to a feature film. The film website included an overview, a photo gallery, cast and crew's filmographies, and exclusive interviews with actors Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. The film's tagline—"look closer"—originally came from a cutting pasted on Lester's workplace cubicle by a set dresser.

Theatrical run

American Beauty s world premiere was held on September 8, 1999, at Grauman's Egyptian Theatremarker in Los Angeles, California. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festivalmarker on September 11, 1999. It was also screened at several American universities, including University of California at Berkeleymarker, New York Universitymarker, University of California at Los Angelesmarker, University of Texas at Austinmarker, and Northwestern Universitymarker. The screenings, at which filmmakers and the cast appeared, were intended to help "to bridge the gap between generations" explored by the film.

Graph to show the number of theaters in which American Beauty played in North America in 1999–2000
American Beauty premiered to the public in a limited release on Wednesday, September 15, 1999. The film screened in three theaters in Los Angeles and three theaters in New York on its first day, grossing $72,768 for the day. On Friday, September 17, the film also screened at 10 additional theaters in Toronto, Boston, and San Francisco, grossing $861,531 on its opening weekend. On the following weekend of September 24, DreamWorks expanded the number of theaters from 16 to 429, and American Beauty grossed $5,939,646 in its wider release that weekend. On October 1, DreamWorks distributed the film to 277 more theaters across the United States and Canada for a total of 706 theaters, crossing the 600-theater threshold into wide release. The film grossed $8,188,587 over its first weekend of the wide release, ranking third at the box office. Following American Beauty s wins at the 57th Golden Globe Awards, DreamWorks re-expanded the film's presence at theaters from its low of 7 theaters in mid-February, reaching a peak of 1,990 theaters. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave American Beauty a "B+" grade. In the film's theatrical run in the United States and Canada, which lasted from September 15, 1999 to June 4, 2000, it grossed $130,096,601.

The film's European premiere took place at the London Film Festival on November 18, 1999. In January 2000, it was screened at various territories outside the United States and Canada. On January 14, it debuted in Israel at nine theaters, grossing a "potent" $100,000 in four days for an average of $11,000 per screen. On January 21, American Beauty debuted on limited screens in six European markets: Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, and Finland. In the course of four days, the film grossed $791,000 in 45 theaters in Germany, $853,000 in 62 theaters in Italy, and $652,000 in the rest of the European markets. In the film's two weeks in Israel, an expansion to 25 screens led to a "terrif" $560,000. Following the weekend of January 28, American Beauty had grossed $3.3 million in Italy, $2.9 million in Germany, $579,000 in Austria, and $468,000 in Holland. The film also premiered in Australia with $1.8 million from 108 theaters, in the United Kingdom with $695,000 from 23 theaters, in Spain with $291,000 from 26 theaters, and in Norway with $214,000 from 15 theaters. American Beauty s overseas performance for the second weekend was overall $7 million in 12 countries for an accumulated total of $12.1 million.

On the weekend of February 4, American Beauty debuted in France with $1.6 million from 256 theaters and in Belgium with $562,095 from 40 theaters. In the United Kingdom, it continued to rank first at the box office with $1.7 million from 303 theaters, defeating its competition, House on Haunted Hill. On February 11, the film ranked third in its fourth weekend in Germany, grossing $2,072,635 from 257 screens. It also grossed $719,060 in its second weekend in Belgium. On February 18, following the announcement of American Beauty s eight nominations for the 72nd Academy Awards, the film grossed $11.7 million from 21 territories for $65.4 million to date for territories outside the United States and Canada. Weekend performances included $316,000 from 26 theaters in Germany, $256,000 from 31 theaters in Turkey. The film had "dazzling" debuts in the territories Hungary, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and New Zealand. As of that weekend, the following territories were the most successful for the studio: $15.2 million in the United Kingdom, $10.8 million in Italy, $10.5 million in Germany, $6 million in Australia, and $5.3 million in France. On February 25, strong performances continued in the light of the Academy Award news. The total increased from $65.4 million to $82.8 million following a weekend gross of $10.9 million in 27 countries. The film had strong debuts in Brazil with $828,000 at 135 theaters, in Mexico with $387,000 at 91 theaters, and in South Korea with $404,000 at 38 theaters. Other highlights included $640,000 in six days from 50 theaters in Argentina, $291,000 at 26 theaters in Greece, and $340,000 at 31 theaters in Turkey.

On the weekend of March 3, 2000, American Beauty debuted in three Asian markets that were normally "not receptive to this kind of upscale fare". The film grossed $272,000 at 14 theaters in Hong Kong in four days, $245,000 at 48 theaters in Taiwan in two days, and $165,000 at 13 theaters in Singapore. It also continued a strong performance in South Korea with $1.2 million after nine days. After the weekend of March 10, the film crossed the $100 million milestone with $12.6 million from 23 territories outside the United States and Canada. Highlights included $1.3 million in 12 days in South Korea and $13.3 million in seven weeks in Italy.

Home media

American Beauty was released on VHS on May 9, 2000 and on DVD on October 24, 2000. Before the film's North American rental release on May 9, Blockbuster Video wanted to purchase hundreds of thousands of extra copies of the title to enter it into its "guaranteed title" range, whereby any customer that wanted to rent to film would be guaranteed a copy. Blockbuster and DreamWorks failed to come to an agreement on the sharing of profits from the scheme; the rental chain wanted a similar deal to the one it had with Universal Pictures—DreamWorks' distributor. As a result, Blockbuster ordered two thirds the number of copies it originally intended. DreamWorks made around one million copies available to rental stores; Blockbuster's demand would usually account for about 400,000 of these. In some urban stores, the rental chain only displayed 60 copies of the film; in areas of lower demand, Blockbuster instructed some of its store managers to remove the film from its shelves to force customers to ask for it. The instruction also required Blockbuster staff to read a statement to customers explaining the situation. Blockbuster claimed that the strategy was intended only to "monitor customer demand" for the title due to its reduced availability.

Blockbuster's intended strategy leaked before American Beauty s rental release, leading to a 30% increase in orders from independent retailers—including some Blockbuster outlets owned by franchisees—and Blockbuster's closest rival, Hollywood Video. Commenters speculated that Universal or DreamWorks was the source of the leak. DreamWorks did not have profit-sharing deals with the independent retailers, meaning that it made much of its money on rental copies of American Beauty up front. DreamWorks had a profit-sharing deal with Hollywood Video, but copies of the film were rented in high enough quantities that both companies benefited. In its first week of release in the rental market, American Beauty made $6.8 million. This return was lower than would otherwise have been expected had DreamWorks and Blockbuster reached an agreement; the same year's The Sixth Sense made $22 million, while Fight Club made $8.1 million, even though the latter's domestic theatrical performance was just 29% that of American Beauty. Blockbuster's strategy also affected rental fees for the title; American Beauty averaged a $3.12 fee, compared with the average $3.40 fee for films that Blockbuster promoted in full that year. Only 53% of the film's rentals were from large outlets in the first week, compared with the usual 65%.

In the DVD commentary, Mendes refers to deleted scenes for the viewer to find on the disc. However, these scenes are not on the DVD as he had changed his mind after recording the commentary. He felt that to show scenes he previously chose not to use would detract from the film's integrity.

Critical reception

American Beauty was one of the most positively received films of 1999. Variety reported, "No other 1999 movie has benefited from such universal raves." The film's world premiere in Los Angeles inspired a "phenomenal response" from the audience, and it was the best-received title at the Toronto International Film Festivalmarker (TIFF), where it was praised by critics and film industry professionals; American Beauty won the People's Choice Award after a ballot of the festival's audiences. TIFF's director, Piers Handling, said, "American Beauty was the buzz of the festival, the film most talked about."

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it four stars, saying it's "a comedy because we laugh at the absurdity of the hero's problems. And a tragedy because we can identify with his failure--not the specific details, but the general outline". Jay Carr, writing for The Boston Globe, described American Beauty as "a bracing and biting comedy of American emptiness, both sad and corrosively funny". The critic called the performances "rich" and commended Mendes' avoidance of letting the film "decline into a series of easy shots". Carr concluded, "In ways that few films even attempt, American Beauty dazzlingly and knowingly reflects the ways in which the toxic lovelessness of millennial life can be horrible and funny at the same time." Kevin Jackson of Sight & Sound said that through effortless and "brilliant" execution, the film transcended its clichéd structure and setup to become a "wonderfully resourceful and sombre comedy". He said that even when the film played for blatant situation comedy laughs, it infused these scenes with "unexpected nuance". Jackson praised Spacey's performance; he said that although the actor had already demonstrated his ability in previous films, American Beauty allowed him to impress in different ways; the critic said the most satisfying aspect was Spacey's ability to portray "both sap and hero". Jackson stated that Mendes only occasionally betrayed his roots as a theater director; Jackson believed the "most remarkable" aspect to be that the strength of Spacey's performance did not overshadow the rest of the film, as Mendes managed to stage Ball's "intricate" script smoothly, and to the ensemble's strengths, "deftly serving every change of tone from goofy knockabout to beady observation."

J. Hoberman of the Village Voice was critical of the film's script and direction, if not its performances. Filmmaker Robert Altman and long-time New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael both hated the film.

The generally positive critical reception of the film led to DreamWorks arranging a first look deal with American Beauty s producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen. Sam Mendes was also coveted by various studios following the film's success. Drawing on his newfound influence, Mendes began developing a script with Scott Frank for what later became the 2007 film The Lookout, meeting with potential cast members like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Scenes from the Los Angeles and Toronto premieres, as well as other unique footage related to American Beauty, are featured in the 2009 documentary My Big Break, directed by Tony Zierra, which follows Wes Bentley before and after he landed his breakout role as Ricky Fitts.

Awards and honors

DreamWorks launched a major campaign to promote the film five weeks before the ballots for the Academy Awards were due. Its campaign combined traditional advertising and publicity with more focused strategies to reach 5,600 Academy voters. Although direct mail campaigning was prohibited, DreamWorks reached voters by promoting the film in "casual, comfortable settings" in voters' communities. The studio's candidate for Best Picture the previous year, Saving Private Ryan, lost to Shakespeare in Love, so the studio took a new approach by hiring outsiders to provide input for the campaign. It hired three veteran consultants, who offered advice in brainstorming sessions with the studio: "You've thought big for months, but now it's time to think small." Nancy Willen encouraged DreamWorks to produce a special about the making of American Beauty, to set up displays of the film in the communities' bookstores, and to arrange a question-and-answer session with Mendes for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Dale Olson advised the studio to not limit its marketing to major newspapers, but to also advertise in free publications that circulated in Beverly Hillsmarker, home to many voters. Olson arranged to screen American Beauty to about 1,000 members of the Actors Fund of America, as many participating actors were also voters. Bruce Feldman took Ball to the Santa Barbara International Film Festivalmarker, during which Ball attended a private dinner in honor of Anthony Hopkins, meeting several voters who were in attendance. In 2000, the Publicists Guild of America recognized DreamWorks for the best film publicity campaign.

Award Category Name Outcome
72nd Academy Awards Best Picture Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks Won
Best Actor Kevin Spacey Won
Best Director Sam Mendes Won
Best Original Screenplay Alan Ball Won
Best Cinematography Conrad Hall Won
Best Actress Annette Bening Nominated
Original Music Score Thomas Newman Nominated
Film Editing Tariq Anwar Nominated
American Cinema Editors Best Edited Feature Film – Dramatic Tariq Anwar, Christopher Greenbury Nominated
American Comedy Awards Funniest Actress in a Motion Picture (Leading Role) Annette Bening Won
Funniest Motion Picture Nominated
Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role) Kevin Spacey Nominated
American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases Conrad Hall Won
Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award for Feature Film Naomi Shohan, David Lazan, Catherine Smith Nominated
Australian Film Institute Best Foreign Film Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks Won
Awards of the Japanese Academy Best Foreign Film Nominated
53rd British Academy Film Awards Best Film Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks Won
Best Actor in a Leading Role Kevin Spacey Won
Best Actress in a Leading Role Annette Bening Won
Best Editing Tariq Anwar, Christopher Greenbury Won
Best Cinematography Conrad Hall Won
Anthony Asquith Award (Best Film Music) Thomas Newman Won
David Lean Award Sam Mendes Nominated
Best Screenplay – Original Alan Ball Nominated
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role Wes Bentley Nominated
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Thora Birch Nominated
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Mena Suvari Nominated
Best Sound Scott Martin Gershin, Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, Richard Van Dyke Nominated
Best Production Design Naomi Shohan Nominated
Best Make Up/Hair Tania McComas, Carol A. O'Connell Nominated
BMI Film & TV Awards BMI Film Music Thomas Newman Won
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards Favorite Actress – Drama Anette Bening Nominated
Favorite Supporting Actor – Drama Wes Bentley Nominated
Favorite Supporting Actress – Drama Thora Birch Nominated
Favorite Actor – Drama Kevin Spacey Nominated
Favorite Actress – Newcomer (Internet Only) Mena Suvari Nominated
BRIT Awards Best Soundtrack Nominated
Bodil Awards Best American Film Sam Mendes Won
British Society of Cinematographers Best Cinematography Conrad Hall Won
Directors Guild of Americamarker Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Sam Mendes Won
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Kevin Spacey Won
Best Director Sam Mendes Won
Best Picture Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks Won
Most Promising Actor Wes Bentley Won
Best Actress Annette Bening Nominated
Best Cinematography Conrad L. Hall Nominated
Best Screenplay Alan Ball Nominated
Cinema Audio Society Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for a Feature Film Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, Richard Van Dyke Nominated
National Board of Review Best Picture Won
Breakthrough Performance – Male Wes Bentley Won
Screen Actors Guild Award Best Actor Kevin Spacey Won
Best Actress Annette Bening Won
Best Ensemble Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher Won
57th Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture - Drama Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Stanley J. Wlodkowski, Alan Ball Won
Best Director Sam Mendes Won
Best Screenplay Alan Ball Won
Best Actress – Drama Annette Bening Nominated
Best Actor – Drama Kevin Spacey Nominated
Best Original Score Thomas Newman Nominated

See also


  1. American Beauty, The Awards Edition: Audio commentary [DVD; Disc 1/2]. DreamWorks.
  2. Roger Ebert's Review of American Beauty (Sept. 23, 1999) [1]
  3. Kael: "It buries us under the same anti-suburbia attitudes that were tried out in Carnal Knowledge and The Ice Storm. Can't educated liberals see that the movie sucks up to them at every plot turn?"
  4. (Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times.)

  1. American Beauty, The Awards Edition: Audio commentary [DVD; Disc 1/2]. DreamWorks.
  2. Roger Ebert's Review of American Beauty (Sept. 23, 1999) [1]
  3. Kael: "It buries us under the same anti-suburbia attitudes that were tried out in Carnal Knowledge and The Ice Storm. Can't educated liberals see that the movie sucks up to them at every plot turn?"
  4. (Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times.)


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