American Beauty is, at least at its surface, a black comedy and suburban drama that follows the self-destruction of a middle-class American family. It centres around patriarch Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who pinpoints masturbating in the shower as the highlight of his day.
However, Lester gets a new lease of life when he meets his daughter Jane’s schoolfriend Angela (Mena Suvari) – a scene of cringe-worthiness bound to make you feel guilty for laughing. Lester’s twisted fantasies about her push him to revaluate his life, quitting his job, getting into shape, and finally speaking his mind.
From even a brief description it is evident that American Beauty is a controversial movie, with revelations about Spacey’s private life only adding to this.
However, there are more characters than Lester, and performances on par with Spacey’s. The most interesting characters are Jane (Thora Birch) and her “freak” boyfriend Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Alan Ball’s writing is flawless, transitioning between profound philosophical monologues and back-and-forth banter with ease. Sam Mendes’ artistic direction lives up to the movie’s title.
10. The End Is The Beginning Is The End
In line with the film, let’s begin at the end. The ending of American Beauty manages to be both definitive and also open ended. However, initial drafts were much more prescriptive.
In the run-up to the film’s finale, Lester notably stops short of having sex with Angela after learning that her flirtatious persona and bragging was to cover up being a virgin. However, Lester was initially scripted to go through with the act. The creative decision was made to stop him as it was felt to be more effective, though Ball and Mendes feared that the choice would be viewed as playing it to safe.
The film’s finale still cumulated in Lester’s murder at the hands of Col. Fitts, however, Jane and Ricky would be trialled and convicted. The video footage of Jane offering her boob-job savings to Ricky to kill her father served as damning evidence. Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney) would also be shown finding and hiding Col. Fitts’ blood-stained t-shirt.
However, test audiences expressed their distain at this ending. Mendes, along with editor Tariq Anwar, decided to leave the ending ambiguous, which had the added benefit of freeing up more screen time for the teen characters.