American Beauty is a 1999 American black comedy-drama film written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes. Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, an advertising executive who has a midlife crisis when he becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter's best friend, played by Mena Suvari. Annette Bening stars as Lester's materialistic wife, Carolyn, and Thora Birch plays their insecure daughter, Jane. Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, and Allison Janney also feature. Academics have described the film as a satire of American middle class notions of beauty and personal satisfaction; further analysis has focused on the film's explorations of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, materialism, self-liberation, and redemption.
Ball began writing American Beauty as a play in the early 1990s, partly inspired by the media circus that accompanied the Amy Fisher trial in 1992. He shelved the play after deciding that 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 rewritten script had a cynical outlook influenced by Ball's frustrating tenures writing for several sitcoms. Producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen took the script for American Beauty to the fledgling DreamWorks studio, which bought it for $250,000, outbidding several other production bodies. DreamWorks financed the $15-million production and served as its 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 reportedly turned down the opportunity.
Spacey was Mendes' first choice for the role of Lester, though DreamWorks urged him to consider better-known actors. Similarly, the studio suggested several actresses for the role of Carolyn until Mendes offered the part to Bening without the studio's knowledge. Principal photography took place between December 1998 and February 1999 on sound stages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, California and on location in Los Angeles. Mendes' dominant directorial 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 softened the cynical tone of Ball's script.
Released in North America on September 17, 1999, American Beauty received widespread critical and popular acclaim; it was the best-reviewed American film of the year and grossed over $350 million worldwide against its $15-million budget. 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 Oscar success following its controversial Best Picture snubs for Saving Private Ryan (1998) the previous year. At the Oscars, the film won Best Picture, along with Best Director for Mendes, Best Actor for Spacey, Best Original Screenplay for Ball and Best Cinematography for Hall. The film was nominated for and won many other awards and honors, mainly for directing, writing and acting.
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