Study Guide

American Beauty Introduction

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American Beauty Introduction

Release Year: 1999

Genre: Drama, Romance

Director: Sam Mendes

Writer: Alan Ball

Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch

If American Beauty is to be believed, life really can change in an instant. 

Or at least in the time it takes for a middle-aged man to develop a crush on a teenaged girl. 

American Beauty's main character, Lester Burnham, starts out the movie as a sad sack—as he puts it himself, it's like he's "sedated" and has given up on enjoying life. When he spots a girl named Angela at his daughter's dance performance, though, he seems to wake up and remember what it felt like to care, to feel passion…to want to live.


Creepy? Yes. The stuff of great movies? Absolutely.

So, he decides to embark on a full-on life makeover: he starts lifting, he stands up to his boss (and family), he buys his dream car, and he generally just starts feeling good again.

But this isn't How Stella Got Her Groove Back. It's hardly a G-rated, feel-good, inspirational tale. Lester's turnabout stems from his lust for an underaged teen girl (which is more than a tad problematic) and there are lots of other plot twists and turns that give this story some serious edge. There's a psychotically homophobic neighbor with a thing for Nazi memorabilia. A cute boy who likes to stare into the faces of the dead. A woman who is rendered near-catatonic because of her husband's abuse.


In fact, American Beauty is one of the most honest (and bleakest) films about insecurity. It showcases characters who are paralyzed by fear. First-world problems? You bet. But these suburbanites are riddled with the kinds of insecurities that plague many of our lives, making American Beauty a masterful study of something that might just be too close for comfort.

Perhaps it's the movie's blending of the inspirational with the dark and cringe-worthy that made it such a critical darling. The movie largely got rave reviews and racked up lots of Oscars at the 2000 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball), and Best Cinematography.

And this isn't just one of those movies that picks up a bunch of golden statuettes and fades from the public imagination. American Beauty changed the landscape of American cinema, turned Sam Mendes and Alan Ball into Hollywood superstars, and forever altered the way moviegoers thought about rose petals and drifting plastic bags.

What is American Beauty About and Why Should I Care?

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: some days, you're going to feel just like Lester Burnham.

We're sorry to have to break it to you. But thems the breaks: there are going to be a handful of days when you wake up and think, "In some ways, I'm dead already." You're going to be bored. Lonely. Sexually frustrated. Stuck in a rut. The best part of your day might be something as bleak as getting alone time in the shower.

That's an unavoidable part of life. For every Friday night, there's that sinking sensation that is part of every Sunday afternoon. But—and here's the "but" you've been waiting for—you don't have to be exactly like Lester Burnham.

And American Beauty can help you keep your Lester Burnham-itude to the bare minimum. We're not advocating that you go out and develop an unhealthy obsession with a cheerleader, but we are saying that you could take a few hints from this cinematic gem.

In fact, after watching this Academy Award-winning critical darling, you might want to keep a copy on standby to watch when you're feeling a little low. Its life-lessons range from the general (stand up for yourself) to the specific (a remote-control car is an immediate pick-me-up).

But its #1 takeaway has to do with beauty (American or otherwise): beauty is anywhere you choose to see it. And reminding yourself to see beauty anywhere and everywhere you can is just about the most life-affirming thing you can do.

In a commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace once said:

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

Substitute "water" for "life" or "beauty" and you get the gist of DFW's speech: the most important way to stay sane and happy is to remind yourself, day after day, that you're alive. This is also the gist of American Beauty: this is your beautiful life. There are people to be loved. There is music to be listened to. There are cars to drive. There is iron to be pumped. Oh yeah: and there are also Oscar-winning films to be watched.


Originally, Ricky and Jane ended up on trial for Lester's murder. The filmmakers abandoned that plot, though, when it tested badly with audiences. (Source)

Frank Fitts got more of a backstory in the original script—complete with a gay lover from his time in Vietnam. (Source)

Did you know that the original script originally had Lester going "all the way" with Angela? It's true. (Source)

Steve Spielberg asked Mendes to come out to Hollywood and start making movies after he saw his revival of Cabaret. (Source)

American Beauty Resources


DreamWorks Promo Site
Yes, they still have up a studio site promoting the film.

Overrated? Not According to Rotten Tomatoes…
American Beauty has gotten a lot of flack over the years for being overrated, but according to Rotten Tomatoes, people still dig it . . .

Alan Ball's Script, Online for Your Viewing Enjoyment
If you can't get enough of the movie's snappy dialogue, you can read it here.

Articles and Interviews

American Beauty in the Rearview
Check out this piece on the 15th anniversary of the film's release.

Introducing Sam Mendes
This is a great piece on Sam Mendes from just a few days after American Beauty's release, when nobody knew just how big the movie would become.


Lester, Carolyn, and a Very Expensive Couch
This is the scene that basically sums up Carolyn's and Lester's problems.

All About the Advertising
Check out one of the original trailers for the film.


Kevin Spacey on American Beauty
Okay, this is a video, but Kevin Spacey talks about the film at length.

A World-Class Soundtrack
Check out this little snippet of Thomas Newman's gorgeous score—not to be missed.


IMDb Has a Whole Image Gallery for the Film
Over 87 images taking you through this visually stunning movie, including promo materials and storyboards.

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