81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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American Beauty

October 30th, 2009 · No Comments · 1999, Allison Janney, American Beauty, Color, Drama, Dreamworks Pictures, Drug Use, Homosexuality, Kevin Spacey, Mid-Point, Original Screenplay, Plot Point I, Plot Point II, Screenplay Structure, Sex, Swearing

American Beauty I love movies that start at the end.

Like Sunset Boulevard, and Memento (sort of – who can tell where that one starts?), and Gandhi, and The English Patient, and Citizen Kane, and, well, you get the idea.

When a movie starts at the end, the audience knows more than the characters in the movie do. So we watch to figure out how the ending comes about, feeling badly for the characters who are heading toward a fate they cannot escape.

Within the first minute, American Beauty reveals a critical piece of information:

Lester (voiceover): My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This…is my life. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.

Beat.

Lester (voiceover): Of course. I don’t know that yet.

While that’s not literally starting at the end – as in showing the very last scene of a protagonist’s life the way Richard Attenborough did with his film Gandhi – it is revealing information that is like dramatic irony. The difference is that the protagonist, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), knows what the audience knows, too. But he’s the only character in the movie who knows it. So it’s just the audience and good old Lester in on the secret.

To me, American Beauty is a movie with a Tim Burtonesque feel to it. Not completely. But it has an odd way of unfolding, different camera angles, characters acting strangely, fantasy-like scenes (think Scrubs or Ally McBeal), an almost surreal quality to it.

Basically, this is the story of a middle-aged couple, depressed Lester, his trying-to-cope wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and their petulant, Goth-like daughter Jane (Thora Birch) who calls her parents “assholes.” Not to their face. Not in so many words, anyway. But she acts perpetually put-upon, thinking herself on an elevated plane from her parental units. The entire dysfunctional family lives in suburbia. Lester has a dead-end job in a cube. Carolyn is trying to be a Real Estate agent. Jane is mouthy and sullen.

One of the hardest things for a screenwriter to do is imbue characters with empathy who are, essentially, losers. In other words, make them likable. Enable the audience to care about them, rather than just feel pity or – worse – disgust for them.

I realize this is an Oscar-winning movie. Even the screenplay won an Academy Award. But, for me, the writer never achieved that. I don’t like any of these people. Lester is a whiner. His wife is a bitch. Their daughter needs a good spanking.

Because this movie lasts just a tad (two minutes) over two hours, I’m going to examine it from a structural perspective to see if it’s written in three acts, and with all turning points where screenwriting gurus tell us they should be.

What is that structure, you ask? Given a 120-minute movie, roughly this:

Act I: 30 minutes
Act II: 60-70 minutes
Act III: 10-20 minutes

Obviously, each act can run longer or shorter. But Act III is always the shortest, just as Act II is always the longest.

In any movie, the Inciting Incident (the event that happens to or because of the protagonist) is supposed to happen as soon as possible, but preferably within the first 15 minutes. If it can happen in the first minute, in the first scene, even, all the better. The Inciting Incident gets the movie rolling and is, in fact, the reason for the movie’s existence.

The next major turning point is called (by most screenwriting gurus) Plot Point I. It should occur within the first 30 minutes, usually somewhere between minute 25 and minute 30. It is a turning point that spins the movie off into another direction – straight into the long haul of Act II, which is the longest act of the movie.

Which is why the long Act II has two turning points in it. The first one is called the Mid Point and it is precisely that. It usually occurs, in a 120-minute movie, between 55 and 65 minutes into the film – right at the mid point of the movie. It’s purpose is to give the movie a little kick, a little goose in the butt, to keep the audience interested, wondering what’s going to happen next.

The next point is called (by most screenwriting gurus) Plot Point II. In a 120-minute film, it usually happens by the 90-minute mark. Or, roughly, between one hour and 20 minutes and one hour and thirty five minutes (that’s 80 to 95 minutes to you and me).

Act III is the wrap-up of the movie. It ties up loose ends and/or explains what just happened. It’s James Bond in the back of a boat bobbing on the ocean, a bottle of champagne in one hand, and a buxom brunette in the other. It’s Luke, Han, and the Princess being congratulated and given medals and then everyone clapping. You get the idea.

So, armed with that information, I’m going to take a look at American Beauty to see where its turning points fall.

Act I
Inciting Incident: I’m going to guess it’s at the 15:59 mark, when Lester’s jaw drops open and he stares at his daughter’s teenage friend Angela (Mena Suvari) on the basketball court, cheerleading. The camera zooms in on Lester’s slack-jawed face as Angela – now (in Lester’s mind) the only one on the court – begins a slow-mo bump and grind. For Lester’s eyes only. She opens her jacket and rose petals – American Beauty rose petals (hence the name of the movie) – spew forth. Lester’s reverie is shattered and reality is restored. The court is full of cheerleaders, his daughter among them.

I’m going to call this the Inciting Incident because it will change Lester’s life and sets the movie in motion.

There’s a subplot of the Burnham’s neighbor, an odd kid named Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), watching Jane, even filming her.

By the way, American Beauty has a few themes running through it: watching (Lester watching Angela, Ricky watching Jane, Carolyn watching Buddy), sex (everyone talks about it, casually, off-handedly, bluntly), infidelity (Lester wants to jump Angela, Carolyn jumps into the sack with Buddy), homosexuality (the two gay neighbors – both named Jim – Frank Fitts’ anger toward gays, Ricky mistaken as being gay), and guns (Buddy tells Carolyn that he loves to shoot guns, Carolyn starts shooting a gun at a local gallery, Ricky shows Jane his father’s collection of guns).

Plot Point I is set up at the 27:17 mark. Jane and Angela stand outside school, smoking, and smarting off. Suddenly, Jane sees the kid who lives next door, whom she caught filming her the night before, being let out out of a Ford Explorer. Plot Point I is paid off at the 28:05 mark when the neighbor introduces himself to them. “Hi, may name is Ricky. I just moved next door to you.”

It’s clear Jane is interested in Ricky. It’s clear Angela is jealous that Ricky didn’t look at her. He only had eyes for Jane. So this will set up an interesting dynamic. What will happen next? Will Ricky come between Jane and Angela? Will Ricky and Jane get together?

Act II
The second act of the movie opens at a Real Estate party with Carolyn and Lester in attendance. Ricky meets Lester and asks him if he gets high. While Lester and Ricky share a joint out behind the building, Carolyn is inside fawning over local Real Estate guru Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). It’s clear something is happening between them.

In addition, it’s revealed in Act II that Ricky is a drug dealer, that Lester wants to work out to get in shape so that Angela falls for him, etc.

Mid Point: A triple whammy! A lot happens at the mid point of American Beauty. Things rev up at the 52:45 mark when Lester is fired from his job for turning in an efficiency report that’s full of anger, not to mention references to jerking off in the men’s room. Lester asks for a one-year severance package with benefits. The efficiency expert tells him that isn’t going to happen. Lester reminds the guy that he knows of a boss’ infidelity (paying for hookers with the company credit card) and sexual harassment, which Lester will claim occurred between the efficiency expert and himself. “Man, you are one twisted fuck,” Brad, the efficiency expert says to Lester. “Nope,” Lester says. “I’m just an ordinary guy with nothin’ to lose.”

The very next scene (53:08) is with Carolyn and Buddy meeting for lunch in a restaurant, ostensibly to chat about work. But Buddy immediately tells Carolyn that his wife left him and moved to New York. So there the two sit, Buddy, now apparently unattached, and Carolyn, who is now more attracted to Buddy than ever.

Then, Jane and Angela encounter Ricky filming a dead bird because “it’s beautiful,” in Ricky’s words. Angela tells him to get lost. Jane wonders if Ricky needs a ride home. Angela tells him it ain’t gonna happen. Ricky says he’ll walk. Then Jane says she’ll walk. The tension between them is palpable.

Then, at 55:41, Buddy and Carolyn screw their brains out in a hotel bed.

And there you have it. Between 52:45 and 55:41, three things happen – Lester loses his job, Carolyn has an affair with Buddy, and Ricky and Jane grow closer together, alienating Angela. Usually, a movie’s mid point is only one thing that gives the audience a goose. But this movie has three things going on. And now the audience is wondering where all of this will take the characters. It’s a major push toward the end of Act II.

Plot Point II occurs right where it’s supposed to, a little over 80 minutes into the movie, at the 1:21:25 mark. It’s a scene that opens the movie. Jane and Ricky smoking pot, filming each other, and talking about Jane’s dad, whom she says she hates.

Jane: I’m serious, though…I need a father who’s a role model…What a lame-o…Someone really should just put him out of his misery.
Ricky: You want me to kill him for you?
Jane: Yeah. Would you?

The two yuck it up a bit and then…

Ricky: You know, that’s not a very nice thing to do – hiring someone to kill your dad.
Jane: Well I guess I’m not a very nice girl, then, am I?

It’s now 1:23:34 – one hour and 23 minutes, 34 seconds into the movie. And, as far as plot points go, this is a biggie.

Act III
Act III opens at the 1:23:18 mark (one hour, 23 minutes, 18 seconds) into the movie.

Lester (voiceover): Remember those posters that said, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life?” Well that’s true of every day except one – the day you die.

He says that as he hits the road for a run (to get in shape) while The Who’s “The Seeker” blasts out on the soundtrack.

There’s trouble brewing (more than usual) in the Fitts household, though. Ricky’s dad suspects him of having an affair with Lester. He confronts Ricky about it. They fight.

Now it’s become clear what’s likely to happen to Lester. The death he alluded to at the beginning of the movie is likely to be brought about by…

Whom? Act III is corkscrewing into another triple whammy. Who kills Lester? Will it be Ricky’s dad, who now suspects Lester and his son are having sex? Will it be Carolyn, who – at the 1:36:26 mark (96 minutes, 26 seconds) – is seen sitting in her SUV after Buddy dumps her. She’s listening to self-help tapes. At the 1:36:44 mark, she reaches into the glove box and pulls out a gun. Hmm. Or will it be Angela or Jane? “Just don’t fuck my dad, all right? Please?” Jane says to Angela. “Why not?” Angela says. Just then, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Ricky, who has been thrown out of his house. The three argue. Now who will it be? Ricky? Jane? Angela?

Who kills Lester Burnham? And how?

We’re now at the 1:38:38 mark.

What will Carolyn do with the pistol? “I refuse to be a victim,” she says at the 1:42:30 mark. She puts the SUV in drive and splits. But where? And why? With a gun?

At the 1:43:35 mark, Angela tells Lester that she and Jane had a fight because Angela thinks he’s sexy. Lester offers her a beer. “What do you want?” Angela asks Lester. “Are you kidding? I want you,” he tells her. They kiss in the dark living room – as Carolyn races down the road in the rain…straight for home as Lester and Angela start to get it on in the living room. (Yeww!)

Now what’s going to happen? Will Carolyn with the gun burst in on Lester and Angela? Will Jane and Ricky burst in on Lester and Angela? Yikes! At 1:47:14, Lester removes Angela’s shirt. But they don’t do anything.

“Everything’s okay,” Lester tells Angela, comforting her because she feels foolish the two didn’t get it on.

But Carolyn’s on the way, gun in hand, not wanting to be a victim any more.

“How are you?” Angela asks Lester.

“I’m great,” he says, smiling. “I’m great.”

At 1:51:36, Lester is shot dead. But by whom?

There are more suspects than an Agatha Christie whodunnit.

So…who did it?

You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

The Cast

Kevin Spacey (1959- )…………………………….Lester Burnham
Annette Bening (1958- )…………………………Carolyn Burnham
Thora Birch (1982- )………………………………Jane Burnham
Wes Bentley (1978- )………………………………Ricky Fitts
Mena Suvari (1979- )………………………………Angela Hayes
Chris Cooper (1951- )…………………………….Col. Frank Fitts, USMC
Peter Gallagher (1955- )…………………………Buddy Kane
Allison Janney (1959- )……………………………Barbara Fitts
Scott Bakula (1954- )………………………………Jim Olmeyer
Sam Robards (1961- )……………………………..Jim Berkley

Directed By
Sam Mendes (1965- )

Written By
Alan Ball (1957- )

American Beauty was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Kevin Spacey), Best Cinematography, Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Picture, and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Alan Ball).

Despite its clever screenplay and intriguing performances, America Beauty is crude, pointless, and depressing. Ricky is a nutbag. His dad is a nutbag. His mom is a nutbag. Lester is pathetic. In fact, everyone in the movie is pathetic.

Act III is my favorite. The narration – which is uniformly good throughout the movie – is especially moving at the end of Act III.

But I don’t see how this is billed as a “funny” movie. There are a few humorous moments. Overall, though, this is a bleak movie about men leading lives of quiet desperation. I know people (especially the producers, the writer, the director, and the actors) rave about American Beauty. But all it indicates to me is that Hollywood’s standards have lowered. I mean, really. Compare this to movies that truly are great – Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or On the Waterfront or My Fair Lady or The Apartment or The Godfather or Annie Hall – and you’ll see what I mean.

From a screenwriting perspective, I could see the plot devices coming a mile away – especially the use of the gun. When, out of the blue, Buddy declared that he loves shooting guns, I thought, “Uh-huh. That’ll put a gun into the hands of Carolyn, which will make her another suspect.” Then, there was the whole gay thing. Col. Fitts has a hatred for homosexuals. So that was used as a plot device to make him a suspect. And the scene with Jane and Ricky. They became suspects, especially Ricky who seemed quite a few ounces shy of a quart. With this script I felt as though I was peeking behind the curtain, watching the wizard at work. It wasn’t seamless. It was ham-fisted.

But what the hell do I know? I didn’t win an Academy Award. The writer of this movie did. So take what I say with a shaker of salt.

My recommendation? If you want to skip all the crudity, all the bleakness, all the desperation, just watch the last 10 minutes. Catch Lester’s voiceover dialogue after his life has ended. There’s some profound stuff in there. Nothing earth shattering. But worth remembering.

Especially if you plan to die soon.

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