I know that American Beauty was a whole ‘nother thing before it was pruned and whittled down to just the right elements. I’ve always wanted to see the courtroom scene and all the other stuff that was cut, just for curiosity’s sake.
Some parts of the final released version don’t work so well by today’s standards, but you know what still works perfectly? Kevin Spacey‘s performance. A current of trepidation just went through me after writing that, but you know what? One should really be allowed to say this, despite what’s happened since. Spacey was also great in Swimming With Sharks, The Usual Suspects and Glengarry Glen Ross. He was great all through the ’90s.
Another thing that made American Beauty really come together, I felt from the get-go, is Thomas Newman’s score.
American Beauty isn’t as good as Michael Mann‘s The Insider, which was also nominated for 1999’s Best Picture Oscar, but American Beauty‘s values were deemed richer and more resonant than The Insider‘s, which not only wasn’t emotional enough for most voters — it wasn’t emotional at all.
I remember when DreamWorks publicity was just beginning to allow journalists to see American Beauty, which later won the Best Picture Oscar. It was in the late summer of ’99, and I was detecting feelings of caution if not concern, or at least a form of uncertainty. I had to beg and beg to persuade the Dreamworks guys to let me see it. Their reluctance was such that it was hard not to suspect that something about Sam Mendes‘ film might be problematic.
After I finally saw American Beauty at Skywalker Sound on Olympic Blvd., After it ended I immediately phoned Mitch Kreindel, who worked right under Dreamworks marketing/publicity honcho Terry Press, and said, “Are you kidding me? This film is extra. It got right inside me. The plastic paper bag and the ending melted me down. It could go all the way.”
But until that consensus began to build up and sink in, some people in upper DreamWorks management (and I’m not saying Press was necessarily one of them) didn’t know what they had. Or at least they weren’t sure. If they did know what they had, they sure gave a good impression to the contrary.
I’ve said this five or six times, but American Beauty won the Best Picture Oscar because it said something that everyone (particularly workaholic careerists) believes to be true, which is that we spend so much time and energy running around in circles that we fail to appreciate the simple beauty of things. On top of which it’s a pungent, occasionally hilarious satire of American middle-class values and lifestyles.
HE reader comments from a decade ago:
“American Beauty hasn’t aged particularly well but that has a lot to do with cultural shifting. The high school girl stuff wasn’t nearly as creepy in 1999 as it would be today. The voiceover bits were done to death by a bunch of low-rent ripoffs and prestige tv dramas. The Artist was tripe right when it was released.
“American Beauty was smug and a little too on the nose in 1999 (the reveal with Chris Cooper was asinine). That said, it was impeccably made and the final resolution of the cheerleader plot was surprisingly thoughtful.
“It’s smug, on the nose and fake smart in the way virtually every Best Picture winner is, at least in recent history. And quite condescending. Beautifully shot though.
“Alan Ball’s screenplay reads ‘funnier’ than the movie. Had it been directed in the style of something like A Serious Man it would’ve held up better. Mendes missed the point.
“Although it’s one of my favorite movies of all time, I agree that it hasn’t aged well in some ways. You’re right that the fact that it basically has been ripped off a bunch doesn’t help matters.”