American Beauty was released in 1999 and it was popular with critics and viewers alike. The film was directed by Brit Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. The star of the film is Kevin Spacey (he won an Oscar for the role) and he plays Lester Burnham. The film has been described as a satire of the American middle class and its ideas of beauty and personal satisfaction. American Beauty has been analysed deeply and the film’s themes include; explorations of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, beauty, materialism, alienation, self-liberation and redemption.
Alan Ball began writing American Beauty as a play in the early 1990s, partly inspired by the media hysteria around the Amy Fisher trial in 1992. Amy Fisher was a 17 year old who became known as “the Long Island Lolita” when she shot and severely wounded Mary Jo Buttafuoco, the wife of her lover Joey Buttafuoco. When Ball realised that the ideas he had wouldn’t work on stage he gave up on it. However, he revived the idea in 1997 when he tried to break into the film industry.
American Beauty was acclaimed theatre director Mendes’ film debut; he got the job after twenty other people were considered and several “A-list” directors turned down the opportunity. Sam Mendes called American Beauty a rites of passage film about imprisonment and escape from imprisonment. The monotony of Lester’s existence is established through his gray, nondescript workplace and characterless clothing. In these scenes, he is often framed as if trapped, “reiterating rituals that hardly please him”. At the start of the film Lester masturbates in the shower; the shower cubicle evokes a jail cell and the shot is the first of many where Lester is confined behind bars or within frames. Another striking example of this is when he is reflected behind columns of numbers on a computer monitor, According to author Jody W. Pennington, Lester’s journey is the story’s centre.