Wednesday, May 5, 2010

American Beauty Analysis

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

I’ve had a request to do an in-depth analysis of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball). I love to get feedback on this blog, though I don’t promise to honor every request! American Beauty is an interesting film to look at though, so I will take this request and spend the next several posts on it.

American Beauty was released in 1999 and grossed about $130 million domestically. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Cinematography and was also nominated for Actress, Editing and Original Score. In other words, it was a critical and commercial hit. It’s also one of those Best Picture winners (like Crash) that has a vocal group of critics who think it’s very overrated. Personally, I like it.

Several things make American Beauty interesting for screenwriters. First, it’s the definition of an “execution dependent” script. The story is a fairly basic tale of a midlife crisis – a married middle age loser falls for a younger woman, quits his job, buys a fancy car and tries to get in shape. All kind of cliché if you think about it. It gains a bit from the satire of modern suburbia, but again that’s pretty well trod ground. There’s a murder mystery thrown in but it’s not really the draw either.

What makes the movie really work are the well rounded characters and the insightful scenes. In other words, the writing! Oh, and the performances and cinematography are pretty spectacular, too. But it’s the character and scene work in the script that cause this movie to rise above so many movies with similar concepts.

And that’s why it’s execution dependent. You couldn’t sell this as a pitch (unless you had pretty strong attachments and even then it would be considered a risk). People would need to read it to see its greatness.

Another thing of interest is the original script contains a trial element that was not in the final film. It changes the emphasis of the film considerably. And the film uses several narrative devices that are worth some consideration.

I’m not going to do a sequence-by-sequence breakdown as I did with E.T. Instead, I’ll look at various subjects I’ve covered in this blog and discuss how they’re used in the movie. I’ll start with structure in my next post.

(Hey, by the way, the last post marked my 100th post in this blog!)


Sanket said...

Thanks Dough for providing your invaluable input on this.

Eagerly waiting to read it in next posts..!!

Congratulations on 100th post. Wish you reach your 1000th sooner.

ScreenwriterChic said...

I'm interested... how did this movie get made? Were there main stars attached before it was written?

Doug Eboch said...

I don't have a lot of inside info on how it got made. Ball wrote it as a spec script so there was no cast attached, but he also didn't get paid in advance. At the time he was known as a TV writer and a playwright. Dreamworks bought the spec after a minor bidding war. The movie was made for less than $15 million which certainly helped.

American Beauty is over ten years old now and I doubt it would get made by a studio today. The low/mid budget film is dead, adult dramas are dead, and the star driven film is dying. But these things tend to be cyclical so we can hope that movies like this will come back in style eventually.

ScreenwriterChic said...


Thank you!