I consider American Beauty to be a perfect movie or at least as close a movie can be to being perfect anyway. It’s a perfect example of a character drama that’s gripping, funny and profoundly moving. Since so much of the film is character-centric, I want to talk about their design and how screenwriter Alan Ball uses dialogue to reveal their personalities. All characters are a variation of the theme set in the movie. In a good story the characters are not selected at random, they each add something to the story and demonstrate an aspect of the theme. The protagonist, Lester, is on a journey of reawakening. He is tired of putting on a show for the sake of appearances and is trying to find his true self. Carolyn defines her self worth based entirely on how successful she appears. On her journey to find her true self, she is searching in the wrong places and looking for quick fixes. Jane is surrounded by people who think image determines your worth. And on her journey of finding her true self she starts looking in the wrong places but finds someone who allows her to see how special she already is. Colonel Fitts is so afraid of his true self that he locks it away and aggressively putting forth an appearance that is contrary to his real nature. Ricky has already found his true self and has completed the journey. He uses his video camera to see the appearances people put on and to see the beauty underneath. On Lester’s journey he bumps into all these characters and glimpses of how to live. All of these characters complement each other. For all its greatness the script is not without flaws, it breaks one of the most basic rules of screenwriting. Sam Mendes, the director, cut almost 27 pages from the screenplay in the last week of editing. How did this movie, which I consider to be a near perfect rise from an imperfect script? A script which one could argue, was for a different movie? Unlike a novel, a screenplay isn’t meant to be read. It is meant to be watched and heard. Unless you can point a camera or microphone at, you can’t be sure that the audience will understand it just because you wrote it in the script. Let’s look at an example. Colonel(explodes): Get out!!! I don’t ever want to see you again!! Ricky stands there, eyeing the colonel. He’s finally discovered a way to break free from his father, and he can’t believe was this simple. The action line explains what’s inside Ricky’s head but the only line which is visual is “Ricky stands there, eyeing the colonel.” I personally didn’t get the sense that Ricky was trying to break free from his father so I was a bit confused when I read the line. This underscores the danger of what’s inside a character’s head. Just because you write it in an action line does not necessarily mean it will be conveyed to the audience. Sam Mendes in an interview said that the movie he thought he was shooting was completely different to him when he saw it in the editing room. I find this fascinating that due to a combination of creative vision, luck and willingness to sacrifice a lot of hard work, he found a film we know today amongst the film he thought he was making. A lot of filmmaking is reliant on the right place, at the right time and right people. So much depends on luck. But then again perhaps because of its serendipitous nature certain films become classics. One thing American Beauty shows us is that beauty can be found in places we least expect. And ultimately there is beauty in imperfection.
Author: Gaurav Basavaraju