Screenplay by: Alan Ball
Kevin Spacey stars in this quirky and dark suburban drama about a man who experiences a midlife crisis after meeting his teenaged daughter’s beautiful best friend. Alan Ball wrote the script and follows the 5 major rules for a screenplay in the script’s first 10 pages. In fact, after just one page, Ball nails 4 of the 5 rules. Only the fifth one – the theme – needs additional pages to develop. It is a rare thing to see the first page accomplish so much. Let’s see how Ball did it.
The main character is introduced using a familiar screenwriting technique – narration. But in American Beauty our main character is a ghost. In his first line, he tells us he’s a dead man, which communicates the tone this film will take on the screenplay’s first page.
EXT. ROBIN HOOD TRAIL – EARLY MORNING We’re FLYING above suburban America, DESCENDING SLOWLY toward a tree-lined street.
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.
INT. BURNHAM HOUSE – MASTER BEDROOM – CONTINUOUS
We’re looking down at a king-sized BED from OVERHEAD: LESTER BURNHAM lies sleeping amidst expensive bed linens, face down, wearing PAJAMAS. An irritating ALARM CLOCK RINGS. Lester gropes blindly to shut it off.
Of course, I don’t know that yet.
He rolls over, looks up at us and sighs. He doesn’t seem too thrilled at the prospect of a new day.
LESTER (V.O.) (CONT’D)
And in a way, I’m dead already.
Notice how Ball describes the setting as we read what Lester is telling us. Flying above a suburb and coming down on a single street gives us a unique perspective. The script gives us the gift of dramatic irony in its opening paragraphs. We know things the other characters do not know. This will influence how we interpret the material we will read on subsequent pages.
To set the tone of the screenplay, Ball uses another familiar screenwriting technique, though one not often used – the flash forward. An excerpt from a scene on page 75 is ripped out, stripped of context and placed at the top of page 1.
INT. FITTS HOUSE – RICKY’S BEDROOM – NIGHT On VIDEO: JANE BURNHAM lays in bed, wearing a tank top. She’s sixteen, with dark, intense eyes.
I need a father who’s a role model, not
some horny geek-boy who’s gonna spray his
shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home
What a lame-o. Somebody really should put
him out of his misery.
Her mind wanders for a beat.
Want me to kill him for you?
Jane looks at us and sits up.
(deadpan) Yeah, would you?
FADE TO BLACK.
In this exchange, Ball sets the tone of the story as dark and foreboding, and dripping with irony. Underneath the veneer of a typical American suburb lies a bleak alternate universe, where a teenage girl sees her father infatuated with her friend and wants him dead. This scene also colors the scenes Ricky and Lester share together as they develop a relationship later in the screenplay. We will wonder if Ricky will be the one who will end Lester’s life and if so, how will their relationship deteriote to that end.
In addition to establishing the tone, the screenplay’s opening scene also puts the dramatic situation in motion. This film is about a man in midlife crisis, who will suffer an untimely death at the hands of another. A few questions are planted in our mind. How will he die? Who will kill him? And why? This is the film’s single dramatic focal point. We are promised a riveting ending. A man will die, and someone will murder him.
WORLD OF THE STORY
The world of this story is American surbubia, a place that conjures up images of cul-de-sacs, freshly mowed lawns, and white picket fences. Ball is deliberate in his descriptions of the people who live in this suburb. He introduces them by showing them doing typical suburban things. First, Carolyn, Lester’s wife…
EXT. BURNHAM HOUSE – MOMENTS LATER
CLOSE on a single, dewy AMERICAN BEAUTY ROSE. A gloved hand with CLIPPERS appears and SNIPS the flower off.
CAROLYN BURNHAM tends her rose bushes in front of the Burnham house. A very well-put together woman of forty, she wears color-coordinated gardening togs and has lots of useful and expensive tools.
Lester watches her through a WINDOW on the first floor, peeping out through the drapes.
That’s my wife Carolyn. See the way the
handle on those pruning shears matches
her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident.
Next, Lester’s homosexual neighbors, Jim and Jim…
EXT. JIMS’ HOUSE – CONTINUOUS
In the fenced front yard of the house next door, a dog BARKS repeatedly. A MAN in a conservative suit (JIM #1) chastises the barking dog.
Hush, Bitsy. You hush. What is wrong?
That’s our next-door neighbor Jim.
A second MAN in a conservative suit (JIM #2) comes out of the house.
LESTER (V.O.) (CONT’D)
And that’s his lover, Jim.
(re: barking dog)
What in the world is wrong with her? She
had a walk this morning.
And a jerky treat.
You spoil her.
Bitsy. No bark. Come inside. Now.
Finally, Jane, Lester’s daughter is surfing the internet.
INT. BURNHAM HOUSE – JANE’S ROOM – CONTINUOUS
JANE is seated at her desk, working at her computer.
My daughter Jane. Only child.
CLOSE on the COMPUTER MONITOR: A PERSONAL BANKING SOFTWARE window suddenly disappears to reveal another window: a PLASTIC SURGERY WEBSITE, featuring clinical “before” and “after” photos of surgically augmented breasts.
LESTER (V.O.) (CONT’D)
Janie’s a pretty typical teenager. Angry,
insecure, confused. I wish I could tell
her that’s all going to pass…
Outside, a CAR HORN BLARES. Jane stuffs items into her BACKPACK.
LESTER (V.O.) (CONT’D)
But I don’t want to lie to her.
The genius behind this otherwise bland writing is the irony that cuts through every description. We know this picturesque place harbors a undercurrent of hostility that will simmer in the subsequent pages and later boil to the surface when Lester gets killed.
The theme of American Beauty is a complex one that’s open to interpretation. The film is about a man suffering the pangs of a midlife crisis. We see him miserable in his surbuban prison. Ball describes Lester’s desolation as we see what he does in an average day. First, we see Lester going to his day job…
Jane gets in the car. Lester hurries out the front door, carrying a BRIEFCASE.
Lester, could you make me a little later,
please? Because I’m not quite late enough.
Lester’s briefcase suddenly springs open and his papers spill all over the driveway. He drops to his knees to gather everything.
Nice going, Dad.
Lester smiles sheepishly, trying to lighten the moment.
His POV: Carolyn looks down at us, contemptuous but also bored, as if she gave up expecting anything more long ago.
Both my wife and daughter think I’m this
gigantic loser, and… they’re right.
Then, we see him at his job…
INT. OFFICE BUILDING – DAY
Lester sits at his workstation, a BEIGE CUBICLE surrounded by IDENTICAL BEIGE CUBICLES. He’s staring at a computer monitor and talking on a HEADSET PHONE. The beleaguered expression on his face is at odds with the light, friendly tone of his voice.
Hello, this is Lester Burnham from Media
Monthly magazine, I’m calling for Mr.
Tamblin, please?… Well, we’re all under
a deadline here, uh, but you see, there
is some basic information about the
product launch that isn’t even covered in
your press release and I… Yeah. Can I
ask you a question? Who is Tamblin? Does
he exist? ‘Cause he doesn’t ever seem to
come in… Yeah, okay, I’ll leave my
BRAD, a dapper man in his thirties, approaches and observes Lester, who is unaware of his presence.
It’s 555 0199. Lester Burnham. Thank you!
Lester disconnects the call, obviously irritated.
Hey Les. You got a minute?
Lester turns around, smiling perfunctorily
For you, Brad? I’ve got five.
Finally, we see Lester at home, eating dinner with Carolyn and Jane.
INT. BURNHAM HOUSE – DINING ROOM – LATER THAT NIGHT
We HEAR EASY-LISTENING MUSIC.
Lester, Carolyn and Jane are eating dinner by CANDLELIGHT. RED ROSES are bunched in a vase at the center of the table. Nobody makes eye contact, or even seems aware of anybody else’s presence, until…
Mom, do we always have to listen
to this elevator music?
No. No, we don’t. As soon as you’ve
prepared a nutritious yet savory meal
that I’m about to eat, you can listen to
whatever you like.
A long beat. Lester suddenly turns to Jane.
So Janie, how was school?
It was okay.
No, Dad. It was spec-tac-ular.
What is Ball showing us here? A man sleepwalking through life. He yearns to be free, to recapture some magic to make him feel human again. Perhaps this is the theme of American Beauty. Freedom. Ball also makes several references to roses. As the title suggests, American Beauty is a film about a man discovering the beauty of life, something he has been blind to for so long that when Angela, Jane’s best friend, comes into his life, it hits him like a ton of bricks.
In conclusion, American Beauty is an awesome screenplay. The first 10 pages, particularly the first, pull you right into a strange surburban world and keep you engrossed until the shocking conclusion, when we see Lester’s fate unfold.
Written by: Anthony Faust