Every once in a while a screenwriter creates an original script that manages to maintain its originality all the way to the screen. Alan Ball’s American Beauty is such a script. Though it is not obviously filmic in a “Star Wars” kind of way, it is a classic example of the screenwriter’s art.
To see how it works, you first have to see how it deviates from the traditional Hollywood movie structure. If there is any one story element that defines the classic Hollywood movie it is a strong desire line. The hero comes up with a goal early in the story and then goes after that goal with great speed and intensity.
But American Beauty cannot use this strategy because it is the story of a man who is purposeless. In other words, his problem through much of the story is precisely that he has no desire line. What’s more, his wife, Carolyn, and his teenage daughter, Jane, can’t stand him. So instead of a hero with a single, driving story line we have a family where centrifigal force is pulling everyone apart.
The writer, Ball, thus faces some crucial questions: How do you create narrative drive for a character with no desire and a family that is exploding? How do you show the journey the hero takes internally when he is literally going nowhere? How do you take the time to show the forces destroying this family when there is no forward momentum to keep the audience interested?
Ball’s solution is the storytelling structure. Conventional wisdom looks down on the voice-over in movies as uncinematic. Conventional wisdom has never been more wrong. The storyteller is one of the great film techniques because it allows you to sequence a story by deep structure, not simple chronology.
In American Beauty, the first-person voice-over tells the audience almost immediately that the hero will be dead within a year. This puts a sensational piece of information up front that is also somewhat mysterious.
The writer gains two great benefits from this strategy. First, he tells the audience that big things are going to happen later, so they don’t become anxious in the first half of the film while the hero has no desire line. That allows Ball to spend more time detailing the mini-society surrounding the hero and so show the causes of its breakdown.
Second, this information forces the audience to focus on the steps of the hero’s journey – both his fall and rise – instead of on what’s going to happen at the end. In other words, Ball sacrifices suspense for understanding, texture and depth.
Problem/Need: After the initial voice-over information, Ball uses the first few scenes to depict a man living a suburban nightmare. Not only is Lester hated by his wife and daughter, he has a dead-end job from which he is about to be fired.
Opponent: With the voice-over structure buying him time, Ball has the luxury of detailing the hero’s intimate opponents. In a wonderful filmic sequence, wife Carolyn cleans, then shows a house she represents to a number of uninterested buyers. The process ends with her breaking into tears of frustration, then slapping herself to get back on the track to success. This is an opponent with a strong desire of her own, but she is so lost in the hollow optimism and denial of the salesman’s life she can only psych herself back up and try again.
Daughter Jane is an opponent who loathes her weak, purposeless father, but she has no purpose of her own, other than to go to school the way she’s supposed to.
Desire: In the midst of this family nightmare, Lester gains a desire line that galvanizes him. But it is a desire line he cannot act upon. He falls head-over-heels for dream teen, Angela, his daughter’s blond cheerleader friend. Every effort he takes to accomplish his desire – fawning over her, calling her, fantasizing about her – only makes him more pathetic. The inappropriateness of his desire is underlined when we hear Angela speak. She is a walking stereotype who likes when men drool over her because it means she has a chance to become a model.
To kick this story to the next level, Ball introduces another ring of society. Frank, an army colonel who hates gays, and his obedient wife move in next door, along with their weird son Ricky who shoots videos. A gay couple lives across the street and Carolyn is attracted to her idol, real estate king, Buddy King.
Ricky becomes the catalyst for the freedom of both Lester and Jane. He gets Lester high and shows him the liberation that comes from telling your boss to screw off. Through his camera, he literally opens Jane’s eyes to the beauty that is all around her, even in the “dance” of a grocery bag.
Lester’s desire alone cannot drive the story because he cannot act upon it. So Ball extends the story by tracking the desire lines of all the characters in this society. Carolyn wants Buddy, Jane wants Ricky, Ricky wants Jane, Angela wants to be adored by men, and Frank wants to control his son.
These often conflicting desire lines have the ironic effect of both liberating many of these characters and making them hate Lester even more. Lester is still infatuated with Angela, but he is also becoming stronger, challenging his wife and turning the tables on his boss.
This complex of conflicting desires leads to a pivotal scene. Carolyn, feeling great from having sex with Buddy and shooting her pistol at the firing range, returns home to find Lester feeling great too. He is dazzled by how she looks and comes onto her, reminding her of her wild college days.
Now comes the decision point that will make this a comedy or a tragedy (or in this case a black comedy). If she kisses him they rediscover the spark that made them fall in love and we can see them “remarry.” But at the crucial moment she worries that he will spill his beer on the couch. The wall goes up between them and their relationship can only end badly.
Unfortunately, the writer chose a cheap response for Carolyn. Because this is a black comedy/satire, the characters are naturally more broad, more a character type than an individual. But in the case of Carolyn and Frank next door, they are too broad, too simple, too stereotypical, too cliched.
The weakness of these two characters is the primary reason this script does not reach the level of greatness it was capable of. Without characters of depth to play off of, the hero cannot explore a way of life that is more meaningful than the materialism in which these people are trapped.
Battle: Ball returns to the voice-over to set up the battle sequence. “You know how they say every day is the first day of the rest of your life? Not the day you die,” he says. This forces the audience to stand back and study the anatomy of a disaster. In a brilliant cross-cutting sequence, we see how different characters are motivated to kill Lester. The suspense comes from who will do it, and what will finally push him or her over the edge.
The desire of Jane, Carolyn and Frank to kill Lester becomes the apotheosis of each person’s character, the fruition of their development. Unfortunately, this moment shows in even sharper detail how stereotypical Frank’s character has been from the beginning. The moment when Frank comes onto Lester in the garage struck me as totally false, a plot contrivance dictated by a theme the writer was determined to express.
This moment, though beautifully constructed, also shows how the violent ending is tacked on. I believe none of these characters have been shown to have the motivation to actually kill Lester. This is a classic example of false drama and death ex machina.
I believe the writer had no alternative life to the materialism, no vision of American beauty in the way people live. He didn’t know how to end the drama properly, by playing out the forces he set in motion at the beginning. His solution: kill him off. It gives the story a pop (literally), but the self-revelation and thematic revelation are false.
Self-Revelation: The crosscut technique to compare character and express theme is one of the greatest in the art of screenwriting. But it is not set up properly here. Intercutting Lester’s memories of when his family was happy with what each character is doing at the moment the gun is fired should have brought home the tragic loss of this man’s death at the moment when he has found new happiness.
But the final punch is hollow. Partly this is a problem inherent to the story structure Ball chose in the first place. You can’t do a black comedy for the entire picture and then try to evoke tragic loss at the end. Black comedy makes fun of everyone and shows how each is trapped in a system. No one learns because no one is capable of learning. Tragedy makes us feel tremendous loss for a character who had rich potential but learned too late. You can’t have it both ways.
You also can’t have a dead man narrate the events leading to his death and expect an audience to feel sorrow. Why? He’s still talking. The dead man storyteller, first used in “Sunset Boulevard”, is great for showing the anatomy of decline. But it also makes tragic loss almost impossible.
But mostly the hollow end results from Ball’s failure to properly connect theme to character. Carolyn clutches at Lester jackets when she sees he is dead (a great acting choice). But we have never seen a moment of magic between the two, nor have we seen Carolyn as anything more than a selling robot.
Jane hates her father even when he gains a backbone and breaks out of the suburban, consumer straight-jacket that still binds her mother. Ricky is the angel of freedom, but he buys that freedom with some hard selling of his own.
And what about the other side of the thematic equation, the possibility of beauty? Some general comments by Ricky and Lester about beauty in the world are meaningless if they aren’t woven through the character oppositions during the course of the story.
I suspect that American Beauty will win the Best Screenplay Oscar, and based on what else I’ve seen this year, it should. Alan Ball has written a challenging and funny black comedy/satire that exposes the spiritual hole in the American materialistic family. If there is less here than I had hoped for, there is far more than I expected.