Characterization in “American Beauty”

American Beauty is a cult film. And it appeals at very different layers. I am a sucker, however, for the brilliant characterization done in the script. Where a few crisp, sharp and witty lines define a character at the beginning of a film. Also note that it is a typical suburban family story. So there isn’t a lot that you can play around with. And yet, it does it’s job, and how! The background music, the awesome Kevin Spacey’s voice doing the voice over, it all helped, but it was all written down in the script.

So well, here it is. A couple of initial build up scenes in the movie done. And then this happens.




We’re FLYING high above an upper middle class SUBURB.  The

wide streets are lined with stately elms and sycamores; the

homes are traditional and well-kept.  Coming closer to the

ground, we pick out a couple of male JOGGER.

A DIFFERENT ANGLE on the Joggers. We’re at level now, MOVING

alongside them. They’re both in their thirties, athletic,

blandly handsome. They pass a STREET SIGN that  reads Robin

Hood Trail.

Suddenly, a MAN comes into view, FLYING Superman-style about

three feet above their heads. He’s wearing old-fashioned

PAJAMAS, and a plaid flannel ROBE. As he passes overhead, the

Joggers look up and wave excitedly, like children. He flashes

them a grin and waves back, then he speeds up, leaving them


As the MAN flies down the street, a BARKING DOG runs along

beneath him, jumping into the air, trying to catch him. The

Man swoops and dips effortlessly, teasing the dog, then spots,

at the end of the street, a young boy on a bicycle tossing

newspapers onto people’s porches, or as close as he can get.

Seeing the flying Man, the boy tosses a paper high into the

air. The dog tears off to catch the paper. The flying Man

LAUGHS and shoots upward like he’s been blown out of a cannon,

grabs the paper, and swoops down, dropping it lightly on the

front porch of a well-appointed, two-story HOUSE with


The boy on the bike watches IN admiration. the MAN slowly

floats by above him and tousles his hair. The dog BARKS. The

boy throws another newspaper into the air, this time even

higher than before, and the Man grins as he prepares to shoot

up after it: this is going to be fun… and we SMASH CUT TO:


We HEAR the harsh BUZZ OF an ALARM CLOCK. Vic Damone still

sings “I’M NOBODY’S BABY” elsewhere in the house. Outside, a

dog is still BARKING

The MAN we just saw FLYING Through the streets lies sleeping

amidst expensive bed linens, wearing the same PAJAMAS. His

hand reaches over and shuts the ALARM CLOCK OFF; his eyes

remain clamped shut as he tries to hang onto his dream…. but

it’s gone. He sighs and opens his eyes.

This man is LESTER BURNHAM, Carolyn’s husband and Jane’s

father. He’s forty-two, with a wide boyish face that’s just

beginning to droop around the edges.  He sits up in bed and

rubs his face.

We’re in a large, comfortable bedroom that’s tastefully

decorated but not overdone – it could be a spread from

Metropolitan Home. Lester gets out of the king-sized bed,

crosses to a bay window covered with stylish wooden blinds,

lifts one of the slats with his finger and peers through it.

His POV: A DOG – the same dog from Lester’s flying dream –

BARKS excitedly at us from behind a white picket fence

surrounding the front yard of the house across the street.


The dog’s POV: Lester looks down at us through the bay window

of the HOUSE from his dream – we recognize the distinctive

CEDAR SHINGLE SIDING. The dog continues to BARK.


My name is Lester Burnham. I’m

forty two-years old. In less than a

year, I’ll be dead.


We’re in the shower with Lester. A waterproof RADIO plays

COUNTRY MUSIC. He stands with his face directly in the hot

spray1 eyes shut.


In a way, I’m dead already.

ANGLE from outside the shower: we see Lester’s naked body

silhouetted through the steamed-up glass door. It becomes

apparent he is masturbating.

LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d)


Look at me jerking off while I

listen to country music. I hated

this shit when I was growing up.


Funny thing is, this is the high

point of my day. It’s all downhill

from here.


CLOSE on a single, dewy AMERICAN BEAUTY ROSE, perfect IN

shape and color. As we PULL BACK, a pair of gloved hands with

CLIPPERS appear and SNIP the flower off.

We continue PULLING BACK to discover Carolyn BURNHAM IN her

rose garden in front of the house, cutting flowers and placing

them in a basket, a determined, humorless look on her face.

Even now, she is perfectly put-together; she wears color-

coordinated gardening togs and has lots of useful and

expensive tools.


That’s my wife Carolyn.  See the

way the handle on those pruning

shears matches her gardening clogs?

That’s not an accident

In the fenced front YARD OF the HOUSE across the street, the

familiar dog is still BARKING. A well-groomed, athletic MAN in

a conservative suit rolls a blue plastic city GARBAGE

CONTAINER up the driveway to the curb.

JIM #1

Bitsy. Hush.


That’s our next-door neighbor Jim.

A second well-groomed, athletic MAN IN a conservative suit

comes out the front door.

JIM #2

What in the world is wrong with

her? She had a walk this morning.

JIM #1

And a jerky treat.

JIM #2


You spoil her.


(re: the second man)

And that’s his lover Jim.

We recognize the two Jims as the joggers from Lester’s dream.

JIM #2


Bitsy. No bark. Come inside. Now.

Bitsy, suddenly subdued, allows Jim #2 to usher her inside.


It’s weird they have the same

name, but that’s really no fault of

their own.

As Jim #2 gets into a Ford Taurus, Jim #1 crosses the street

to greet Carolyn.

JIM #1

Morning, Carolyn.


(overly friendly)

Good morning, Jim!  I just love

your tie!  That color!

JIM #1

And I just love your roses.  How

do you get them to flourish like



Well, I’ll tell you. Egg shells

and Miracle Grow.

ANGLE on the second floor bay window of the Burnham’s house,

where Lester stands in a bathrobe, drying his hair as he looks

down at them.


Man. I get exhausted just watching


His POV: We can’t hear what they’re saying, but Carolyn’s

facial expressions remain overly animated and cheerful, like

those of a TV talk show host.

LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d)

She wasn’t always like this. She

used to be happy. We used to be


Jim #2 pulls the Ford Taurus into the street; Jim #1 waves to

Carolyn, jumps inside and they drive off. Carolyn immediately

reverts to her previous resolute expression as she continues

cutting flowers.

LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d)

But she doesn’t have much use for

me anymore. About the only thing

that gets her excited now is money.


CLOSE on a young woman’s hands counting DOLLAR BILLS. PULLING

BACK, we see JANE BURNHAM, seated at a desk in her bedroom,

wearing jeans and a tight cotton top with straps.  As she

counts, she has the same resolute expression as her mother.


And this is my daughter Jane.

Only child.  She takes after her

mother in a lot of ways, although

she’d never admit it.

Having finished counting, JANE paper-clips the money together

then types something into a computer.

CLOSE on the COMPUTER MONITOR:  Personal banking software.

We see the word DEPOSIT and the amount $38.00 as they’re

entered, then a new total in the balance column: $2,853.06.

JANE smiles, pleased.  she stuffs the money into a KNAPSACK

hanging on her closet door, then looks at herself in a full-

length MIRROR. A beat, she turns sideways and arches her back

so her breasts protrude as much as possible She frowns, then

turns so she’s facing the mirror, and hugs her herself

tightly, to enhance the appearance of cleavage.

LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d)

Janie is a pretty typical

teenager. Angry, insecure,

confused. I wish I could tell her

all that’s going to pass.


But I don’t want to lie to her.

We HEAR a CAR HORN from outside. JANE grabs her KNAPSACK and

a too-large flannel shirt from her closet and starts out.


A bright blue GARBAGE TRUCK fills the screen, as its

MECHANICAL ARM lifts a matching blue city GARBAGE CONTAINER

from the curb, emptying its contents into the truck. On the

side of the truck:



Let’s Recycle!

In the Burnham’s driveway: Carolyn1 now dressed for work in a

completely different but equally well-coordinated outfit,

stands next to a platinum-colored MERCEDES-BENZ ML320,

reaching in through the drivers’ window to blow the HORN


Her POV: LESTER comes out the front door, dressed IN a

business suit and carrying a briefcase, fumbling with his tie.

Jane is close behind him, buttoning her flannel shirt, her

knapsack slung over her shoulder.

Carolyn frowns at both OF them.


Jane. Honey. Are you trying to

look unattractive?




Well, congratulations.  You’ve

succeeded admirably.

Lester’s briefcase suddenly springs open, his papers and

files spilling onto the driveway.  As he drops to his knees to

gather everything, Jane sidesteps around him.


Nice going, Dad.

LESTER looks UP her sheepishly, then at Carolyn.

His POV: she looks down at us, slightly contemptuous But also

bored, as if she gave up expecting anything more long ago.


I keep meaning to get this thing


He smiles, trying to lighten the moment, but Carolyn’s

expression doesn’t change. She opens the door and gets into

the drivers seat. Jane takes the passenger seat, and Lester

climbs into the back. The Mercedes-Benz ML320 starts to slowly

back out of the driveway.

LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d)

So that’s my family… and this is

my life.


You’d think I wouldn’t miss it so



Carolyn is driving; Jane stares out the window. Lester is

asleep in the back seat. Clint Black sings “DESPERADO” on the



Why are we listening to this

whiny-ass music?


It’s just what was on.

JANE fiddles the tuner, searching FOR ANOTHER station.

Something suddenly catches Carolyn’s eye:

Her POV: An ADVERTISEMENT on a BUS STOP BENCH shows a slick-

looking, silver- ~ MAN smiling a toothy smile. It reads:

Leonard Kane – The Real Estate King – Rockwell’s Highest Sales

Record Three Years Straight. We recognize him as the man

seated next to Carolyn in court during Jane’s trial.

Carolyn glare at the ADVERTISEMENT as she drives past. it

obviously bothers her.


I don’t see how you people can

listen to that hillbilly crap.  It

makes me want to buy a gun and

shoot up a Burger King.


Well, your father was the last one

to drive this car.  You know I

don’t like country music myself.

It’s so… common and twangy. I

much prefer the old  ~b)V

standards. Sinatra, Bobby Darin

Doris Day…

JANE Finally finds a STATION she likes: MOODY ALTERNATIVE

ROCK. They drive along without speaking for a moment, then:


Wake up, Dad, we’re here.

No response from Lester.

JANE (cont’d)

Dad, look. It’s Garth Brooks, and

he’s wearing that groovy cowboy

hat. Maybe you can get his




Jane. Hush.


LESTER sits IN the crowded TRAIN, his head UP against the

window. He’s fast asleep.


Both my wife and my daughter think

I’m this gigantic loser.

He has a paper CUP OF COFFEE IN one hand, haphazardly holding

it against his knee.  Slowly, it tips over, spilling onto his

pants leg.  He remains asleep.

LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d)

And they’re right.  I’ve lost

something very important.  I’m not

exactly sure what it is, but I know

I didn’t always feel this…


Finally, LESTER opens one eye.

POV: from the front of the PATH train: We’re ZOOMING along

aboveground, unnaturally FAST heading toward a TUNNEL.

LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d)

But you know what?  It’s never too

late to get it back.

And we accelerate into the tunnel, and BLACKNESS.

2 thoughts on “Characterization in “American Beauty”

  1. Perfect! Brilliant scene, from a brilliant movie.
    VOs in AB are really something. I always wished Sam Mendes should have transferred some of the concepts he used in AB to Road to Perdition. Would have changed the game totally. Still, RTP is genious of a movie.
    Silly question, but did you re-write this script or is it from the original?

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