Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Birthday: Alan Ball (born 1957)

The title of Alan Ball's famous screenplay, American Beauty, refers, of course, to the roses that we see Annette Bening gardening in the opening scene (and that continue as a visual motif throughout the film). But there is considerably more to the reference than that; and I haven't seen this pointed out very often (it shows up in the film's Spanish Wikipedia entry, though). At the turn of the century, when the great journalist Ida Tarbell was investigating John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company, Rockefeller's son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., let loose a metaphor for which he was never forgiven in a speech at Brown University: “The American Beauty rose can be produced in its splendor and fragrance only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it.”

Of course, the theme of "success" is a large part of what American Beauty is about. It is scarcely a reach to see Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham as one of the "early buds" sacrificed to the "splendor and fragrance" of capitalism; while Bening's Carolyn Burnham never surrenders her devotion to the ideal ("See the way the handle on her pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That's not an accident"), and is further schooled in it by master Realtor Buddy Kane ("In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times"). The variations that Ball works on this theme are lush. Although American Beauty has never been the most popular film with the cinematic intelligentsia, I think it's a stunning piece of work. I've got to assume that Ball knew about the Rockefeller connection, because if not, the serendipity involved beggars belief.

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