‘American Beauty’ screenwriter reflects on how Kevin Spacey impacted film’s legacy

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in ‘American Beauty’ (Photo: DreamWorks/courtesy Everett Collection)

What a difference 20 years makes. On Feb. 15, 2000, American Beauty became the toast of Hollywood at the 72nd Academy Awards, winning multiple statues — including a Best Actor Oscar for Kevin Spacey, Best Screenplay for Alan Ball, Best Director for Sam Mendes and Best Picture. Two decades later, Ball and Mendes are still major industry players, but their leading man is persona non grata following multiple reports of predatory behavior and sexual assault that date back for years.

And Ball is keenly aware of how Spacey’s public profile has impacted American Beauty’s legacy. “I feel really sad because of what happened with Kevin had sort of left its mark on it,” the writer and director of the new film, Uncle Frank, says in a recent interview with The Independent.

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 26: Alan Ball of 'Uncle Frank' attends the IMDb Studio at Acura Festival Village on location at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – Day 3 on January 26, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)
Alan Ball at the IMDb Studio at Acura Festival Village at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

It’s not just Spacey’s reputation that has changed the larger pop culture conversation around American Beauty. As Ball himself notes in his interview, one of the movie’s central storylines is very much out of step in the #MeToo era. “The character [Kevin] played in the movie is somebody who is lusting after a 17-year-old girl,” the writer says of the uncomfortable relationship that develops between Spacey’s middle-aged suburban dad Lester Burnham and Mena Suvari’s teenage cheerleader, Angela Hayes. In fact, Ball speculates that his script probably wouldn’t get the greenlight in 2020, especially by a major studio. “I wonder if that movie would get made now,” he remarks matter-of-factly.

That’s a question that’s also been addressed by one of the film’s stars, Thora Birch, who played Spacey’s daughter in the film. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter last year, the actress spoke about the importance of separating her co-star’s real-life actions from the movie itself. “You can’t help but feel, ‘Great, now we have this stain on the film,’” Birch said. “But no — it shouldn’t be on the film. Who’s to blame? I’’s Kevin. It doesn’t have anything to do with American Beauty.”

American Beauty is currently streaming on HBO Max

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