HUMANITAS Trustee Alan Ball Celebrates 15th Anniversary of 'American Beauty'


alan-ball-mainThe Academy Awards have always favored industry over artistry. Which is why 15 years after American Beauty's release, it's still surprising that it did all but sweep the Oscars. The drama won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. With the film both critically acclaimed and a box office smash, for a brief moment the suits and the artists could bow down in front of a campfire with one another in a hymn of "Kumbaya." It took hundreds to carry the logs, but the first one to incite the flame was screenwriter Alan Ball.

The idea came to him when he worked as a graphic designer for Adweek in Times Square. New York press was ablaze with coverage of the 1992 Joey Buttafuoco/Amy Fisher trial, in which Fisher was charged with first-degree attempted murder of Buttafuoco's wife.

"I came out for lunch one day and somebody was selling comic books that on one cover had Amy as this virginal Catholic schoolgirl. Joey was this hairy, lecherous, beer-bellied beast, just waiting to be a predator," Ball says as he sips a cappuccino, not that he needs the caffeine to jog his memory. "Then you turn it over, and he's the good suburban husband, and she's all tarted up like a little Lolita. I remember thinking, 'the truth is somewhere in between, and we will never know what it is.'"

The latent tone of resentment within the script is partly autobiographical.

Ball channeled his anger and frustration at having to accede to network television demands during his tenures on sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill.

"I had learned all the tricks of the sitcom. I knew what they wanted and gave it to them, but they'd always change it every week. It was just an inefficient process. I felt like I was in a factory, using the talent I was given to make really disposable stuff."

In an effort to reintroduce Ball to the industry, where Ball was primarily known as a television writer, his agent implored him to pen a new film script. He pitched his agent three projects. Two were homespun romantic comedies, but the third pitch -- which struck a chord with his agent -- was American Beauty.

"I said, 'I'm surprised, why would you suggest I write that one?' My agent said, 'that's the one you feel most passionate about.' That's probably the best advice I've ever gotten in my career."

He initially planned to leave Cybill and work on his script for a year, but was offered so much money that he decided to stay on the sitcom for another 12 months, then write the script.

"I felt like such a big whore that I wrote it while I was working on the sitcom. I would come home at midnight, filled with rage because my job was so soul deadening. I think it's no accident that the movie's main character is a writer who has lost his passion for living. I had lost my passion for writing. I had to write something I cared about."

Upon its completion, the script was a Hollywood hot potato passed around to nearly every studio -- and was nearly sold -- but then Ball received word that Steven Spielberg got his hands on it. Ball was elated, but skeptical.

"I thought, 'pfft. Well, he'll hate it.' I don't know why I thought that because I have a lot of respect for him as a filmmaker. But I thought that he was so, for lack of a better word, mainstream. I didn't view the movie as particularly mainstream."

The next day, he heard that the Schindler's List director and business magnate loved it, and Ball met with DreamWorks producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks.

"Then on the way out to my car, Steven Spielberg came up to me, and I was like, 'okay, just act normal. You're about to meet Steven Spielberg.' He came up to me and said, 'I love your script. How come I've never heard of you?'"

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UncategorizedJosh Neimark