The true story that inspired Sam Mendes’ 1999 film ‘American Beauty’
Sam Mendes’ award-winning directorial debut American Beauty is 21-years-old but it still manages to elicit polarised opinions from new viewers, perhaps more so now than at the time of its release. The questions of identity and meaning in the 1999 film either leave lasting impressions on the people who immerse themselves in it or they come across as overbearing and pretentious. At its core, American Beauty is a devastating exposition of suburban ennui: people packed into identical houses and living identical lives, maintaining the appearance of uniform prosperity while dark impulses fester beneath.
According to screenwriter Alan Ball, the idea for the film came to him when he was working as a graphic designer for Adweek in Times Square. At the time, there was a lot of press coverage about the early 1990s scandal involving Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. Fisher, who came to be known as the “Long Island Lolita,” was 17-years-old when she shot her lover’s wife, Mary Jo Buttafuoco, in the face. She ended up spending six years in prison while Joey was sentenced to four months for statutory rape.
“I had been working on the basic premise for eight years,” Alan Ball recalled. “The genesis of the idea for me was the Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco business in New York City. When I was living there, I was working at Adweek and I came out one day and some guy was selling a comic book about Amy and Joey.
“On one side was this virginal-looking Amy and a big leering, lecherous, predatory Joey. You flip it over and he’s all buttoned-up and she’s all tarted up and predatory slutty vixen. I remember thinking the truth is somewhere in those, and we will never know what it is.”
After Fisher was released from prison, she started writing for the Long Island Press. Her biography, If I Knew Then…, written by Robbie Woliver, was published in 2004 and became a New York Times bestseller. Ball used this true incident to fuel his artistic vision while writing American Beauty, tearing away the image of suburban satisfaction to reveal the violent reality.
While speaking about the film, Ball said, “I think the movie spoke to people. Whether it’s the performances, the way it was shot, the way it was directed. It spoke to people in a way they’re not used to having movies speak to them.”