June 29th, 2003
American Beauty (1999)
Alan Ball took a slightly roundabout path on his way to becoming a successful screenwriter. The Georgia native studied acting and playwriting at the University of Florida before dropping out to head North to NYC to seek his fame and fortune. Instead of immediate success in the theater, the openly gay Ball worked as a magazine art director for Adweek and Inside PR and shared a house in Brooklyn with two heterosexual male roommates. Eventually, several of his plays were produced at various venues off-off and off Broadway. In 1991, his "The M Word" premiered at the inaugural Lucille Ball Festival of New American Comedy. Two years later, what is perhaps his best-known play, "Five Women Wearing the Same Dress" (about bridesmaids at a wedding) debuted at Manhattan Class Company and caught the attention of Hollywood.
Producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner read one of Ball's plays and offered him a chance to serve as a story editor as well as to write scripts for one of their sitcoms, "Grace Under Fire" (ABC) during the 1994-95 season. The following season, he jumped to another Carsey-Werner sitcom, CBS' "Cybill" where he spent three seasons (1995-98) and rose through the ranks from co-producer to co-executive producer. All the while, Ball was concentrating on an idea for a play loosely inspired by the real-life case of Amy Fisher, a Long Island teenager who, after becoming involved with an older married man, shot his wife. Intrigued by the media circus that followed (there were three made-for-television films made on the subject) and the fact that the truth was undoubtedly being obscured, he began to write a play examining what might drive people to such extreme behavior. Invoking memories of his own Southern upbringing, Ball spent several years refining his version morphing it into a dark comedy-drama that served as his first produced screenplay "American Beauty" (1999). Purporting to examine what might go on behind closed doors in suburbia, the finished film, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, stuck a chord with moviegoers. Part "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", part "Lolita", "American Beauty" examined the mid-life crisis of a man bored by his job and alienated from his family. Well-acted and strongly directed, it won substantial praise from critics and announced the arrival of a very distinctive voice in motion pictures.
While Ball was enjoying his first flush of big screen success, he was faring less well in his return to the small screen. Having signed a three-year deal TV production deal with The Greenblatt Janollari Studio, he mined incidents from his own life to create the ABC sitcom "Oh Grow Up" (1999), centering on three men, two heterosexuals and a newly "out" gay man, sharing a home in Brooklyn. Critical reception was lukewarm as was the response from viewers. Still, Ball could console himself with his big screen success (including a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award) and the resultant screenwriting offers.