On Thursday night in Los Angeles, American Beauty, the Oscar-winning 1999 film starring Kevin Spacey, came alive once more. Jason Reitman, director and helmer of the Live-Reads, gathered a bunch of his favorite actors — or rather, some folks slated to star in his next film Men, Women & Children — for a cold reenactment of the film’s script at the Film Independent at LACMA.
With Adam Sandler as Lester Burham (Kevin Spacey), Rosemarie DeWitt as Carolyn (Annette Bening), Kaitlyn Dever as Jane (Thora Birch), Olivia Crocicchia as Angela (Mena Suvari), Dean Norris as the Colonel (Chris Cooper), Travis Tope as Ricky (Wes Bentley), and Phil LaMarr as Buddy (Peter Gallagher), the suburban ennui reaffirmed itself, albeit slowly — and then all at once. Given that this was their first time reading the script together, things understandably started out with a bit of nerves. But once in the groove, the chemistry between the cast was evident and strong, bringing a slightly less dark interpretation of Alan Ball’s incredible script to life.
“There’s this entire life, behind things,” Ricky muses at one point, and the behind-the-scenes life of American Beauty that lives within the script itself was a true delight to see. Hearing Ball’s descriptions and set-ups read aloud — concise but not without a one-two punch of humor — gave the whole production a bit more levity and humor. (Carolyn’s smile being that of a “TV Talk Show Host,” her reaction to Buddy “like a fervent Christian that just came face to face with Jesus.”) Which is nice when you consider the fact that this is a story about the life of a man who — spoiler alert — dies at the end.
Far and away, DeWitt and LaMarr were the stars of the evening, their ebullient embodiments of Buddy and Carolyn particularly well-suited to play off one another. Comedically, these two were the most on-point, DeWitt giving role originator Bening a run for her manic money — which is really saying something given how ferociously fantastic the latter was in the film version. The ways in which everyone’s idea of beauty owns them was, dare I say it, more electrically evident in the live read than the film. Perhaps due to the lack of visual artistic interpretation that you get with the original.
DeWitt is such a force of nature it’s downright stupid (we mean that in a good way). Can we just cast her in everything? Please? (Pretty, pretty please?) Whether playing the manically bubbly Carolyn or the emotionally void Mrs. Fitts (Ricky’s mom and the Colonel’s wife; Allison Janney), DeWitt positively embodied each of their very different narratives. Bouncing from two diametrically opposed extremes is no easy feat — but she simply nailed it. Where the other actors gave themselves a little wiggle room, DeWitt was always at attention, and it was truly thrilling to see.
LaMarr, who played several roles as well throughout the evening, really showed his prowess as a character actor. His Ken Doll-esque take on Buddy was performed like an A+ Douche (a compliment, trust), as were his other, smaller bit parts throughout the evening. Even when he wasn’t reading, his reactions to certain dialogue and text within the script itself made you feel that you were seeing the whole thing for the first time.
“There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary,” states Angela at one point during the film, and Dever, Crocicchia, and Tope were far from that in their interpretations of Jane, Angela, and Ricky (respectively). It’s easy to see why these three were selected by Reitman to play into modern dissatisfaction and anxiety, as their balance of both was very successful. Tope took away some of the breathier, lighter aspects of Bentley’s work in the film and replaced them with something a bit gruffer, more stand-offish but still confident. And Crocicchia clearly had a lot of fun with the vapidly misguided Angela, inlaying the unknowing vitriolic insecurity of youth into her feigned confidence.
Dean Norris’ Colonel held onto the same sort of straightman comedic timing that Cooper did in the original. Slightly more bumbling but none-the-less enjoyable, the Colonel’s own repression had a far more comedic effect in the live-read. His first line delivery — “The world’s going straight to hell” — got one of the bigger laughs of the night.
And of course we’d be remiss to not mention Sandler’s interpretation of Lester Burnham, which was always going to pale in comparison to Spacey. I mean, the man won the goddamn Oscar for the role — it’s one of if not his MOST iconic — so it’d be a real, real impressive feat if Sandler were actually able to outdo Spacey. Their interpretations were largely different: Sandler’s Burnham embodying far less control than Spacey. Not to its detriment, it was just different. Though slow to warm up (Nerves? Anxiety?), the actor was at his best when what was happening took a turn for the awkward. Adam Sandler is a man that can play awkward very well.
Overall it was a wholly entertaining evening with plenty of laughs and impressive acting to be had. In fact we’d call it a very successful start to the 4th season of the Film Independent at LACMA’s Live-Read series. Up next? The Barry Levinson classic, Diner, on November 20th, 2014 at 7:30pm.
Who would you cast in your own live-read of the script? Let us see your dream-castings in the comments!
Image Credit: WireImage