Sam Mendes

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in American Beauty (1999)

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in American Beauty (1999)

  • Born: 1965
  • Rank: 25
  • Score: 661.40
  • Awards: Oscar / DGA / Golden Globe / BFCA / LAFC / CFC
  • Nominations: Oscar / DGA / BAFTA / 2 Golden Globes / BFCA
  • Feature Films: 5
  • Best: American Beauty
  • Least: Jarhead

Feature Films (in rank order):

  1. American Beauty – 1999
  2. Revolutionary Road – 2008
  3. Road to Perdition – 2002
  4. Away We Go – 2009
  5. Jarhead – 2005

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1999 – 1st – American Beauty
  • 2002 – 5th – Road to Perdition
  • 2008 – 4th – Revolutionary Road

Several years ago at a dinner with Bob Bassett (Dean of Chapman Film School), my mother asked if anyone could do what Orson Welles did and just come into Hollywood and make a film out of nowhere with the control he did. Both Bob and I quickly replied that Welles had come out of the theater world and that the perfect comparison was with Sam Mendes, who had done the same thing, and like Welles, hit a home run on the first try. Unlike Welles, Mendes hasn’t had to go around the system for the rest of his films and he’s proven that he’s a natural behind the camera.  So now we’re ten years later and Mendes is still proving he’s a natural.  He won Best Director at the Oscars (among others) for American Beauty, got the best performance of Tom Hanks career in Road to Perdition, made the Gulf war film Jarhead, then teamed with his wife, Kate Winslet, for Revolutionary Road (the film she should have won Best Actress for) before this summer’s comedy Away We Go.  He made us wait three years between films before Away We Go and let’s hope this is a new trend because his films are too good to wait three years for.

American Beauty – #1 film of 1999

Inside Oscar is a great book because it has so much history in its pages.  Inside Oscar 2 is not.  Because it is more recent and the people likely to read it already lived through it, they get less of the backstage history and more opinions, and I’m not so crazy about their opinions, especially when they trash on American Beauty.  Because American Beauty is an amazing film, brilliantly written, amazingly acted (won one Oscar, should have won a second), with marvelous direction and fantastic cinematography, editing and music.  The farther away we get from 1999 and look at the other nominees (The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, The Cider House Rules), as opposed to the film that weren’t nominated (like Magnolia, The End of the Affair, Three Kings, Eyes Wide Shut, Toy Story 2, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Sweet and Lowdown, Topsy-Turvy, Being John Malkovich or Fight Club) and we can be glad that the Academy got it right.  They get it right (in my opinion) about 1/4 of the time, but this was the only year between 1993 and 2003 where the Academy got it completely right; they actually gave the Oscar for Best Picture to the best film of the year (not just the best of the nominees like they did in 1996 and 1998).

“Does it give anything away if you tell me if Kevin Spacey dies in American Beauty,” my mother asked me when it was still in general release.  I told her that it did not, that it was much like Sunset Boulevard and it begins with the acknowledgement of the main character’s death.  In fact, it has to be that way.  What makes it so poignant, so powerful, is not the shadows in suburbia that it shows, not just the hidden depths which people will go to hide not only from their family and their friends, but also from themselves; it is the impending death of poor Lester Burnham, that no matter what he does and how much he is able to discover about his life, he will be dead by the end of the film.

Of course, we all die, and no matter what you might believe about anything beyond the scope of this existence, there is no question that it comes to an end.  And that is the other truly poignant thing about the film.  Both film (Sunset and Beauty) have opening moments that are steeped in the death of a character who will finally discover how to live just as his life is taken away from him, but it is the ending of both films that grabs at us.  While Sunset has poor deranged Norma walking down the staircase imagining being watched by all the people in the dark, Lester actually speaks to those people in the dark.  If you have forgotten the final shot of Beauty, that shot of the bag and Lester’s final words, then go back and watch it again.  Because what he says matters and that is what adds so much depth to this film, the power of the editing, the cinematography, the writing, the acting, and of course, the directing.  Like Mendes’ career, it echoes back to Citizen Kane, because what other directorial debut could have such power and mystery and force.

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