Auteur of the Week: Sam Mendes

We often hear about an actor’s range and praise them for working in a variety of genres, etc. Rarely, however, do we hear the same praise for directors. Sam Mendes is one of those directors who never does the same thing twice. His debut film, 1999’s American Beauty was a slice of life family drama. It went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. His second film, 2002’s Road To Perdition was a period crime drama. In 2005 he made the dark comedy/war drama Jarhead. Three years later was the 2008 literary adaptation/period drama Revolutionary Road, which he followed up less than six months later with the indie dramedy Away We Go. Each of these films is so different from the other, but what they all have in common is Mendes’ strong direction, resulting in a plethora of amazing, complicated, compelling performances.

Sam Mendes was born Reading, Berkshire, England on August 1st, 1965. He attended Magdalen College School, Oxford and graduated from Peterhouse, Cambridge, with a BA in 1987. At the age of 25 he garnered much praise for his production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in the West End staring Judi Dench. He has directed various stage plays over the years including Troilus and CressidaRichard III and The Tempest for the  Royal Shakespeare Company, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Cabaret and many more. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2000.

I remember when I first saw American Beauty in theaters it had already won countless awards, including five Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, Actor – Kevin Spacey, Original Screenplay and Cinematography. I was so excited to see it. I went with a group of friends, which turned out to be a bad idea. We were all 12 or 13 at the time and I was the only one who was really into film. They talked all through the film; I was enthralled. When it ended I knew I had seen something truly brilliant and all they could do was talk about how bad it was. That was the first time I’d ever seen a film I truly loved with a group of people who did not feel the same way; it would not be the last time.

At the time I thought the whole having the film narrated by a protagonist who was already dead was so original and amazing. Skip to eight years later when I’m watching Sunset Blvd. for the first time and I realize it had already been done – 50 years earlier. Not to say that American Beauty‘s screenplay isn’t wildly original in other ways, but I still feel a little ripped off. Moral of the story: watch your classic films guys! It’ll help you recognize homages in modern films. That being said, Kevin Spacey gives an astounding performance as Lester Burnham, who finally takes control of his life, while he loses everything else around him. Spacey would go on to win his second Academy Award for this performance.

Annette Bening was also fabulous as Lester’s cheating, emotionally unstable wife Carolyn. Bening received her second (of three) Academy Award nominations for this role. She lost to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (oddly enough, she lost to Swank again five years later). There’s a whole hell of a lot of symbolism in this film, but none is as apparent as the use of the American Beauty Rose, which we first see in Carolyn’s front yard at the beginning of the film. Carolyn even states at one point, “as long as there can be roses, all is well.” She then cuts the roses, essentially killing them, to transplant their beauty to the inside of her house. It’s such a wonderful commentary on the way in which we’re constantly trying to change ourselves for beauty instead of letting nature take its course.

I’m really bummed that Mena Suvari’s career hasn’t really gone anywhere but down since this film. I often hear a lot of talk about how wonderful We Bentley and Thora Birch were in this film, but rarely anything about Suvari. Her role is essential for Lester’s transformation and she acted it well. She says volumes with her eyes alone.

I had been meaning to watch this film for eight years. I finally saw it last night and it is even more wonderful than I thought it would be. I really think it is a far superior film to Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York and would gladly have switched these two films in the Best Picture category. Although it wasn’t up for Best Picture, it was nominated for six Oscars: Best Supporting Actor – Paul Newman, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing and Best Cinematography. Conrad L. Hall won his second Oscar for Best Cinematography on a Mendes film (and his third overall, his first win was for 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Apparently the bleak color scheme for the film was inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper. If you are familiar with Hopper’s work, you can really feel that inspiration, in both the coloring of the film, but the mood as well.

I was really surprised by how much I loved Tom Hanks in this film. I mean, I always love Tom Hanks, but this performance was very different from anything I’d ever seen Hanks do. It was reserved and harsh and yet, at times, tender and heartbreaking. I’m shocked to see he didn’t receive much attention for it. This might possibly be my favorite Hanks performance.

Paul Newman, however, received multiple nominations for his performance in the film, which was also his final on-screen performance in a feature film. He went on to receive his tenth Academy Award nomination. I’ve seen a lot of Newman’s work and I must say I think he has some of the strongest screen presence there has ever been. He dominates every frame in which he is featured.

Lastly I want to talk about Jude Law and how I think he is best in supporting roles. He is fabulous in The Talented Mr. Ripley, for which he received his first Oscar nomination. He’s tried to be a leading man and often the films in which he plays the lead flounder at the box-office, as well as with critics. Movies wherein he’s part of an ensemble – like I Heart Huckabees or The Aviator– or where he plays a supporting role – like Sherlock Holmes – he is wonderful. Which is the case with his performance in this film. He plays a sociopathic crime scene photographer who moonlights as a hitman and it is maybe one of his best performances. I think he is essentially a character actor and if he’d stop trying to be a leading man and just embrace being a fabulous supporting actor he’d been much more successful.

I first saw 2005’s Jarhead at an advance screening in college and I thought it was amazing. Afterwards they had the author of the book on which it was based do a Q&A. Advanced screenings and Q&As like that are one of the major things I miss about living in the Bay Area. I liked this film a lot and was rather shocked when it largely ignored come awards season.

At the very least I thought Roger Deakins’ mind-blowing cinematography would get a nomination at the Oscars. He is one of my favorite cinematographers working today and I just love what he did on this film. Although Deakins was snubbed for his work on this film, he is one of the most lauded cinematographers of his generation, with a whopping eight Academy Award nominations. Sadly he’s yet to win.

Jake Gyllenhaal had a stand-out year in 2005 featuring prominently in this film, Proof and the Best Picture-nominee Brokeback Mountain, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Unlike Jude Law, I think Gyllenhaal works equally well as the lead of a film or in a supporting role. This is one of my favorite of his performance, my favorite being 2007’s Zodiac. I wish more people had seen this film. I feel like even now, five years late, it is largely a forgotten film.

I was SO CONVINCED that Peter Sarsgaard was going to get a Best Supporting Actor for his performance in this film. I still consider it one of the greatest snubs in recent Academy history. He is the best thing in this film. His performance is nuanced and subtle and fits so perfectly in the crazy, manic, isolated setting of the film.

2008’s Revolutionary Road marked the first re-teaming of Kate Winslet and Leonard DiCaprio (and Kathy Bates) since their star-making turns in 1997’s Titanic. It was also the first teaming of Mendes with his then-wife Winslet (the couple were married in 2003, but announced their separation a few months ago). The result is a powerful, character driven drama chock full of outstanding performances. Mendes again re-teamed with Deakins, this time creating an idealistic 50s vibe. Deakins wasn’t nominated for his work on this film, but oddly enough was for his work on another film starring Winslet – the Best Picture nominee The Reader. I actually though Deakins might manage a double nom for both films, he did the year earlier for his work on No Country For Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Like I said earlier, he has yet to win. Roger Ebert called this film,  “so good it is devastating” and it made several Top Ten of 2008 list, including the #1 spot on Mike LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle. It received three Academy Award nominations – Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction and Best Supporting Actor – Michael Shannon.

I was really hoping Kate Winslet would receive double nominations for her work in this film and in The Reader. It really looked like it might happen when she was being campaigned as lead in this film and supporting in the other. She won her first Golden Globe ever for her turn in The Reader (in the supporting category), after being nominated seven times. She won her second one about an hour later for her role in this film. She got double nominations at the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, winning for Best Supporting Actress for The Reader. Then the Oscar nominations came out and she was nominated for Best Actress in a Lead Role – for The Reader and everyone was like, “WHAT?” It was her sixth nomination, she was the youngest actress to have that many nominations, and it was for the role that she would finally win an Oscar. I wish she’d have won for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, personally. But as for 2008, I think her best performance is as April in Revolutionary Road, but the Academy has a thing for World War II and nazi roles, so in my mind she won for both performances.

Leo received his seventh Golden Globe nomination – sixth in the Best Actor in a Drama category – for his performance in this film. He is utterly heartbreaking in this film. I love what he has become as an actor. He dives into his roles with such gusto and projects such presence on-screen it’s almost like he’s not even acting anymore, he becomes the roles he plays. Winslet and DiCaprio have such perfect on screen-chemistry, it’s a pity they don’t do more films together.

As much as I loved Kate and Leo in this film, Michael Shannon gives a scene-stealing performance as the mentally unhinged grown son of their neighbor (played by Kathy Bates). Every film I’ve seen Shannon in he steals. He is one of those actors that you just can’t take your eyes off of while he’s on the screen. But he is mostly definitely at the top of his game in this film, it is one of the those perfect player in the perfect part and I’m glad the Academy gave him the recognition he deserved. I hope he continues to be a powerful character actor and has a lengthy, stellar career.

2009’s Away We Go is my favorite of Mendes’ films. It is also probably his least well-known and most under-appreciated films. The film’s leads are played by actors mostly known for their work on television, John Krasinski for The Office and Maya Rudolph for Saturday Night Live. It also is peppered with an incredible ensemble cast including Allison Janney, Catherine O’Hara, Jeff Daniels, Paul Schneider, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I love everything about this film. I love the characters, I love the stories and I love the way in which it is all executed.

I remember reading at the time several negative reviews calling the film’s protagonists, Burt and Verona, superior and condescending. I think Roger Ebert addresses these claims perfectly saying in his review, “If their characters find they are superior to many people, well, maybe they are.” I don’t find these two characters condescending at all. They are just two people trying to find their place in life and finding it very difficult. Krasinski and Rudolph have such lovely on-screen chemistry together. What surprised me the most about this film, was the immense range of emotions and depth Rudolph brings to her character. I never really liked her on SNL, so I was shocked by how much I loved her in this film. She gave my favorite performance of 2009, along with Sam Rockwell in Moon. She received a handful of critic award nominations, but nothing major and the film itself seemed to completely slip under the radar.

I particularly love Maggie Gyllenhaal in this film. If anyone is condescending, it’s her character. Gyllenhaal received her first Academy Award nomination for another 2009 performance – Crazy Heart – but I wish it had been for this performance, because I liked it so much more.

I guess what I loved so much about this film is that it is about finding yourself and finding your home in the land of “adulthood.” I just relate so much to Burt and Verona and where they are in life. I guess for me this is one of those films that speaks to me because it is a tiny reflection of where  I am in life. 2009 was full of movies like that actually. Maybe I’m finally at an age and stage in life wherein they make films that are actually true-to-life, as opposed to all those ridiculous high school and college films that are more fantasy than reflections of real life. I don’t even know if I am making any sense, but I love this film. I love these characters. And I love the gentle touch Sam Mendes took in telling their story.

Sam Mendes was scheduled to take on the newest installment in the James Bond franchise – which at this point is only known as Bond 23, but it the project has been suspended indefinitely due to the crippling debt and uncertain future of MGM. If the film ever does happen and Daniel Craig remains attached as James Bond, it will be their second collaboration. Craig pervious worked with Mendes on Road To Perdition. I’m not sure how I feel about Mendes working on a franchise because what I love so much about him is his originality of vision. I also don’t like Daniel Craig and haven’t seen any of the recent Bond films because of him. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

If you’re interested in buying any of Mendes’ films, you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on July 27, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: