Director Sam Mendes was already a veteran of the Broadway and London stage when he made one of the most auspicious feature film debuts in recent memory with American Beauty, a dark, satirical, and ultimately revelatory vision of suburban discontent. The low-budget Hollywood production struck a chord with audiences and critics, garnering Mendes a truckload of year-end awards.
The soft-spoken director was born in 1965 in England, an only child of Portuguese descent. His parents divorced when he was five. After graduating from Cambridge University, the young Mendes made his mark with several popular, innovative stage productions in London's West End before joining the ranks of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992. By his mid-twenties, Mendes had staked a claim among such peers as Danny Boyle and Nicholas Hytner -- future film directors themselves -- and had already coaxed attention-getting performances from such luminaries as Dame Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes.
Mendes then became artistic director of London's Donmar Warehouse Theater, where he programmed an eclectic mix of Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim, and Tennessee Williams. Critics noted the director's ability to attract big-name talents seeking to prove their mettle, exemplified by Nicole Kidman's daring, multi-character performance in Mendes' London and Broadway productions of The Blue Room.
It was his stark, Tony-winning rendition of Cabaret, however, which prompted Steven Spielberg to hand Mendes the script for American Beauty. Spielberg's DreamWorks company was the only Hollywood studio to respond to sitcom writer Alan Ball's elliptical tale of Middle American redemption; and in Cabaret, Spielberg saw the work not just of an actor's director but of a distinctly cinematic visionary. In the film's production, Mendes rehearsed extensively with his cast, storyboarding the film with the aid of Spielberg and legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall. Though the picture was conceived as a dark, ironic comedy, Mendes discovered in the editing process a more reverent, spiritual side to the material. Through careful marketing, the film enjoyed a long run at the box office; in a year filled with scandal and tragedy, American audiences responded to its caustic but inspiring tone. Critics and the industry took note as well, as was particularly evidenced by the slew of year-end attention garnered by the film and its director: among American Beauty's many honors were 5 Academy Awards, including a Best Picture win and a Best Director Oscar statuette for Mendes.
Immediately following the win, Mendes laid low for a while, choosing to focus on the Donmar Theatre instead of the piles of scripts that were being thrown his way. (Among the projects Mendes turned down was Charlie Kaufman's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which would later become George Clooney's directorial debut.) He re-emerged in 2002 with the big-budget Tom Hanks vehicle Road to Perdition, a dark rumination on the nature of violence and the seemingly-inextricable bonds between fathers (or father figures) and sons. Prepped for a high-profile Oscar-season bow, Perdition was moved up to the summer to make way for another Hanks/Dreamworks epic, Catch Me If You Can. Still, upon its release, the R-rated Perdition garnered a sizable amount of awards talk for its stark, poetic visual sense, its mournful tone, and a muted, restrained performance from the usually-sunny Tom Hanks. Better yet, Dreamworks' careful, "counter-programming" platform release ensured a healthy box-office life for the film, as it opened to $20 million on less than 2,000 screens. ~ Michael Hastings, Rovi