An agile jump from stage to film; Theater director Sam Mendes shows he knows movies in 'American Beauty.'; FILM


Englishman Sam Mendes has made his reputation directing such hit Broadway plays as "Cabaret" and "The Blue Room," not to mention the much-heralded West End production of "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice." He's directed Dame Judi Dench in "The Cherry Orchard," Ralph Fiennes in "Troilus and Cressida" and the Royal Shakespeare Company in "Richard III" and "The Tempest."

But to talk to Mendes, 34, for 20 minutes is to get a virtually nonstop barrage of movie references, from the work of Billy Wilder to "Five Easy Pieces" to "The Godfather."

"Growing up, you'd go to the theater maybe a few times a year, but you'd see movies sometimes every day," explained Mendes during a recent telephone conversation. "I saw everything, especially when in university in Cambridge. I think you'd be surprised, if someone put a gun to your head, if you're in any way interested in the visual imagination, how many opinions you already have in your head about how to make a movie."

That said, Mendes' first feature film, the black comedy "American Beauty," bears little resemblance to movies we've seen before, or at least lately. "I found I wasn't basing it on anything," Mendes said. But he admitted that the movie contains two homages: to Terence Malick's "Badlands" and Robert Redford's "Ordinary People." (It's up to filmgoers to figure out just where those homages are.)

"American Beauty" is that rarity in mainstream American film, the true sophisticate, a stylish blend of wicked humor, confrontational sexuality and genuinely gripping dramatic tension. But despite its rarefied air, "American Beauty" proved a big hit with audiences when it opened in limited markets last weekend, grossing an impressive $857,00 in just 16 theaters. ("American Beauty" opened in Baltimore on Friday.)

"I couldn't be happier by how it's being received, which is, to be honest, quite unexpected," Mendes admitted. "We hoped it would be a critical success, but the amount of people who have gone to see it on this tiny number of screens has taken us by surprise."

A redemptive heart

The story of a man's obsession with his teen-age daughter's best friend -- an obsession that sparks a mid-life crisis and catharsis -- will remind filmgoers of Todd Solondz's "Happiness" in its toxic portrayal of suburban superficiality. Its dark humor will put some in mind of "Election," another jaundiced look at adults reduced to childish misbehavior. And the confectionary aesthetic that masks the more sinister forces underneath recalls "To Die For," Gus Van Sant's brilliant portrait of the banality of evil in a media-savvy age.

But "American Beauty," which stars Kevin Spacey as the beleaguered Lester Burnham, and Annette Bening as his super-controlling wife, Carolyn, has something those predecessors lacked: a redemptive heart so pure that it shocks filmgoers far more deeply than its most risque sexual elements.

It's that crucial factor that separates "American Beauty" from another work of art to which it will inevitably be compared: "Lolita." More than Humbert Humbert's predilection for the teen-age Delores Haze, Mendes' film captures the humor, pathos and lambent brilliance of Nabakov's prose. But the director takes issue with the comparison.

" 'American Beauty' really isn't about the pursuit of a young girl by an older man," Mendes insisted. "The book was about obsession. Here, it's more of a catalyst, and when he wakes up he realizes the girl isn't what he thinks she is at all. 'American Beauty' doesn't have the darkness, the self-loathing, the terror of growing old that is there in 'Lolita.' This is a story about breaking free -- it's a rites-of-passage story."

Mendes said he'd been looking for a movie-directing project for three years when "American Beauty," which was written by television writer Alan Ball, landed on his desk. "The nice thing is, I've got a career in theater so I didn't have to do one," he recalled. "And then this came along and took the decision out of my hands."

He also claimed that he had Spacey and Bening in mind from the start. "More often than not, they can't do it and you go with someone else and they work out fine," he said, "but on this occasion both said yes. And they were both very keen to work with each other, which was very sweet. They kept asking, 'Well, is Kevin doing it?' 'Is Annette doing it?' I think both thought that the other one would give it class."

Although Bening gives a bravura performance as a woman whose tightly wound universe begins to unravel when her husband begins to transform his life, "American Beauty" is Spacey's movie. Heretofore relegated to supporting roles -- albeit critical ones, and nearly always lauded by reviewers and filmgoers -- Spacey takes center stage in a film that he dominates from the first voice-over to the final haunting image. (What's more, the physical makeover he undergoes will no doubt put him in another league as leading man material.)

Mendes called Spacey "astounding" in "American Beauty. "He's like Fred Astaire, dancing on the head of a pin. Because he has to do these terrible things, he's preposterous, he's badly behaved. But he's fighting against the dying of the light. And he won't die. He won't go quietly. And Kevin manages to maintain the audience's sympathy for that character even though the character does these contemptible things. He's not doing funny things that are forgivable. And yet he achieves this state of grace."

When Mendes and Spacey first discussed the role, the director recalled, "the only performance we talked about was Jack Lemmon's in 'The Apartment,' which aside from being a masterpiece of a film was about an ordinary man who's also a special man. You'd walk past him in the street. And when I mentioned Lemmon to Kevin his eyes lit up, because he worked with him on stage [in 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'] and he adores him. On the one hand he's got that lightness of touch and comic deftness, but he also has another Jack in him -- Jack Nicholson, that kind of dark, mysterious region of anger, like Nicholson had in 'Five Easy Pieces' or 'Cuckoo's Nest,' where you think he could just go at any minute. ... He's like Pacino in 'Godfather II,' he's just at the top of his craft."

Translating his art

Although Spacey's performance has been the most talked-about element of "American Beauty," Mendes has also been praised for the unusual control and visual style with which he approached the film's delicate emotional balance and shifting tones. Already acclaimed for his cinematic approaches to "Cabaret" and "The Blue Room," Mendes took his feature debut as seriously, if not more so, as any play.

"I storyboarded it from beginning to end," he explained. "And the wonderful thing about Conrad [Hall, the director of photography] was that he embraced everything I'd done, and just added light and texture and depth of frame. But the way of making myself secure was to get it out of my head and get it on paper."

Filming didn't always go smoothly. Early on, while viewing the daily footage he had shot, Mendes was less than pleased. "They just weren't very good," he said of those early scenes. "I didn't like the look of it, the costumes, the set or the performances. I'd pushed them too far. It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie. It just felt too broad and cartoony. ... If you're ever going to have a problem coming from the theater, it's diminishing the scale of the performances. But it was more the way it was shot. I just knew it was wrong."

Mendes refilmed some scenes, and wound up using some of the first ones in the finished version. At the end of the day, he said: "Something happened on this movie where it became more than the sum of its parts. It isn't just the cinematography or the music or the editing, and that's partly what I'm talking about with Kevin. When you get to screen acting at that level, it has nothing to do with words. He just is."

Mendes' next project will be the Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's new musical, "Wise Guys," starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber. "I don't know how people go back to back with movies," he said wearily. "To me it would be like getting pregnant the day after giving birth. Particularly after it opens. Coming from the theater, you get maybe 15 or 20 reviews. With movies you get 1,700 reviews, and they come over several weeks from all over the world. It's a global thing. It's so exciting, but, bloody hell, it's tiring."

Pub Date: 09/26/99

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