Mendes, Sam


Mendes, Sam
▪ 2001

      In March 2000 British director Sam Mendes won the Academy Award for best director for his work on the widely acclaimed and commercially successful film American Beauty, a satire that attempted to expose the seamy underbelly of life in modern American suburbia. He was also named best director by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Directors Guild of America, and the Golden Globe awards for American Beauty, and the film also won an Oscar for star Kevin Spacey (Spacey, Kevin ) (q.v.). On the surface, Mendes, who had never made a film before, seemed an unlikely winner. Although he was a newcomer to Hollywood, he had long before forged a successful career on the British stage.

      Samuel Alexander Mendes was born Aug. 1, 1965, in Reading, Eng. His mother, a writer of children's fiction, and father, a university professor, divorced when he was five. He attended the University of Cambridge, where he formed a theatre company with playwright Tim Firth. After graduating in 1987 with first-class honours in English, he landed a job at the Chichester (Eng.) Festival Theatre, and when the director of a production of London Assurance walked out, Mendes was summoned to take over. The play was a hit and moved to London's West End, where Mendes quickly made a name for himself, directing Dame Judi Dench in The Cherry Orchard. Stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre followed.

      In 1992 Mendes took over as artistic director of London's nonprofit Donmar Warehouse Theatre and transformed it from a stop for visiting productions to a starting point for new productions. A series of successes followed as Mendes's reputation attracted big-name actors to the low-paying, 250-seat venue. Celebrated productions such as Cabaret (1993) and The Glass Menagerie (1995) catapulted Mendes to further fame, and he had similar success in 1998 when he took Cabaret and Othello to New York. In 1998 Mendes directed film star Nicole Kidman's London stage debut in a provocative rendition of David Hare's The Blue Room.

      It was Steven Spielberg who offered Mendes the chance to try his hand on screen. The legendary director-producer had seen Mendes's productions of Oliver! and Cabaret, and he handed the script of American Beauty to Mendes over lunch. Filming got off to a rocky start when Mendes decided after three days that he had taken the wrong approach. He convinced the studio that it was worth the expense to reshoot, and the film went on to win the Academy Award for best picture.

      After winning the Oscar, Mendes formed his own production company with backing from Spielberg's DreamWorks studio. He turned down a multifilm offer from DreamWorks, however, preferring to focus on the theatre, from which moviemaking had forced him to take a two-year hiatus. In May he announced plans to return to the Donmar with a World War I drama by a little-known author. In June it was revealed that Mendes had been appointed CBE for his contributions to drama.

Anthony G. Craine

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▪ English director
byname of  Samuel Alexander Mendes 
born Aug. 1, 1965, Reading, Berkshire, Eng.

      English film and theatre director who was known for his innovative treatments of classic stage productions as well as for his thought-provoking films.

      Mendes was raised in London by his mother, a writer of children's fiction; she and his father, a university professor, had divorced when Mendes was five. He attended the University of Cambridge, where he formed a theatre company with playwright Tim Firth. After graduating in 1987 with first-class honours in English, he accepted a job at the Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex, Eng. When the director of a production of the Dion Boucicault (Boucicault, Dion) comedy London Assurance walked out, Mendes was summoned to take over. The play was a success and moved to London's West End, where Mendes quickly made a name for himself, directing Dame Judi Dench (Dench, Dame Judi) in Anton Chekhov (Chekhov, Anton)'s The Cherry Orchard. Stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre followed.

      In 1992 Mendes took over as artistic director of the nonprofit Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London. His reputation, solidified by a series of well-received productions, began to attract renowned actors to the unprepossessing venue. Celebrated stagings of Cabaret (1993) and Tennessee Williams (Williams, Tennessee)'s The Glass Menagerie (1995) catapulted Mendes to further fame, and he had similar success in 1998 when he took Cabaret and Shakespeare (Shakespeare, William)'s Othello to New York. In 1998 Mendes directed film star Nicole Kidman (Kidman, Nicole)'s London stage debut in a provocative rendition of David Hare (Hare, Sir David)'s The Blue Room.

      Mendes's productions of Oliver! and Cabaret brought him to the attention of film director Steven Spielberg (Spielberg, Steven), who gave Mendes the script for American Beauty (1999). The film, which starred Kevin Spacey (Spacey, Kevin) and Annette Bening, attempts to expose the seamy underbelly of life in modern American suburbia. Mendes won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best director for his work on the satire, which was also awarded the Academy Award for best picture.

Anthony G. Craine
      Mendes proceeded to form his own production company with financial backing from Spielberg's DreamWorks studio. In 2002 he alternated between theatre and film work, directing stage productions of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse in addition to helming the gangster movie Road to Perdition. His production of Gypsy (2003), staged at the Shubert Theatre in New York and starring Bernadette Peters, was widely acclaimed. He released the film Jarhead, a Gulf War drama, in 2005. Mendes's next project was an adaptation of the Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road (2008) starring actress Kate Winslet (Winslet, Kate), whom he had married in 2003. The film centres on a free-spirited married couple, played by Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (DiCaprio, Leonardo), as they navigate the increasingly homogeneous social milieu of 1950s American suburbia. In 2000 Mendes was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (British Empire, The Most Excellent Order of the) for his contributions to drama.

Ed.
 

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Universalium. 2010.

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