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Oscars 2000 Friday, 17 March, 2000, 10:16 GMT
Midas Mendes
Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes: His career struck gold from day one
By the BBC's Bob Chaundy

Sam Mendes' quest for glamour and success started early.

When he was cricket captain at Magdalen College School, Oxford, during a tour of Barbados, he wrote in the tour programme his interests included "fishnet tights" and that his ambition was to be "remembered by many".

He achieved both schoolboy musings in one go several years later.

Actress Nicole Kidman appeared - scantily clad - in The Blue Room, when the star made her stage debut. The production made national headlines, with one newspaper describing the performance as "theatrical Viagra".
Kevin Spacey
Kevin Spacey as the increasingly fraught Lester Burnham
Now, with eight Oscar nominations for his film debut, American Beauty, it seems Sam Mendes is in no danger of being forgotten.

His dedication to drama took root at Cambridge University. Schoolfriend Tom Piper, involved in set design at the same time, recalls Mendes was "seduced by the fun and excitement" of theatre.

"Despite the absence of any drama course, there were 130 student productions in a year run by people studying English and History or whatever. So everyone was an expert," he says.

Mendes, 34, achieved a first in English, but also managed to develop the entrepreneurial skills needed to make it as a director.

He took on several projects, including forming new theatre companies, one of which went to the Edinburgh Festival and included comedian and scriptwriter David Baddiel.

'Brilliant boy'

But the big break came in 1987, when he stepped in to replace an absent director at a play in Chichester.
Nicole Kidman and Iain Glenn in The Blue Room
The Blue Room, described as "theatrical viagra"
He forged success with it in the West End, which then led to work with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company.

Highly acclaimed productions followed, including Troilus and Cressida with Ralph Fiennes, and Richard III with Simon Russell-Beale.

Russell-Beale puts a large element of Mendes' success down to man-management.

"He understands the needs of the people he works with," he says.

"A good director needs to instil in his actors that they're good actors. Sam makes me feel he loves my work even if at times he can be quite savage".
Close-up Mendes
Mendes: Described by Judi Dench as "brilliant boy"
His work in London continued with such successes as The Rise and Fall of Little Voice with Jane Horrocks, with whom he shared a long-term relationship. The play went on to be a film hit, with Horrocks taking the lead role.

Dame Judi Dench, who described Mendes as a "brilliant boy", worked with him in The Sea and The Cherry Orchard.

Audience empathy

By 1992, Sam Mendes was well-established, and became artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, then a struggling West End fringe venue.

He revamped its reputation with productions of stage classics such as The Glass Menagerie, Company, Cabaret and Habeas Corpus.

"Sam has pitched his market perfectly at the Donmar", said Tom Piper. "He has managed to create an appetite for interesting plays but ones that people already know."

Rose petals on naked body
American Beauty showed a keen visual sense
Simon Russell-Beale agrees. "He has an eye for what an audience will accept," he said. "He pitches it right. American Beauty pitched right into the American psyche."

The Hollywood adventure came about after Steven Spielberg had seen Mendes' production of Oliver on the London stage while filming the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan.

"I banked his name in my mind," Spielberg said.

In the spring of 1998, Spielberg took in another of Mendes's musical hits, Cabaret, in New York and was impressed not least by his visual sense. Within days, he had offered him the script of American Beauty, and, within a few more days, Mendes had agreed to direct it.

Another big Hollywood name, Kevin Spacey had been playing in the Ice Man Cometh at the similarly small Almeida Theatre. The timing was perfect and Spacey agreed to star in the film.

Mendes' bitter-sweet treatment of dysfunctional family life, midlife crises, and teenage alienation in suburban America was the result.

See also:

17 Sep 99 | Tom Brook
20 Dec 99 | Entertainment
25 Jan 00 | Entertainment
25 Jan 00 | Entertainment
15 Feb 00 | Entertainment
15 Feb 00 | Entertainment
10 Sep 98 | Entertainment
12 Mar 00 | Entertainment
13 Mar 00 | Entertainment
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