Born August 1, 1965, in Reading, Berkshire, England; son of Jameson Peter (a university professor) and Valery Helene (a children's book author; maiden name, Barnett) Mendes; married Kate Winslet (an actress), May, 2003; children: Joe. Education: Cambridge University, 1987.
Home—Stow-on-the-Wold, Cotswolds, England.
Director of theater and film. Chichester Festival Theatre, director of stage productions, including Cherry Orchard; Royal Shakespeare Company, director of productions including Troilus and Cressida and Richard III; Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London, England, artistic director, 1992-2002, director of productions, including The Glass Menagerie, Cabaret, and Blue Room; director of Gypsy, 2004. Director of films, including American Beauty, 1999, and Road to Perdition, 2002. Scamp Productions (theatre and film production company), cofounder, 2004. Director of advertising shorts for eBay, 2004.
London Critics Circle Award, 1989, Best Newcomer for Cherry Orchard; London Critics Circle Theatre Award, Best Director, 1995, for The Glass Menagerie, and 2002, for Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night; Laurence Olivier Theatre Award, 1996, for The Glass Menagerie, 2003, for Artistic Contributions and for Best Director, for Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya; Academy Award for Best Director, Amanda Award (Norway) for Best Foreign Feature Film, British Academy of Film and Television Artists Award for best director nominee, Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Director, Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Director, Dallas-Forth Work Film Critics Association award for Best Director, Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, and Golden Globe Award for Best Director, all 2000, all for American Beauty; named commander, Order of the British Empire, 2000; London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Director, 2002, for Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night.
Cabaret (television film), British Broadcasting Corporation, 1993.
Company (television film), British Broadcasting Corporation, 1996.
American Beauty, Dreamworks, 1999.
Road to Perdition, Twentieth Century-Fox, 2002.
The Cherry Orchard, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989.
The Plough and the Stars, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1991.
Troilus and Cressida, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1991.
The Alchemist, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1991.
The Sea, produced at National Theatre Company, 1991.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, produced at Lyttleton Theatre, 1992.
Assassins, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1992.
Richard III, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1993.
The Tempest, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company 1993.
The Birthday Party, produced at Lyttelton Theatre, 1994.
Cabaret, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1994; produced on Broadway, 1996.
Oliver!, produced at London Palladium, 1994.
The Glass Menagerie, produced, 1995.
Company, produced, 1996.
The Fix, produced, 1997.
Othello, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1998.
The Blue Room, produced in London, England, 1998.
Wise Guys, produced in London, 2000.
To the Green Fields and Beyond, produced, 2000.
Uncle Vanya, produced, 2002.
Twelfth Night, produced by Royal Shakespeare Company, 2002.
Gypsy, produced in London, England, 2003, produced on Broadway, 2004.
Work in Progress
Directing films Jarhead, Sweeney Todd, and The Kite Runner; directing Shrek, the Musical
Dubbed "Britain's answer to Orson Welles" by Spectator contributor Toby Young, theater and film director Sam Mendes, like Welles, made a name for himself directing Shakespeare fresh out of college. By the age of twenty-three he had two hits running simultaneously on London's West End, went on to the Royal Shakespeare Company for half a decade, and developed a "craft free of theatrical folderol," as Time's Richard Zoglin noted. Still in his twenties, Mendes was made artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, turning it into a chic theatrical haven. From theater, Mendes, again like Welles, progressed to film with great success, winning an Academy Award for his debut directorial job with the 1999 movie American Beauty, and garnering further praise for his direction of the 2002 film Road to Perdition, starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks.
"Wunderkind" is another term often bandied about in connection with Mendes, whose productions of Cabaret and The Blue Room charmed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. In early 2003, he scored a brilliant triumph, winning three Olivier awards for his directorial work in the theatre. That same year he left the Donmar behind and set out with his own production company, Scamp, producing both theatre work and film. Married to film star Kate Winslet, Mendes also became a father in late 2003. Comparing the relative strengths of both film and theatre, Mendes, as quoted by New Yorker contributor Hilton Als, has said, "Movies live and breathe and walk among us…. Theatre lives in the
memory, which can be very powerful, but is not the same. A movie puts you in the center of the culture. And that's the challenge—the game. You are playing with immortality."
The Only Child
Mendes was born in 1965, in Reading, England, where his father was a university professor of English and his mother wrote children's books. There were further literary connections in the Mendes line: his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, wrote novels and helped found the literary magazine Beacon in Trinidad. His childhood was marred by the divorce of his parents in 1970; he thereafter lived with his mother and early on attended Magdalene College in Oxford. There he developed a love of sport, both cricket and soccer, as well as of reading and watching movies. At age fourteen his mother took him to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merchant of Venice at Stratford upon Avon. At first uncomfortable in the theater with his mother, Mendes soon came to love the experience. "The theatre became a stabilizing influence in a rather unstable childhood," he told Valerie Grove of the London Times.
Graduating from prep school, he took a year off to work at the Guggenheim in Venice, and by the time he entered Cambridge University he had decided to major in English. During his years at Cambridge, Mendes became involved in the theater, directing student productions, which sparked an interest in the young man for a career in drama. In 1987, after graduating from Cambridge, he took a low-level production job at the Chichester Theatre, hired more for his athletic prowess than his theatre skills, for the director of Chichester wanted a good cricket player on his team to take on that of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
A Life in the Theater
In any event, his job with Chichester opened doors for him; when a director was sick, he was able to stand in for him and directed a Chekhov play to rave reviews. Thereafter, Mendes was given his own theatre to work with. He was just twenty-three years old. Then came work with various London theaters, directing London Assurance and The Cherry Orchard in the same season. The latter play starred the famous British actress Judi Dench, and won him his first London Critics Circle Award, introducing him as a new director to be reckoned with. Work with the Royal Shakespeare Company followed, directing
actors such as Ralph Fiennes in Troilus and Cressida, an "arresting production," according to Jeremy Kingston in the London Times. Then in 1992 he was offered the artistic directorship of the new Donmar Warehouse, a leading non-profit studio theater in London, and over the next decade he turned that into one of the best stages in London. As Matt Wolf noted in the Times, Mendes's direction was successful in "spawning numerous West End and Broadway hits and turning a 251 seat studio playhouse into a venue whose influence is vastly disproportionate to its size." Susannah Clapp of the New Statesman quoted Mendes as saying that he wanted to create "a huge experience in a small room."
One of his biggest successes at the Donmar was a revival of the musical Cabaret, which traveled to Broadway in 1998. Zoglin found that the Mendes version of the play "is likely to give it a jolt. The sex is raw and upfront." Variety's Chris Jones felt that "Mendes is clearly trying to rescue what he sees as the dark soul of Cabaret from the layers of showbiz kitsch that have shrouded its sharp-edged portrait of decadent Berlin on the cusp of Nazi domination." Jones further noted, "Mendes' ideas not only work very well, but have the effect of making one reconsider the dramaturgy of a Broadway masterpiece that has a narrative sophistication well beyond the more transitory appeal of its splashy production numbers." Another transatlantic hit was The Blue Room, an adaptation of an Arthur Schnitzler play, which featured film actress Nicole Kidman in the buff.
From the Stage to Film
When Steven Spielberg saw Mendes's production of Cabaret, he knew he had his director for a new film project. In 1999 Mendes took on the role of film director with the movie American Beauty, which is about the mid-life crisis of Lester Burnham, who falls in love with a sexy young cheerleader and turns his life upside down in order to consummate his desire for her. Shot for only $15 million, the film earned $350 million. Part of the reason for the movie's success was the fact that Mendes identified strongly with the project. It had "resonance with his own suburban upbringing," as Jeff Dawson noted in the London Sunday Times. The depiction of Lester's dysfunctional family also had reverberations for Mendes with his own family.
Critical opinion varied on the quality of the movie, but most reviewers had praise for Mendes's directorial debut. While Commonweal's Richard Alleva argued that "you can't make a masterpiece by cartooning some of your characters while insisting that the rest be taken as three-dimensional," the critic went on to note that American Beauty "is the best nonmasterpiece I've seen in a long, long time." Nation reviewer Stuart Klawans was less complimentary, however, commenting that Mendes "seems to lack any instinct for linking one shot to another."
For Klawans, Mendes's "camera placement is expressive only when formulaic …, and camera movement is simply beyond him." Stanley Kauffmann, of the New Republic, however, saw a stage director's hand at work in "helping [the film's actors] to dig into themselves." Kauffmann also had praise for Mendes's self-restraint: "He has sensibly concentrated on his actors. Some newcomers to film directing, after theater acclaim, try to prove themselves cinematically with all sorts of fussiness—odd camera angles, intrusive montage, and so on. Mendes simply tells his story clearly." Newsweek reviewer David Ansen had higher praise, observing that Mendes "uses the screen like a born filmmaker." For Ansen, "the beauty of American Beauty is how wickedly entertaining it makes this bleak diagnosis." And Entertainment Weekly reviewer Owen Gleiberman concluded that "Mendes has a filmmaker's essential, seductive gift: He doesn't just tell a story—he gives great surface." Awards committees agreed with the critics: Mendes earned an Academy award as well as a Golden Globe award for best director.
His first success with film did not put an end to Mendes's theatrical career, however. He continued to work at the Donmar, mounting productions such as Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, that drew appreciative crowds and won awards for the still young impresario. Sheridan Morely, writing in the New Statesman, called Mendes's production of Twelfth Night a "revelation and a revolution," while a reviewer for the Economist praised the director for his "rare qualities: directness, clarity, richness of feeling." These two plays were his farewell to the Donmar; he left that theater in 2003.
Mendes's second film work came with 2002's Road to Perdition, a somber gangster film based on a graphic novel about a hit man on the run with his son from his former boss and from a killer sent to deal with him. Reviewers again were mixed in their opinions about the quality of the film. Robert Koehler, writing in Daily Variety, found it to be an "expressive, deeply felt drama about criminality, destiny and family." Kauffmann, in the New Republic, described the film's screenplay as "laden with cliches and improbabilities," but that Mendes's directing is good enough that "the triteness of the ideas in the work went largely unnoticed," just as with American Beauty. Kauffmann concluded that Mendes's film "is a flawed account of foul lives, aesthetically aggrandized." Film Journal reviewer Shirley Sealy had higher praise, calling Road to Perdition a "grand symphony of a movie." For David Denby, writing in the New Yorker, the movie is a "solemnly beautiful art concept—perhaps the most thoroughly stylized gangster picture since the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing." However, this tone wore on Denby: "There isn't a joke or a touch of wit anywhere in the movie," he complained, further commenting that "there's not much spontaneity in it, and the movie's flawless surface puts a stranglehold on meaning." Similarly, Newsweek reviewer Ansen felt that the same film was "self-conscious to the point of suffocation" and concluded: "Mendes has talent to burn; maybe in his next film he won't feel so anxious to prove it."
If you enjoy the works of Sam Mendes
If you enjoy the works of Sam Mendes, you may also want to check out the following films:
Miller's Crossing, directed by the Coen Brothers, 1990.
The Virgin Suicides, starring Kirsten Dunst, 1999.
House of Sand and Fog, starring Ben Kingsley, 2003.
Mendes formed his own production company in 2004, and has since worked on both stage and film projects. He had his first Broadway flop with a reprise of the musical Gypsy, which is about striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, that closed after a half-year run, losing close to $4 million. For others this might be a tragedy, but for Mendes, whose successes were so many in such a short time, it was viewed as only a temporary setback. Other film and theater productions were in the works by 2004, and the director's love for the theater remained as strong as ever. As Mendes told Matt Wolf in the London Sunday Times: "A great night in the theatre is as memorable, if not more so, than a movie, because you can't take it down from a video shelf. It only lives in your head. That is my belief in the theatre—it is a great art form—and I don't think I could have made movies without what I've learnt from it."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 12, 2002, Bob Longino, review of Road to Perdition, p. P1.
Back Stage, February 20, 2004, Leonard Jacobs, "Mendes Sets up Scamp," p. 8.
Cineaste, spring, 2000, Paul Arthur, review of American Beauty, p. 51.
Commonweal, November 5, 1999, Richard Alleva, review of American Beauty, p. 19.
Daily Mail (London, England), March 28, 2000, Tim Woodward, "Broken Home That Still Haunts the One and Only Mr. Mendes," p. 8; September 22, 2000, Baz Bamigboye, "Sam Proves Again That He's the Man," p. 51.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 13, 2002, John Hiscock, interview with Mendes, p. 2; February 4, 2004, Nigel Reynolds, "Mendes Loses Midas Touch on Broadway."
Daily Variety, December 11, 2002, Robert Koehler, review of Road to Perdition, p. 22; March 6, 2003, Matt Wolf, "Donmar Duty Set Stage for Role in Film," p. B8; July 18, 2003, Michael Fleming, "D'works on Cutup 'Todd,,'" p. 1; April 26, 2004, Michael Fleming, "Mendes Enlists in Gulf War Drama," p. 1.
Economist, January 4, 2003, review of Twelfth Night.
Entertainment Weekly, September 17, 1999, Owen Gleiberman, review of American Beauty, p. 49; July 19, 2002, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Road to Perdition, p. 44; February 28, 2003, Joshua Rich, review of Road to Perdition (video release), p. 63; May 23, 2003, Scott Brown, review of Gypsy, p. 85.
Film Journal, August, 2002, Shirley Sealy, review of Road to Perdition, p. 35.
Guardian, September 20, 2002, Peter Bradshaw, review of Road to Perdition, p. 12.
Independent (London England), April 10, 2000, David Lister, "The Rout Goes On," p. 5; June 8, 2004, Louise Jury, "Mendes' Run of Successes Ends as Black Comedy Succumbs to the May Blues," p. 7.
Nation, October 11, 1999, Stuart Klawans, review of American Beauty, p. 34.
New Republic, October 11, 1999, Stanley Kauffmann, review of American Beauty, p. 36; August 5, 2002, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Road to Perdition, p. 24.
New Statesman, April 25, 1997, Susannah Clapp, "The Fix," p. 42; November 4, 2002, Sheridan Morely, review of Twelfth Night, p. 48.
Newsweek, September 27, 1999, David Ansen, review of American Beauty, p. 68; July 15, 2002, David Ansen, review of Road to Perdition, p. 56.
New Yorker, July 15, 2002, David Denby, review of Road to Perdition; February 3, 2003, Hilton Als, "Playing for Immortality," p. 84.
New York Observer, July 22, 2002, Andrew Sarris, review of Road to Perdition, p. 21.
New York Post, April 18, 2003, "Jitters Over 'Gypsy': Director Makes Unusual Plea to Critics," p. 41; June 27, 2003, "The Great Green Way: Dream-works Putting 'Shrek' on the Stage," p. 53.
Observer (London, England), September 22, 2002, Philip French, review of Road to Perdition, p. 7; October 27, 2002, Susannah Clapp, "A Glorious Twelfth: Sam Mendes Bows Out with Class at the Donmar While the Children of Ghent Are Seen but Not Heard," p. 12.
People, July 29, 2002, Michelle Tauber, "Road to Love," p. 69; May 3, 2004, "On the Block," p. 24.
Spectator, September 21, 2002, Toby Young, review of Uncle Vanya, p. 56.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), July 26, 2003, "Winslet and Mendes Blessed with Beautiful News," p. 8.
Sunday Times (London, England), November 28, 1999, Jeff Dawson, "The Return of the Native," p. 4; November 25, 2001, Matt Wolf, "It's Sam's Grand Slam," p. 6.
Time, March 30, 1998, Richard Zoglin, review of Cabaret, p. 67; July 15, 2002, Richard Schickel, review of Road to Perdition, p. 62.
Times (London, England), June 20, 1991, Jeremy Kingston, review of Troilus and Cressida; September 13, 1995, Matt Wolf, "Is There a Rich Donor in the Donmar Tonight?," p. 36; February 28, 1997, Valerie Grove, "Theatre's Hot Ticket," p. 17; January 20, 2000, Matt Wolf, "Go West, Young Sam," p. 43; January 27, 2000, Adam Mars-Jones, review of American Beauty, p. 45; November 24, 2001, Benedict Nightingale, "A Hard Act to Follow as Donmar's Director," p. 23.
Variety, March 23, 1996, Chris Jones, review of Cabaret, p. 98; December 14, 1998, Charles Isherwood, review of Blue Room, p. 141; February 24, 2003, Matt Wolf, "Mendes Takes Home Olivier Trio," p. 84; May 5, 2003, Charles Isherwood, "Rose of a New Color," p. 31; May 26, 2003, Michaela Boland, "No-Shows Triumph at Aussie Legit Prizes," p. 48; October 4, 2004, Ellin Stein, "Brits in the Sticks," p. S36.
BBC Online, http;//www.bbc.co.uk/ (November 21, 2004), Jonathan Ross, "Sam Mendes, Road to Perdition."*