As described in the superb nd telling book, The Men Who Would Be King the excellent story of Dreamworks and the inner power struggles, the studio brought American Beauty (1999) to the festival with little or no hope for the film. It seemed destined for a straight to DVD release, despite the casting of Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Only Steven Spielberg believed in the film and admired what director Sam Mendes had created, and to appease Spielberg it was agreed to screen the film in Toronto. The truth might have been that they had no clue how to market the film.
Minutes after the first press screening, the film was the hottest movie of the festival, and there was no more discussion about a straight to DVD release. You could feel the buzz growing as the film unfolded, and by the end, in the hallways of the theaters, everyone who had been in the screening was talking Beauty. I mean everyone.
The rest as they say is history, as American Beauty burned out of TIFF all the way to the Academy Awards where it won five awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Kevin Spacey won Best Actor for his performance, besting Denzel Washington in The Hurricane (1999) also screened at TIFF as a work in progress. Talk about opposite happenings. American Beauty (1999) arrives un-heralded, The Hurricane (1999) is among the most anticipated films of the year and festival, and each leaves sort of where the other arrived. The Hurricane (1999) disappointed with its factual inaccuracies, despite a brilliant Washington performance, and left the festival wounded and no longer a major Oscar player, other than Washinton’s performance as wronged fighter Hurricane Carter.
Though American Beauty (1999) did not fare well with the critics groups, leaving Dreamworks in a panic because of what had happened in 1998 with Shakespeare in Love (1998) besting their Saving Private Ryan (1998),(which won several critics awards), they ramped up their campaign having learned a thing or two from Miramax. At the Golden Globe Awards the film took Best Picture, and then Sam Mendes won the Directors Guild of America Award as Best Director, making American Beauty (1999) the clear frontrunner. At that point it was done, because the two best films of the year, Fight Club (1999) and Magnolia (1999) had not been nominated by the Academy for Best Film nor Director. Its toughest competition was the lightweight The Cider House Rules (1999) from Miramax.
On Oscar night, American Beauty (1999) takes Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, and the aforementioned Actor, Director and Film. That seems light years from a straight to DVD release and allowed Dreamworks to exact some revenge, defeating Miramax a year after the loss to Shakespeare in Love (1998).
I remember sitting in the audience as the film unspooled onto the screen in front of me and being pulled in by the performances and sharp writing. Spacey has never been better, and Bening was spectacular, but the supporting performances were what I was taken most with. The great Chris Cooper was astonishing as the homophobic marine living next door with his own dark secrets that come out in a shocking manner, and as his son, Wes Bentley was superb; capturing the essence of a tortured young man desperate to escape his father. One look into this young man’s eyes and we see longing for something more, the need to be loved, the need to understand his father, and to protect his damaged mother, played with silent brilliance by the wonderful Allison Janney. Thora Birch was superb as Jane, Spacey’s daughter who rebels because she thinks she should and falls hard for Bentley despite the efforts of her best friend Angela to break them apart. Angela, portrayed by Mena Suvari for me was the film’s weakest link because I just did not see why Lester would fall sexually head over heels for her when she is so, without offensive…sexless? However I am straying from my point that the supporting performances of Cooper, Bentley and Birch all were deserving of Oscar attention that did not come and certainly should have, Cooper in particular. The entire fabric of TIFF changed as the film was screened to we critics, and the rest of 1999 was owned by American Beauty (1999).