Today, people deny ever having liked American Beauty, but I was there when it came out. I saw the reactions. Audiences of all kinds went either nuts or mildly nuts for this mildly courageous appropriation of independent film that was, after all, just a bigger version of what had come before it. Openly gay, openly surreal, down on suburbia, and hard on family, American Beauty took everything we once loved about edgier, low budget features and stuffed it into a friendly, nicely conceived package. Alan Ball’s package. (Which now looks like a rehash of Nicholas Ray, fifty years later: Rebel Without a Cause? Bigger Than Life? Johnny Guitar? They’re all in there.)
American Beauty flattered our intelligence without challenging us; it got aboard the pitch-black comedy bandwagon that had been running at full speed for years; and it crossed star performers with a new breed of disaffected youngsters, the kind that tell of street-cred beyond the studio walls. Well done, suits!
Adding cinematographer Conrad Hall to the production was a brilliant move, though, admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to spot a genius. When it comes to Hall, if you have eyes, you will see it. Which brings me to Roger Deakins, which brings me to my point.
Mendes followed American Beauty with Road to Perdition. Conrad Hall again. Then Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Deakins, Deakins (genius, genius). The films were not universally loved, but they were taken seriously, and dismissed tenuously. In other words, they were given the auteur treatment, even as they were denied. To be fair, the pictures were carefully, and sometimes beautifully made, so it was only fitting Mendes received undue patience. But so did William Wellman in his day. They both fall under the heading, “blahteur.” (Their films feature the distinct stamp of other people’s distinctive stamps.)
Of course, I too could be mistaken for an auteur if I had Hall or Deakins shoot my pictures. And perhaps Kate Winslet, God love her, made the same mistake. But that’s okay. These things happen. Now it’s time to heal. If I were her, I’d call up Alfonso Cuarón. He’s single.