Direct hit for Brit

'Beauty' helmer Mendes wins DGA nod

“American Beauty” continued to outshine rivals Saturday as director Sam Mendes won the Directors Guild of America feature film award.

The honor, presented at black-tie ceremonies at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, boosts momentum for DreamWorks’ dark comedy as it heads into the Academy Awards on March 26 with eight nominations. It also makes Mendes, an acclaimed British stage director who had never before helmed a film, the clear favorite for the Oscar: Only four of the previous 51 DGA honorees have failed to win the Academy Award.

“Thank you to the studio for giving a bloke from England a movie about the American suburbs,” Mendes said. “A year ago, I was not even a member of the DGA, although I am now.”

Mendes also won the Golden Globe award for best director in January.

HBO took home three television awards, with David Chase winning for the pilot of “The Sopranos” for best dramatic television series, a category in which the show had taken an unprecedented four of five nominations. HBO also won with Dennie A. Gordon honored for “Tracey Takes On … the End of the World” in the musical variety category and with Amy Schatz for “Goodnight Moon & Other Sleepy Tales” in the children’s category.

ABC carried away two awards as Thomas Schlamme won for the “Small Town” episode of “Sports Night” in the TV comedy series category, marking the second straight victory for the director and show, and Mick Jackson taking best telefilm for “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Jackson also won the category in 1995 for “Indictment: the McMartin Trial.”

The two-hour program, emceed by Carl Reiner, featured clips from the five film nominees and presentations of nomination plaques by cast members. Besides Mendes, nominees were Frank Darabont for “The Green Mile”; Spike Jonze, “Being John Malkovich”; Michael Mann, “The Insider”; and M. Night Shyamalan, “The Sixth Sense.” Darabont was the only one to have been previously nominated in the category.

The announcement of Mendes’ award brought among the loudest cheers of the evening. Mendes remained composed during his acceptance speech, giving extensive thanks to members of his production team and crew by referring to them as the “Save Sam Mendes’ Ass Society.” The director cited key influences, including Joel and Ethan Coen, Clint Eastwood, Bob Fosse, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

A pregnant Annette Bening, who received an Oscar nomination for best actress for her work in “American Beauty,” presented Mendes with his nomination plaque after citing the director for his sense of humor and his love of intimacy without sentimentality. “He has a total lack of pretentiousness,” she said. “He just does the work.”

“American Beauty” has grossed nearly $100 million domestically. Mendes’ victory marks the second consecutive DGA win for DreamWorks following last year’s nod for Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

Mendes received the award from Spielberg, who appeared completely recovered from the removal of his kidney last month. “I only hope you stay in my life a long time,” Mendes said to Spielberg at the backstage press room.

In the final honor of the evening, Spielberg received a two-minute standing ovation upon being introduced by Francis Ford Coppola for the DGA’s lifetime achievement award. Clips from “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad” and “Saving Private Ryan” preceded the award.

Spielberg’s honor marked the first time a lifetime achievement award has been given since the org decided last year to remove pioneer director D.W. Griffith’s name due to the racial stereotyping in “Birth of a Nation.”

Spielberg, the 29th director to be given a DGA lifetime achievement award, endorsed the move during his acceptance speech by noting the importance of being sensitive to racism. He also pointed out that removing Griffith’s name is timely because the lifetime awards will soon be given to black directors.

“You could have called it the Alan Smithee award and I would be so proud to accept it,” he added.

Other awards included Roger W. Inman and Herbert D. Stein for NBC’s “Days of Our Lives” in the TV daytime serial category; Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen for “On the Ropes,” documentary; and Bryan Buckley of Hungry Man, commercials.

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