Road to best pic: An ‘American’ dream

Pic didn't have markings of Oscar winner when it bowed

A tale told by a dead man, “American Beauty” didn’t have the obvious markings of a sure-fire Oscar winner when it first debuted Sept. 15, 1999.

The contentious marriage of Kevin Spacey’s disaffected Lester Burnham and his uptight wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), denied audiences the comforting moral uplift that characterizes many a serious Oscar contender; the movie’s contemporary suburban setting lacked the historical trappings shared by the previous seven Oscar winners; and as a first feature by British stage director Sam Mendes, it faced a further handicap — the last Oscar winner helmed by a novice film director who didn’t also happen to be an A-list movie star was Hugh Hudson’s 1981 debut, “Chariots of Fire.”

In short, the $15 million “Beauty” was a veritable art film — even if TV scribe Alan Ball’s spec script had won the support of Steven Spielberg, who had waved his wand and turned it into a prestige DreamWorks production.

As Dan Jinks, who produced the film along with Bruce Cohen, recalls, “We were always so aware that there were quite a number of films coming out after ours that seemed like Oscar-caliber movies. So every step of the way, when people would bring up the subject of awards, we’d say let’s wait and see what happens with all those other movies.”

Not that DreamWorks didn’t actively gild “Beauty’s” lily from the very beginning. The stage was subtly set nearly three months earlier when the company shrewdly allowed New York Times correspondent Bernard Weintraub a sneak peak.

In a July 2 column, Weintraub enthusiastically reported: “Forget the summer! The most talked-about film of the moment is ‘American Beauty.’… Although only a few people have seen the movie, the buzz about it has startled even DreamWorks, which made it and has spent the last few weeks debating the details of how and when to release it.”

Internally, the studio seriously considered a December launch date, which would have ideally positioned the movie for a year-end Oscar run, but, says Cohen, “Dan and I, Sam and Alan all felt strongly we shouldn’t open in December. The movie deals with some dark subjects. It wasn’t the kind of film audiences would be flocking to over the holidays. We liked the idea of, hopefully, being the first adult film of the fall after the summer bubble-gum movies.”

To heighten the buzz — which at that point was emanating mostly from DreamWorks itself — company marketing maven Terry Press decided the best way to further prime the pump was to keep a tight, prerelease lid on the film.

“We never thought there was a risk in showing the film to anyone,” says Jinks. “But very few people saw the film before it opened. We’d get calls from the agents for the actors saying they needed to see the film. At least in this town, it created a real excitement about the film when people finally could see it.”

By the time the movie premiered at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival on Sept. 11, the anticipation was palpable; responding excitedly, Toronto attendees honored it with the fest’s People’s Choice Award.

Audience response also dictated the movie’s release pattern, which ultimately hovered midway between a slow platform rollout and a genuinely wide release.

“We were once told that the movie would never play on more than 700 screens — there was a concern that it would never play in malls in mid-America,” says Jinks. “The wonderful surprise was that it played terrifically well all over the country.”

Responding to exhibs’ demands, DreamWorks distribution chief Jim Tharp accelerated the movie’s rollout: In its second weekend, “Beauty” went from 16 screens to 429, nabbing $5.9 million for an impressive per-screen average of $13,945. By early November, it expanded to its widest pre-Oscar level of 1,553 screens before DreamWorks reined it in, keeping it simmering on an average of 500 screens through December.

Having successfully established itself as an early Oscar front-runner by early December, “Beauty” faced a new problem.

“In November, we were the odds-on favorite. By December, I was reading about an ‘American Beauty’ backlash,” laughs Cohen. “We didn’t know what was happening. Suddenly, we were the underdog.”

Within Hollywood, the ever-shifting buzz had anointed Warner’s “The Green Mile” as the film to beat, and Miramax had not even begun to beat its tom-toms for “The Cider House Rules.” Though “Beauty” led off the awards season with a best pic trophy from the National Board of Review, it was reduced to runner-up status by the New York and L.A. film critics, who preferred “Topsy-Turvy” and “The Insider,” respectively.

Party reminder

Just to make sure “Beauty” wasn’t relegated to the sidelines, DreamWorks threw a party — “Celebrate the Holidays with the Burnhams,” the invite read — at the now-closed Drai’s on La Cienega Boulevard in L.A. Spacey and Bening, along with Bening’s real-life hubby, Warren Beatty, worked the roomful of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members, Golden Globe voters and domestic press.

“Miramax essentially stages year-end premieres to wine and dine the press, but what DreamWorks does is to cleverly disguise its Oscar campaigning as something other than what it is,” observes Premiere West Coast editor Anne Thompson, who attended. “In the case of ‘American Beauty,’ the party was staged to feel like it was taking place in the Burhnam’s own home.”

By January, the picture’s prospects were back on track. Entertainment Weekly, divining “a backlash against the backlash,” pictured Spacey and Bening on its first Oscar 2000 cover of the new year. Having risked entering the race for best drama — as opposed to best comedy, where it might have won handily — “Beauty” picked up six Golden Globes nominations.

Screenwriter Ball had been too busy writing and producing a series, “Oh Grow Up,” for ABC, to monitor closely the movie’s growing momentum. “But the day the show was canceled, the Golden Globe nominations were announced. It was kind of like a surreal episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,'” he remembers. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I hope it wins the Oscar.’ I was just glad they hadn’t fired me off it and rewritten me.

“But, suddenly, talking about ‘American Beauty’ became kind of like a full-time job. I did a ton of interviews. I’d visit writers’ chat rooms, a lot of radio interviews and TV sound-bite things. Awards can be confusing and distracting — ultimately, they’re not why you do the work. But it was actually kind of fun.”

“Beauty” went on to win three Globes (for drama, directing and screenplay). In the two months that followed, the guilds all fell into line as “Beauty” was feted for its casting, costumes, editing, acting, writing and directing. And when it scored its eight Academy nominations, Tharp moved it back onto nearly 2,000 screens — the film ultimately reached a final domestic gross of $130 million, $56 million of that came after the nominations were announced.

Still, DreamWorks — which had seen Spielberg’s heavily favored “Saving Private Ryan” lose the big one to Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” in an 11th-hour upset the previous year — wasn’t taking any chances as it kept coming up with new ways to tout the movie’s virtues. Although trade ads featuring photo stills and lines of dialogue from a movie have become a standard Oscar gambit, DreamWorks went a step further, adapting the same look for use in its consumer movie ads.

The publicity drumbeat continued apace: In a well-timed demonstration of his Oscar bona fides, Spacey was featured opposite Jack Lemmon in a Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure piece March 12 headlined “A Couple of Winners Talk About Awards and Acting.” Leaving no potential vote unturned, Spacey even pressed the flesh at the Motion Picture Country Home.

Clash of the titans

Like generals rewriting the last war, the media focused on the DreamWorks-Miramax rivalry — could “Cider House” steal it away from “Beauty”? But the latter film’s producers insist, as they all moved from the critics awards to the guild dinners to the nominees’ lunch, the Oscar class of 2000 bonded.

“There are people at the marketing departments that were waging a competition, but not the people who made the movies. It’s an important distinction,” says Jinks. “We did not feel at all competitive with the people who made ‘Cider House.’ You don’t just go through it all with the people you made your movie with, but with the people who made ‘Cider House’ or ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ or ‘The Insider.’ We made many friends along the way — Anthony Minghella, Hilary Swank are now friends. We all went through the experience together.”

But that didn’t make sitting through the long, long 2000 Oscar show any easier.

“It was the longest show in Oscar history,” Cohen recounts. “We’d been sitting in our seats for three hours and 15 minutes and the five big awards hadn’t come up yet. Suddenly, in that rush at the end, you’re going to find out. I felt like I was on a precipice about to get pushed off. Right before I was pushed off, I was thinking, ‘I’m not sure, I’m not sure I’m going to make it through.’ But you do.”

“American Beauty” went home with five trophies, including best picture. True to its evocative advertising logo — a single, long-stemmed rose clasped against a naked, female torso — everything had come up roses for the film.