Oscar flashback: Sam Mendes wins best director for his 1999 debut ‘American Beauty’ [WATCH VIDEO]

Sam Mendes first found prominence as a theater director in his native England, making a name for himself at age 24 by directing a West End production of “The Cherry Orchard” starring Judi Dench. In 1990, he would become the artistic director of the cutting-edge Donmar Warehouse. He would make his way to Broadway in 1998 with a bleaker take on the musical “Cabaret” with Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles.

Pretty soon, Hollywood beckoned and Mendes was recruited by DreamWorks to direct  1999’s “American Beauty,” a scathing satire of hypocritical suburban lifestyles written by Alan Ball and starring Kevin Spacey as a family man who suffers a mid-life crisis and drops out of the rat race. It would be the then-fledgling studio’s first Best Picture Oscar winner while Mendes became the sixth helmer to take home an Academy Award for his directing debut — a feat that has not been repeated in the years since. The film also claimed three other trophies for lead actor, screenplay and cinematography.

Watch the video above as Mendes accepts the directing statuette from DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg, who won the same honor the previous year for “Saving Private Ryan,” and delivers his speech at the 72nd Academy Awards ceremony.”I’m a little bit overwhelmed,” Mendes admits. He then goes on to thank the studio for “hiring a bloke from English theater to do a movie about American suburbia and trusting him.” He goes on to thank the bigwigs, including Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, but he gives a special shoutout to Spielberg for “handing me the script in the first place and for handing me this,” referring to his new gold knickknack, “and for being so generous with your wisdom.”

He goes on to thank his cast and loved ones and friends back home in England. But then he also mentions a personal hero of his who was a big influence on “American Beauty,” namely Billy Wilder. “I want to say to him, if my career after this point amounts to one-tenth of what yours has been, I will be a very happy man.”

While Mendes’ subsequent films, 2002’s “Road to Perdition” and his two additions to the James Bond franchise, 2012’s “Skyfall” and 2015’s “Spectre,” all won at least one Oscar each,  while 2008’s “Revolutionary Road” would receive three nominations. But he himself has not been personally in the running since.

But that could change on February 9 next year at the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony when Mendes’ eighth directorial effort, the World War I film “1917,” could compete in several categories — including for director. The films is a personal one, given that the script he co-wrote is based on a story that his grandfather Alfred told him about two young soldiers in stationed in Northern France who had to race to alert a battalion of 1,600 about a pending ambush. The film shot by Roger Deakins is meant to look like as if it was filmed as one continuous shot, much like 2015’s “Birdman,” while playing in real time as  “1917” attempts to depict the unique dangers of trench warfare.

The two central characters are played by George MacKay (“Captain Fantastic”) and Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”). They are backed by such notables as Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.

As of November 19,”1917″ ranks at No. 6 with 23/2 odds among Best Picture hopefuls on Gold Derby’s combined Oscar odds picked by nearly 5,000 users. But among directors, Mendes is at No. 5  with 19/2 odds between Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”) in fourth and Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”) sitting at sixth. Once “1917” opens on Christmas Day, matters could greatly shift either way given its reception.

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