American BJ

How the New York Times helped along the "American Beauty" hype.

Topics: The New York Times,

DreamWorks’ triumphant Oscar campaign for “American Beauty” began on July 2, 1999. That’s when the New York Times’ influential man in Hollywood, Bernard Weinraub, ran his first piece on the film — three months in advance of its national opening. It wasn’t just a heads-up for audiences. From the headline (“Anticipation: The Next Movie”) to the lead (“Forget the summer! The most talked-about film of the moment is ‘American Beauty’”), it was a love letter fit for framing. Indeed, DreamWorks did frame it — and placed it in theater lobbies weeks before the film’s October rollout.

The article was a P.R. coup for a company still reeling from an Oscar loss a few months previously. (“Saving Private Ryan,” you’ll recall, was beat out by Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love.”) “Although only a few people have seen the movie,” wrote Weinraub, “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.” But if “only a few people have seen the movie,” where would this buzz come from except DreamWorks? The evidence Weinraub mustered in support of his own extravagant enthusiasm was … testimony from DreamWorks employees. Co-founder Steven Spielberg “told colleagues it’s one of the best films he’s seen in years,” the Times man confided; the film’s co-star, Annette Bening, “was so overcome that she is reported to have burst into tears.” Weinraub, a capable reporter, spoke as well to both the screenwriter, Alan Ball, and the director, Sam Mendes. And these interviews, as might be expected, only reinforced the breathless tone of the piece: “I can’t quite believe that this is happening,” Mendes is quoted as saying.

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As for DreamWorks’ “debating the details of how and when to release it” — the column must have become part of the strategy. Reel.com movie writer Jeffrey Wells later complained that for two months the company was “skittish” about letting people see the film. (Ironically, he was the film’s biggest online supporter.) My guess is that with Weinraub’s column appearing on the July 4 weekend (a perfect time to plug a film called “American Beauty”), DreamWorks banked on letting the movie’s mystique build. Obviously, many critics and viewers ultimately did find that the film hit them where they lived (apparently in swank, booming suburbs). But a dazzling send-off in the New York Times must have made it easier for them to accept a film in which, at one ludicrous climax, a man thinks that his son is giving his next-door neighbor a blow-job when the boy is really just rolling a joint. The day after the film received its five Oscars, the Times ran a story titled, “Oscar Victory Finally Lifts the Cloud for DreamWorks.” Reporter Rick Lyman quoted jubilant winners thanking the company for so successfully “orchestrating” all the hoopla. No one mentioned the powerful newspaper columnist who’d in effect played first violin.

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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