A director known for making sophisticated dramas that chronicle people's emotional and moral struggles in the face of an often hostile outside world, James Mangold first earned acclaim for Heavy, his 1995 film debut. The poignant and often wordless account of an overweight pizza chef's (Pruitt Taylor Vince) unrequited longing for a young waitress (Liv Tyler), the film was a success among critics and art house audiences, winning the Grand Jury Prize for Best Director at the 1995 Sundance Festival.
Raised in New York's Hudson Valley (where he would later film Heavy), Mangold, the son of minimalist painter Robert Mangold, attended the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied film and acting. He broke into the film business at the tender age of 21 as the recipient of a prestigious writer/director deal with Disney. However, he was eventually dropped by the studio for, in his words, refusing to play Hollywood's "very elaborate chess game." Mangold subsequently supported himself through a series of odd jobs and endured a phase of unemployment. He eventually decided to go to Columbia University's film school, where he began working on Heavy under the guidance of director Milos Forman. Inspired in part by the upstate New York town where he was raised and in part by a very overweight friend he once had, Mangold set out, in his words, "to make a film about a large man who's invisible." With a cast that, in addition to Vince and relative newcomer Tyler, included Debbie Harry and Shelly Winters, Heavy evolved into a beautifully-stylized film full of richly somber moments and almost poetic silences.
Following the critical success of Heavy, Mangold embarked on a project that appeared to be an ostensible departure from his first. Cop Land (1997), which Mangold wrote while making Heavy, was a cop drama set in a New Jersey town populated largely by commuting members of the NYPD. Although much of the film focused on police corruption, its central character, the town's half-deaf sheriff (Sylvester Stallone, who gained 38 pounds for the role), was similar to Heavy's protagonist in his inability to fit in with his peers and his desire to get what he cannot have, in this case, work in the city. Starring Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Janeane Garofalo (all of whom worked for scale pay instead of their usual salaries), Cop Land was accepted into the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival and premiered in the U.S. to strong reviews.
Continuing his tradition of documenting the inner struggles of conflicted individuals, Mangold next set about adapting Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted for the screen. Kaysen's powerful memoir of the 18 months she spent in an exclusive mental hospital during the late 1960s, its fragmented, episodic narrative proved a challenge to adapt, and the finished product led many critics to comment that it was a challenge to which Mangold had failed to rise. However, the film proved to be a showcase for some of the most talented actresses of the day, including Winona Ryder, Brittany Murphy, and Angelina Jolie, who won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe, Oscar, and Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Lisa, the charming sociopath who befriends Ryder's protagonist. Mangold next set to work on the time-traveling romantic comedy Kate & Leopold, starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman. The film received a luke-warm response, not to mention an embarrassing last-minute re-edit to correct a plot point that would make Meg Ryan's character her own ex-boyfriend's great great great grandmother. Mangold would quickly put these tousles with mediocrity behind him, however, with 2005's acclaimed biopic Walk the Line.
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon starred in this tremendously successful film as legendary country music couple Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. A long project in the making, Cash reportedly chose Phoenix for the part before his death in 2003. Both leads performed their own vocals for the movie, as well as learning the guitar and autoharp, respectively, and took home Golden Globes for their performances. The film itself was also honored with the award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy at the event, a tremendous success for Mangold. Over the next several years, the filmmaker would direct the critically acclaimed western 3:10 to Yuma, the superhero spin-off The Wolverine, and the TV series Men in Trees.