Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My long-in-development salute to actor-directors (the good ones, anyway)

Much has been written of late about this year’s incarnation of Oscar™ season, loaded with prestige-heavy films of import, designed to make people forget for a while that Hollywood makes most of its money off artless crap. Frankly, I’m bored by most Academy-bait. But when I was doing some research into what movies might give me a reprieve from all the self-importance (BORAT… niiiiiiiiice), I began to notice a trend. Namely, that a surprising number of movies this fall are directed by actors. A partial list: Clint Eastwood’s FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, Robert DeNiro’s THE GOOD SHEPHERD, Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO, Todd Field’s LITTLE CHILDREN, John Cameron Mitchell’s SHORTBUS, Christopher Guest’s FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, Bobcat Goldthwait’s SLEEPING DOGS LIE, Emilio Estevez’s BOBBY, Sylvester Stallone’s ROCKY BALBOA, and Mr. Show star Bob Odenkirk’s LET’S GO TO PRISON.

The idea of actors who turn to directing is nothing new. But why does it happen? One obvious answer is so they can have more control over their films. For example, Charlie Chaplin was a dynamic performer, but it’s his sensibility as a filmmaker that created that unique Chaplin cocktail of slapstick and pathos. In addition, actors by and large are notoriously needy, and even in the most lauded careers there has been the urge to validated as something more than an actor- a true filmic artist, as it were.

But what kind of actor makes a good filmmaker? Frankly, it’s impossible to say. For every Charles Laughton (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) there’s a John Wayne (THE GREEN BERETS). One might have expected that Johnny Depp, given his idiosyncratic nature as an actor, might have proven a compelling filmmaker, but those unfortunate few who’ve seen THE BRAVE can attest otherwise. And who honestly saw Clint Eastwood coming? Judging even by his earliest performances, the simplicity of his directorial work should have been apparent, but his capable hand at making old-school male weepies is surprising even after a few dozen films behind the camera.

Below, I’ve listed (in no particular order) six films directed by currently-working actors who made the transition behind the camera with nary a hitch.

A MIGHTY WIND (Christopher Guest)

For some reason, comedic performers have proven to be among the most successful at making the switch to filmmaking. Chaplin, Keaton, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Albert Brooks, and numerous others have had at least some success in the director’s chair. But what is it about comedy that makes so many of its practitioners well-suited to directing? One possibility is that the setup-and-payoff nature of comedy lends itself well to telling a story in longer form. In addition, there’s a tendency in many actor-directors to more indulgent of their fellow actors, and while drama by and large demands more controlled performances, over-the-top acting is more at home in comedy.

In Guest’s best work as a director, he has trained his camera on rarefied subcultures, chock full of strange but mostly likable people. These characters, combined with the semi-improvised mockumentary format favored by Guest, might lend themselves to snarky irony in other hands, but Guest and his troupe of performers (including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and the invaluable Fred Willard) manage to be good-natured and still funny. In A MIGHTY WIND, his best film to date, Guest has a genuine affection for the film’s aging folkies, so that hidden within the laughs- two words: “wha’ happened?”- there are surprisingly touching moments as well.

(Stanley Tucci)

Has it really been five years since Tucci last directed a movie? Much like Guest, Tucci has a formidable company to call upon when he makes a film (Campbell Scott, Ian Holm, Hope Davis, et al). But while Guest specializes in variations on a favorite format, Tucci has proven skilled at door-slamming farce (THE IMPOSTERS), literate true-life drama (JOE GOULD’S SECRET) and especially domestic dramedy (BIG NIGHT). Likewise, all of Tucci’s films hearken back to the mid-20th century, a pre-rock’n’roll world of flannel suits and fedoras, trans-Atlantic cruises and oak-paneled family-owned eateries.

He does so most memorably in BIG NIGHT, a lovingly-rendered story of two Italian brothers operating a modest restaurant, who pull out all the stops on one night when they get wind that Louis Prima might drop in (that the film’s Guffman is Prima instead of, say, Frank Sinatra says it all about how thoroughly Tucci has absorbed this world). While Tucci always casts himself in a prominent role, he does so modestly, generously bestowing the plum roles on his costars and friends- one might accuse Tony Shalhoub of stealing BIG NIGHT away from Tucci but for the fact that Tucci gave him the role in the first place.

(Note: yes, I realize that Tucci co-directed this with Campbell Scott. But having seen both Tucci and Scott's subsequent films, I'm confident in saying that BIG NIGHT's style hews much closer to Tucci's sensibility than Scott's. Maybe I am an auteurist after all...)

BUFFALO ’66 (Vincent Gallo)

Vincent Gallo is a fascinating case- a guy who has always been too much of a prickly individualist to chase down stardom, while carving himself out a niche in the world of independent and art cinema. So it should have come as little surprise that BUFFALO ’66 was highly original. What is unexpected about the film is that, much like Gallo himself, the flashiness and misanthropy mask a wounded and almost childlike romanticism (this can also be found in Gallo’s semi-infamous but still awesome follow-up, THE BROWN BUNNY). In telling the story of prickly ex-con Billy Brown, Gallo employs a number of unique visual tropes (the way he begins flashbacks by having the image emerge from a character’s forehead is inspired), but for all the invention on display the style is dictated by the story, underlining the jagged mindset of its protagonist. After the critical community piled on THE BROWN BUNNY Gallo announced that he would never direct another film, but I for one wish he would reconsider.


Zatoichi was the hero of a long-running series of Japanese action comedies before Kitano got his hands him, and if it seems foolish for anyone to attempt a new take on such a firmly-established character, reflect that idiosyncratic choices have always been a hallmark of Kitano’s career. Instead of the exaggerated blind schtick of the old films, Takeshi’s version is calm and thoughtful, taking in the world around him through his remaining senses in order to have the edge on those who would challenge him. Rather than portraying the character’s perception of the world through his performance- Kitano is too minimalist an actor for such affectations- he manifests it through the direction of the film, in particular the film’s soundscape, which finds rhythmic and even musical patterns in the activities of those around Zatoichi. That the climax of the film is not an action scene but a rousing, stomping dance number may let down genre purists, but anyone who has followed Kitano’s career learned long ago to expect the unexpected.

THE APOSTLE (Robert Duvall)

Unlike many of the most accomplished actor-directors, who tend to give the real showboat roles to people other than themselves, Duvall places himself front and center here. THE APOSTLE is a star vehicle, yes, but to say the film exists to support Duvall’s electrifying performance overlooks the other formidable aspects the film has to offer. In most Hollywood movies about preachers, they’re slick con artists, using their skill and confidence to bilk the faithful out of their money, but Duvall’s Sonny is first and foremost a believer. He sermonizes not just as a way of talking about God but of talking to Him as well, as in a great scene when loudly prays while alone in his bedroom. Above all, THE APOSTLE is a respectful film, not only of those who preach religion but also those they teach, and the communities in which they live (I can’t think of another film that portrays a small-town Southern setting so realistically). THE APOSTLE’s leisurely pace isn’t suited to every film- Duvall’s subsequent directorial effort, ASSASSIONATION TANGO, suffered from sluggishness- but part of being a good director is finding a style that fits the story being told, and the style of THE APOSTLE fits the film like a glove.


One of the most familiar pieces of advice for first-time authors is, “write what you know.” In his debut effort, Roth took this advice to heart by telling the story of a seemingly ordinary family that begins to come apart when the son discovers his father and sister’s incestuous relationship. Roth has admitted in interviews to being abused as a child, but what is striking about THE WAR ZONE is that, rather than shooting the film in a rough-edged handheld style (the way his countryman Gary Oldman did with his debut effort NIL BY MOUTH), Roth’s filmmaking maintains a kind of distance that’s sort of elegant without soft-pedaling the harrowing nature of the material. The issues of incest and sexual abuse are hardly black-and-white in THE WAR ZONE- while son Tom insists on bringing the truth to light, there are too many other issues in play within the family for it to be that simple. Seven years after THE WAR ZONE, Roth has yet to direct another film, but even if he never again steps behind the camera, he can claim not only one of the greatest first films ever by an actor-turned-filmmaker, but one of the greatest directorial debuts as well.

One final thought- of all the actors out there, who would make a good filmmaker? Even with the above test cases and more besides, it’s still tough to say. Even now it’s hard to reconcile Edward Norton, the searing star of such daring fare as THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT, AMERICAN HISTORY X and FIGHT CLUB, with his directorial debut, the innocuous romantic comedy KEEPING THE FAITH. But after doing some thinking, two fascinating possibilities have emerged.

The first is Tilda Swinton- not necessarily a household name, but never mind. Throughout her career Swinton has proven as much of a maverick as anyone in her profession, starring in films by Derek Jarman, Sally Potter and Tim Roth as well as doing unique character work in big-budget fare like CONSTANTINE and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. In short, she has always been one to follow her own muse wherever it leads, and if ever it leads her into the director’s chair, I would have high hopes for the result.

The second name the sprung to mind was Robert Downey Jr. Here’s an actor who is as talented as anyone of his generation, in large part because of his boundless inventiveness. In addition, he clearly has personal issues, which if he can manage to harness them in a creative context would make his work all the more interesting. And finally, look at the movies his dad made. Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie by the son of the director of PUTNEY SWOPE? If he has inherited any of his father’s warped sensibility- and Downey Jr.’s performances seem to indicate that he has- than an attempt at directing would be interesting, to say the least. I know I’d be there opening weekend.

So what do you think? What are your favorite films by presently-active actor/filmmakers? And what actors do you think might just have what it takes to make the transition?

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