Directors’ relationships with their actors are crucial to creating an environment where performers can achieve their potential. In this top 10, I look at great films directed by actors who have stepped behind the camera.
The best film directors know what make actors tick. The great Alfred Hitchcock had an unfair reputation for disregarding his stars but, not only did his work influence generations of filmmakers in the years since his heyday, actors were lining up to star in his movies because they understood his capacity for greatness.
In typical jovial style, Hitchcock did quip that “actors should be treated like cattle” but that was less a derogatory dig at their profession and more a reference to his understanding of staging and camera, and an actor’s role in that process. He told Francois Truffaut that actors “should be willing to be utilized and wholly integrated into the picture by the director and the camera. He must allow the camera to determine the proper emphasis and the most effective dramatic highlights.” This was the principle reason why he did have a problem with the “method” approach because he felt script and character should be the creative responsibility of directors and screenwriters.The fact is, Hitchcock not only worked with many actors several times (Cary Grant and James Stewart each starred in four Hitchcock movies while Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman appeared in three) but coaxed some of their finest performances out of them. It isn’t exactly the sort of evidence you’d be looking for if you wanted to prove Hitchcock was some sort of tyrannical actor-hating filmmaker. Indeed, Walter Slezak, who plays the German villain in Lifeboat, said that Hitchcock knew the mechanics of acting better than anyone he knew.
But since actors play such a crucial role in the effectiveness of the finished product – would Hitchcock’s Vertigo be quite as good without James Stewart’s startlingly paranoid performance – can the Rear Window helmsman’s assumption that the creativity burden for script and character falls at the hands of the director and writer, work both ways? After all, it’s the actor’s who have to immerse themselves in the character in order to authentically bring them to life. As the back and forth creative process between actor and director proceeds, it would be unusual for some of their individual specialisms not to wear off on each other. Whilst Hitchcock might be the last to admit it, I’m sure working with the likes of Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman informed his own appreciation and understanding of the art of acting. Likewise, for an actor, who better to learn about cinematic drama than Hitchcock.In truth, acting and direction are two very different disciplines operating in the same environment – a bit like a doctor and nurse in hospital – and while some directors have tried their hand at acting (Quentin Tarantino loves giving himself a juicy role), and likewise, actors at directing, there are few examples of real success. Of course, there are some geniuses who do it all so well – acting, writing, directing, scoring, editing etc. – such as the great Orson Welles or the tireless Woody Allen – but their kind are few and far between.
Yet, whether or not this tells us anything about movieland’s two key creative disciplines, history tells us when actors and directors try their hand at the other’s skill set, it’s the actors who have had more joy stepping behind the camera than directors stepping in front of it. Like I said, the best filmmakers know what make actor’s tick and who better to understand the mechanics of performance than the actors themselves. That might be why some of Hollywood’s finest movies have been made by directors better known as actors. Here are my favorite 10…
10. Gary Sinise – Of Mice of Men (1992)
Gary Sinise, best known for roles in Apollo 13, Forrest Gump (“Lieutenant Dan!”) and Ransom, has rarely stepped behind the camera. Indeed, he’s only done it twice and Of Mice and Men, his last directorial effort, is by far his best. This touching, heartfelt adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famed novella stars Sinise alongside John Malkovich as farm workers during the great Depression whose quest to earn enough money to buy their own ranch turns to tragedy.
9. Billy Bob Thornton – Sling Blade (1996)
Billy Bob Thornton decided to step behind the camera for the first time in 1996 to direct Sling Blade, a feature adaptation of his own short film Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade. He wasn’t well-known at the time, only really enjoying mainstream success in front of the camera three years later with his starring role opposite John Cusack in Pushing Tin, and his film achievements since then have all been for acting so Sling Blade remains a bit of an anomaly. Therefore, even more so, Sling Blade is one of the best films by directors better known as actors! It tells the story of Karl Childers (played by Thornton), who is released from a psychiatric hospital after serving many years for the murder of his mother and her lover, and how his reintegration back into society centers around his friendship with a 12-year-old boy.
8. Mel Gibson – Braveheart (1995)
Mel Gibson knows how to get people talking about him and his movies – unfortunately, it’s not often about the quality of the film, more a controversial approach to his subject or a discretion in his personal life. For Braveheart the backlash focused on historical inaccuracy and to be honest the film is as much a piece of fantasy as his post-apocalyptic adventures in the Mad Max franchise. But the medieval battles are truly epic while the film’s depiction of 13/14th century Scotland truly immerses you in that time period even if the drama is wholly artificial. Gibson has proven he has a real talent for direction with not a single “dud” in his catalogue of films where he has overseen matters from behind, and at times, in front of the camera. His four films to date include his moving debut The Man Without A Face and the controversial hits The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto in addition to Braveheart.
7. Leonard Nimoy – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Leonard Nimoy, better known as Spock from the Star Trek television series and consequent movies, shelved his aspirations to direct twenty years before his death after the realisation he wasn’t very good at it. However, despite the painfully dull Funny About Love being on his C.V., he did helm the much loved Three Men and a Baby, the enjoyable Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, and this, arguably the best Star Trek movie there is! The Voyage Home, the fourth film in the franchise, sees the crew of the USS Enterprise return to Earth’s past in order to save its future. We find our intrepid space travellers having to fit into the 1980s way of life. It’s wonderfully amusing as the fish out of water – these very recognisable characters including Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Checkov, Montgomery Scott and Uhura – get to grips with urban pop culture in order to save the world. It’s great fun.
6. Sean Penn – Into The Wild (2007)
Sean Penn, known for his passionate, versatile and often volatile performances in films such as Carlito’s Way, Casualties of War and Milk, had tried his hand at direction with some success previously. But it was with biographical survival movie Into The Wild that he truly signified his talent for work behind the camera. Backed by a brilliant performance from Emile Hirsch, Roger Ebert commented that the film is so good partly because “it means so much” to Penn, who also wrote the screenplay. That passion we’ve seen in Penn’s on-screen performances can be seen in his directorial style which makes for compelling viewing.
5. Bill Murray – Quick Change (1990)
A perfect fit for the Top 10 Films By Directors Better Known As Actors is Bill Murray’s one and only directorial credit – the crime caper Quick Change which he made alongside co-director Howard Franklin. Murray stars as Grimm who, clad in the clown outfit and painted face, robs a New York City bank with his partner Phyllis (Geena Davis) and their accomplice Loomis (Randy Quaid). The film follows their exploits as they try to evade capture. Having managed to commit the heist with few problems, their getaway encounters a series of amusing obstacles as we align ourselves with the likeable villains in the hope that they’ll keep the loot and escape the clutches of Jason Robards’ Police Chief Walt Rotzinger.
4. Tim Robbins – Dead Man Walking (1995)
Despite Tim Robbins proving he’s a natural behind the camera with the critically acclaimed Dead Man Walking in 1995 and Cradle Will Rock in 1999, he’s concentrated on his work in front of the camera, rather than behind it. A real passion project for Robbins, his 1995 effort is both written and directed by him, following the story of Susan Sarandon’s nun Helen Prejean attempting to help convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) in his final court appeal to avoid being killed by lethal injection. Robbins’ experience as an actor clearly helps him here as both Penn and Sarandon, clearly comfortable under the direction of a fellow performer, deliver two of their finest performances.
3. Ben Affleck – The Town (2010)
Ben Affleck’s talents in cinema appear to have no boundaries. Known for his work in front of the camera thanks to his dashing looks and natural charisma, the fortunes of his acting career as most people know it came directly from his endeavours behind the camera. With his friend and fellow actor Matt Damon, the pair wrote and starred in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, for which they earned an Academy Award for their original screenplay. His star significantly rose in the proceeding years before he made his directorial debut with pressure cooker mystery-drama Gone Baby Gone which he also wrote. This was followed by The Town in 2010. Either film could make this list; indeed, his brilliant 2012 effort Argo is also a contender. But The Town shades it. A taut crime-drama about a bank robbery and its aftermath, The Town grips from start to finish thanks to a smart script, some excellent performances and a couple of great action set pieces. Key to its success is a romance between one of the robbers and a female hostage who, having been blindfolded and taken by masked captors, has no idea the man she has fallen for is the criminal mastermind behind her brief captivity,
2. Kevin Costner – Dances With Wolves (1990)
Kevin Costner’s debut feature film as director remains his best. Dances With Wolves was widely loved upon its release by audiences and critics, and earned 12 Academy Award nominations in 1991. Costner, who also stars in the film, oversees an epic adventure set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. A Union Army lieutenant (Costner) travels to the American frontier in search of a military outpost and, having become enamoured by the isolation of his existence, befriends and builds a companionship with the nearby Sioux Indian tribe. Critics noted Costner’s depiction of the landscape, Western genre traditions and authentic depiction of Indian culture.
1. Dennis Hopper – Easy Rider (1969)
I doubt Dennis Hopper realised he was making a seminal classic when he directed – drug-fuelled and, if rumours are to be believed, out of control – Easy Rider in 1969. The film not only captured the imaginations of the cinema going public at the end of the 1960s, but also the filmmaking fraternity that suddenly envisaged a changing of the guard in Hollywood, a key moment in its history that welcomed the auteur inside the once stuck-in-its-ways studio system. While Hopper remained a better actor than director, Easy Rider is perhaps the most significant film ever made by a director better known as an actor.
Written and Compiled by Daniel Stephens
Over to you: what are your top 10 films by directors better known as actors?
See more great lists about actors on Top 10 Films: Caine | De Niro | DiCaprio | Downey Jr. | Hanks | Hoffman | Streep | Roberts | Schwarzenegger | Oldman | Gandolfini | Freeman | Ford | Eastwood | Dreyfuss | Keitel | Woods