5 Favorites Redux #63: Actors Turned Directors

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

With nothing coming out this weekend that I can grasp onto as a theme for this week’s article, I thought I would look to last weekend for inspiration. I know I said last week that there was none forthcoming, but I had an epiphany while inadvertently looking at last week’s content for this week’s consideration. Last weekend, Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami, released on its march towards Oscar consideration. The film is terrific. That brought to my mind a rather interesting question: actors-turned-directors.

While some actors balanced acting and directing (Kevin Costner), some never returned to the performance realm and kept directing as their primary source of output (Sofia Coppola). King has too exceptional a career to only direct, so I imagine she will keep going with that while pursuing small directorial projects when the mood hits her. Of course, she could also turn into a Charles Laughton and never direct again, but she’s young and will no doubt be empowered by this release. Of course, Laughton was 7 years away from death and who knows if he would have tried his hand again if he had lived longer than the relatively young 63 years of age at which he died. King is on a little younger that that (she turns 50 tomorrow, Friday, Jan. 15) and Laughton was 56.

It doesn’t matter, though. Whether they kept directing or went back to acting, there are some great movies directed by actors out there. There are also a lot of bad ones (here’s looking at you, Mel Gibson), but we look at my favorites each week, not my least favorite, so let’s get started. My first priority was narrowing down the list. The big problem was narrowing the list to only five. There were a lot of good and great films that have come out in the last few decades helmed by actors, especially compared to years prior to that, the question is how do you make the list shorter. As always, let’s dive into some of the selections I had on my list and didn’t ultimately pick.

Finding a way to pare down the list was incredibly difficult. I even made exceptions to some of my exceptions. There were a lot of great actors who were also directors. One of the things I did was take out some people who are now far better known as directors than as actors. This would include Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, Somewhere), Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon), and the most impressive of them all, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil). The exception that made the list: Penny Marshall.

The next category I pulled people from included Terry Gilliam (Brazil), Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Bullets Over Broadway, Hannah and Her Sisters), and Charles Chaplin (The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times). That category is directors whose directorial work was comparative to their acting work and who cannot be entirely removed from one without removing them from the other, though Gilliam is debatable on that point. Exception: Greta Gerwig.

Actors who began their careers as comedians and then shifted primarily into comedy directing. They still acted occasionally, but their careers were almost entirely diverted into the directing space. Harold Ramis (National Lampoon’s Vacation) and Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2). The same is also true of dramatic actors moving into the dramatic directing space: Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre). And there are even comedic actors who went primarily into dramatic direction: Rob Reiner (Misery), though you could really say he directed a mixture of film types. Exception: Jordan Peele.

Like Laughton before them, several actors directed a little, but were still primarily actors. Examples included John Krasinski (A Quiet Place), Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), and Paul Newman (I sadly haven’t seen any of his five directorial efforts yet). This category also includes actors who seemingly directed themselves far more often than others. Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet), Laurence Olivier (Hamlet), Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves), Warren Beatty (Reds, Dick Tracy), George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck.), and Robert Redford (Ordinary People) are on the list. Exceptions: Laughton and Ben Affleck.

That isn’t to say any one of these directors or their films couldn’t have made my list, because there’s no question that Affleck’s career (as an example) hasn’t been as great as say Redford’s or several others on this list, but this isn’t a quintessential list, a definitive list, or whatever you want to call it. It’s also a list of favorite films, not necessarily best. I also chose to do a bit of diversity in the ranks, trying to make sure that there’s a mixture of titles from directors with different styles, backgrounds, genders, and periods. It’s all in good fun, so don’t assume any one of these five selections is any better than the above. They are just examples that I think I’ll enjoy talking about.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The quintessential example of how an actor can become a director and turnout a brilliant film on his first, and only, go at the job is The Night of the Hunter from legendary thespian Charles Laughton. Before and after this, Laughton had built a legendary career in Hollywood with Oscar nominations for three films, 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, and 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution. Each were towering performances with that first in 1933 being the only one for which he received an Oscar. This directorial effort wasn’t even nominated. Laughton’s film is a dark, harrowing tale of an ex-con who terrorizes the family of his recently departed cellmate in hopes that they will reveal to him where their patriarch has hidden his money.

As a chilling Robert Mitchum stalks Shelley Winters and her two children, the film’s dark, ominous tone terrifies the audience as the villain’s wife-murdering past informs their fear for Winters and company. Accompanied by a frightening score and a tension-building refrain of the well known hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Night of the Hunter completely re-defines how thrillers can be crafted with spine-tingling effect and a terrifying sense of realism. Laughton’s film was the ultimate culmination of its parts: acting, writing, score, editing, and cinematography. A true classic.

A League of Their Own (1992)

Before Penny Marshall embarked on her successful directorial career with 1986’s Whoopi Goldberg hit Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Marshall had been acting on the small screen with her most famous role being that of Laverne DeFazio on the hit ABC sitcom Laverne & Shirley. Following the Goldberg comedy, Marshall directed three other major hits, Big, starring Tom Hanks, in 1988; Awakenings, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, in 1990; and this film, 1992’s A League of Their Own starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, and Lori Petty. She directed three films after, but only The Preacher’s Wife among them could have been classified a success.

For A League of Their Own, Marshall’s clear skill as director came to full bearing on her work: the patriotic undercurrent, the feminist underpinnings, and a set of wonderful performances that linger fondly on the memory. Davis and Petty play sisters who join an all-women baseball league organized by major league baseball executives who needed to keep the good times rolling while many of its players were deployed in World War II. As the pair compete for open slots, their rivalry heats up and spills over into the various championship games that occur between them. This fascinating slice of baseball history is more American than apple pie with wonderful performances from everyone, including the likes of Madonna, then-relatively unknown Rosie O’Donnell, and Anne Ramsay.

The Town (2010)

For directorial debuts, Gone Baby Gone is a solid one, but it was with his follow up effort, The Town, that heartthrob Ben Affleck really showed what he could do behind the camera. This crime thriller stars Affleck as a member of a heist gang that recently pulled off a bank job where they took a hostage (Rebecca Hall), but let her go. Striking up a relationship with her to see what she knows, Affleck falls in love and works hard to dissuade her from revealing the information she has that could put he and his cohort (Jeremy Renner) in prison.

Eliciting strong performances from the entire cast, this taught heist drama twists and turns narratively, but Affleck keeps things corralled so that the audience is drawn along with it. The film earned several precursor awards and nominations, but only managed a single Oscar nomination for Renner. The film was one of a dozen or so pictures competing for Best Picture and its near-miss foreshadowed Affleck’s later triumph with Argo, although he would be ignored once again by the Academy in spite of a directing victory at the Directors Guild of America. There are many films throughout history like this one and its success in spite of its familiarity is what lands it in terrific company.

Get Out (2017)

While the prior two films were the fourth and second features respectively of their directors, this was comedian Jordan Peele’s first foray on the big screen. Having successfully maintained a thriving television career, including a hilarious co-starring/co-creating role in the variety series Key & Peele, it was rather surprising that a man who had only explored his comedic talent would then turn out to be such a terrific dramatic director.

Get Out could be considered a dark comedy, but it stars Daniel Kaluuya as a young lover who visits his girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) family in upstate New York. Upon arrival, Kaluuya begins to uncover some strange situations as the seemingly liberal family led by West Wing alum Bradley Whitford and Oscar nominee Catherine Keener turn out to be involved in something rather terrifying. Commendable performances from the cast are but a small part of the film’s success. Peele’s screenplay and his superb directorial skills made this one of the best films of its year. Securing four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Directing, and Original Screenplay for Peele and Kaluuya for Actor, the film has all the earmarks of a foundation for a superlative career as a director. His horror follow up Us was every bit as politically and symbolically minded and that tells you all you need to know about his prospects.

Little Women (2019)

Greta Gerwig made her big screen debut in Joe Swanberg’s 2006 indie comedy LOL. She followed that up with a number of acclaimed performances in art house films from the likes of the Duplass brothers, Noah Baumbach, Ivan Reitman, and Todd Solondz among others. Her first feature directing effort was as co-director of Swanberg’s 2008 feature Nights and Weekends. Her solo debut came nine years later with the comedy hit Lady Bird. That film scored several Oscar nominations, landing her a Best Directing nomination alongside an Original Screenplay citation.

Two years later, though, Gerwig would make not only her best movie yet, but a film that can easily stand the test of time. Louisa May Alcott’s celebrated pair of novels Little Women and its sequel Good Wives, which were later published together under the singular banner of Little Women, has been adapted seven times to date. George Cukor’s 1933 version, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation, and this film are the best recognized. Gerwig took the novel in a new direction by telling the story out of sequence employing flashbacks as a framing device and reformulating it so that it also aligned in some small part to Alcott’s life. Filled with utterly captivating performances from Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, and Timothée Chalamet, this wonderful film has both a modern sensibility and a timeless quality that will help it endure long after its release.

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