It’s a tricky subject…and it’s also an old cliche. Almost every sitcom and story about Hollywood to come out of the maudlin Me Decade of the ‘70s and the Greed is Good era of the ‘80s used the “but what I really want to do is direct” punchline as part of some preconceived preoccupation with the men and women who make/made movies their job. No one was happy unless they could dictate their own filmic fate. Yet as you will see, the notion of a performer taking the reins of their own onscreen showcases is nothing new. Sometimes it was done out of necessity. At other times, it was a question of financial convenience. At the heart of it all is a desire to express oneself, to move beyond playing pretend to actually craft the backdrop and its accompanying believability in which to set such sometimes amazing Method-ology.
Of course, coming up with a list like this is next to impossible. First, we have the question of the core concept. Is someone like Elaine May a worthy addition, considering her limited time onscreen and her equally uneven output as a director? What about Ron Howard, a commercial titan but a critical clown, for the most part? Do we look at confirmed outsiders like Sean Penn as viable inclusions, or is someone like Peter Berg or Jon Favreau too mainstream to make an appearance? Questions… questions. In any case, here are our choices for the 10 (or make that, 11) best actors turned directors in the 100-plus year history of film. Certainly we have forgotten a few important names, but for us, these individuals argue not only for a smooth transition between creative crafts, but the viability of making such a decision, beginning with a pioneer who fell into her future role quite by accident:
Here’s hoping that every woman who sits down in the director’s chair takes a moment to recognize the real pioneer of (attempted) gender equity in Hollywood. Suspended for turning down a role that the studios wanted her to star in, Lupino took the mandated downtime to learn her alternative craft. She studied the camera and editing techniques, eventually taking on “women’s issues” like rape. She even dabbled in the popular film noir genre of the time. While she was never a critic’s darling, she was a trendsetter and a true talent. Katherine Bigelow may have the Oscar. Lupino has the history.
Argue over his bigotry and/or abusive chauvinism. Dismiss him as a crackpot whose several cans short of a six-pack. Whatever the case, there is no denying the man’s troubles off screen. But when he sits behind the lens, something magical happens. His take on William Wallace and Scottish defiance in 13th century England earned him accolades, but it was his intense, brutal look at the last hours of Christ’s life that legitimized his determined, defiant artistry. While his troubles in the tabloids have stifled his future projects (including a Holocaust drama?!?!), he remains an unique and eccentric individual… and director.
After time on TV and in the initial phase of his man crush career onscreen, Clooney decided to work way outside his comfort zone, turning the intriguing, supposedly autobiographical tale of game show producer Chuck Barris (The Gong Show, The Newlywed Game) and his alternate career as a CIA assassin into a delightful deconstruction of ‘60s and ‘70s pop culture. His follow-up was the equally enlightening drama about McCarthy era scare tactics and the journalist who stood up to them. With an attempted screwball comedy (Leatherheads) and a less than successful second stab at politics (Ides of March), he needs another aesthetic shot in the arm.
With Argo, Affleck completes one of the most unlikely trifectas in all of post-millennial moviemaking. Mocked as nothing but a Weinstein weaned pretty boy, his acting choices argued for a distinct level of cluelessness. Then, out of nowhere, he made the magnificent thriller Gone Baby Gone, and soon the name ‘Ben Affleck’ wasn’t just forgotten TMZ fodder. The follow-up, dealing with bank robbers from a distinct Boston neighborhood, confirmed critical confidence in his vision. Now his latest appears poised to make a significant Oscar run, meaning that man may have a matching statue for his mantle come next spring.
Yes, he will always be known as the pop culture pin-up who robbed Martin Scorsese of his preordained Oscar for Raging Bull. But that doesn’t mean Redford deserves ridicule. People, placed squarely in the suburbia of a post-Watergate world, set the tone for all the family dramas to come, dealing with issues like suicide and the accidental death of a child with heart and humanity. Granted, Redford has never matched the majesty of that Academy fave, but with the establishment of the Sundance Institute, and his ongoing commitment to causes, he’s a filmmaker who stands behind his words, and his work.