Actors Turned Directors
With the release of Argo, Ben Affleck’s latest film as a director, it’s a good time to take a look at the whole phenomenon of actors turned directors. Affleck is only the latest in a long tradition of actors who also direct (silent film legends Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton both directed all of the films which made them stars). But if Argo is as well received as his previous efforts (Gone Baby Gone and The Town), he might be on his way to entering more rarefied territory – that of an actor who has become a successful director. For there is a difference – many actors have directed, but few have directed more than one film and fewer still have been able to turn it into a new or second career, a la Clint Eastwood.
Perhaps a fairer argument is that Affleck will be in the category of movie stars who have become successful directors. For there are plenty of actors turned directors whose names are better known in the second category. Anyone who wasn’t in college when Swingers came out may know Jon Favreau best as the director of Iron Man, rather than the writer and co-star of that 90s cult classic. There’s also Peter Berg, who directed this summer’s Battleship, and was previously more successful with the Will Smith blockbuster Hancock as well as directing the movie (and launching the beloved TV series that followed) version of Friday Night Lights. Never a movie star, Berg has been around enough as an actor that, if you see him, you’d probably go: “Oh yeah, that guy.” For my money, he will always be remembered as the dimwit who gets bamboozled by Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, a superb take on film noir. Also of note is Tom McCarthy, a TV actor (he started out on the David E. Kelley series Boston Public and is known to fans of The Wire as the weasel-y journalist Scott Templeton from season 5). McCarthy is 3-for-3 as an indie director with The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win, each a little gem.
It’s arguably easier for a smaller name actor to carve out a path in directing, for without the immediate name recognition, there’s less pressure in the public’s eye to succeed. But for a big name, A-list movie star to make the transition is tougher. I’m not counting the likes of Ron Howard, Rob Reiner or Penny Marshall since they had largely stopped acting by the time they became directors. I’m also not counting those big names that have only directed one movie, such as Drew Barrymore (Whip It), Gary Oldman (Nil By Mouth), Eddie Murphy (Harlem Nights), Nicolas Cage (Sonny) or Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey). For these purposes, I’m looking at big names who have directed as many or more films than Affleck. And for those who have done so, their films either tend to not do as well or end up getting more of an indie treatment.
Argo is a huge studio film that will get a nationwide release and has the marketing push to back it up – a barrage of TV spots, billboards, etc. Contrast that with any of the four films that Sean Penn has directed: The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge and Into The Wild. These are great films, but despite Penn’s name and two of them starring Jack Nicholson, they were released as small, indie films and the larger public may not even be aware of their existence. Or, take the latest films of two other Hollywood heavyweights – The Good Shepherd directed by Robert De Niro and Larry Crowne directed by Tom Hanks. They were the second films for each as director (following the charming A Bronx Tale for De Niro and That Thing You Do! for Hanks) and were major studio releases, but both failed to make much of a dent at the box office.
Even Orson Welles, the actor turned director of Citizen Kane, often cited as The Best Film Ever Made, was never able to make another film with the same kind of success. Kane was his first film, which surely adds to the mythology, and Welles spent a lifetime chasing that success (though he did make some films that rivaled Kane in quality – including his follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons despite its being butchered by the studio, and the noir classic Touch Of Evil). If history is any indication, then Affleck may well be on his way to achieving what Welles never could – an Academy Award. The Oscars love an actor turned director – as Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson all can attest. But a closer look at the directing careers of those four makes the Best Director Oscar – for an actor who is directing, anyway – look like a curse. Consider Kevin Costner, who won an Oscar for the hugely successful Dances With Wolves in 1990. Since then he’s directed only two other films: the laughably bad The Postman and the forgotten western Open Range. In fairness to those names I mentioned, Redford (and arguably Gibson) still have pretty solid directing careers. But the obvious bar for Affleck is Clint Eastwood. He’s bested the others by winning not just one but two Oscars for Best Directing for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, plus he was nominated twice more for Mystic River and Letters From Iwo Jima.
There is another bar Affleck could aspire to – equally high, but without the glory. One would be remiss in an article about actors turned directors to not mention John Cassavetes. A character actor best known for roles in The Dirty Dozen and as Mia Farrow’s husband in the eternally creepy Rosemary’s Baby, Cassavetes felt that most of the films he acted in were trite and pandering. So he used the money he made to make his own films and nearly single-handedly launched the indie film movement. Cassavetes’ films are devoid of any mainstream or Hollywood film convention. The actors largely improvised their roles (not unlike another actor turned director, Christopher Guest, of Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show fame, though Cassavetes is decidedly not funny) and there’s a rawness and realism to his films that remains unmatched. Watch A Woman Under The Influence, starring Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands and you’ll know what I mean – it will stay with you. But, hey, it will also give you newfound respect for Peter Falk!
What both Eastwood and Cassavetes have in common is that their work as a director never feels like vanity. That is the trap that Affleck (or any recognizable star) must avoid when making the jump, especially when acting in the films he directs. So far George Clooney (and even, I’d argue, Ben Stiller) has managed to do it, and plenty of others have as well. But it’s a thin line – as long as Affleck continues to make his directing choices based on story and the potential of the film as a whole, and not just on a potentially meaty lead role for himself, he should be fine. Good luck, Ben.