- Dan Auty
It might be an actor’s name of the poster and at the start of the credits, but on the vast majority of film sets, it is the director who’s the boss. Unless you’re shot-calling superstar like Tom Cruise, the actors are there to serve the vision of others - they say what is written down and do what their directors tells them. So little wonder than many actors, with their massive egos, have turned their hand to directing themselves - with predictably varied results.
Two movies hit screens this month from directors who also happen to be huge Hollywood movie stars – Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge an Ben Affleck’s Live By Night. Gibson and Affleck are two of the most successful actors-turned-directors in the business, who have both found a natural talents behind the camera. Gibson won an Oscar for Braveheart back 1995, and Hacksaw Ridge is very much what we’d expect of a WWII movie from him - thrilling, moving, hugely unsubtle, and very, very violent. Live By Night continues Ben Affleck’s run of tough, confident crime thrillers, and his second adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone being the first). These guys know what they’re doing
Gibson and Affleck are very much in that group of actors who have turned directing into a parallel profession. Clint Eastwood is the grandfather of this - no one had vast expectations for the spaghetti western star when he directed Play Misty For Me in 1971, but the film was a hit and launched the second career of one of the Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers. At 86, Clint still churns them out - Sully was only in cinemas last month, and 2014’s American Sniper was the biggest hit of his career. Clint’s films are straight-forward and old-fashioned in the best way - he gets the job done with the minimum fuss and moves on to the next job. Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Sean Penn are very much in this vein too - respected leading men who have become acclaimed directors.
Then there are those actors who make the switch and are barely thought of as actors at all any more. For a generation of movie fans, Rob Reiner was one of the most successful directors of the 1980s, with a slew of decade-defining hits, from This Is Spinal Tap to Misery, via The Princes Bride, Stand By Me and When Harry Met Sally. But for kids of the 1970s, Reiner was the lefty son-in-law in the long-running sitcom All In The Family, a role he was Emmy-nominated for. Likewise Ron Howard became world-famous as Richie Cunningham in Happy Days - 40 years later, he is one of America’s most popular, successful directors, his acting days long behind him.
One the greatest debut films of all time was directed by an actor, who sadly never made another movie. Charles Laughton was one of the finest screen and stage actors of his generation, but his only film as director was the 1955 crime drama Night of the Hunter. Now considered a classic, the movie gave Robert Mitchum a defining role and remains a gripping, moving, sometimes terrifying experience, years ahead of it time. Gary Oldman is another accomplished thespian who has (to date) only made a single film, the powerful South London drama Nil By Mouth. Like Laughton with Mitchum, Oldman used his skill as an actor to draw career-best performances from the likes of Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke, creating a film up there with the best of British social realist cinema.
But what of those actors who aren’t cut out for a gig as a director? Many stars are quite happy staying in front of the camera, but there are a surprising number who gave it a go, only to quietly retire from directing after when they realise it’s not as much fun as being a movie star.
It’s a bit unfair to lump Sylvester Stallone in here, seeing as it he has helmed several hugely successful Rocky movies, but no one thinks of Sly as a “film director” when listing his various achievements over the years. Stallone’s 80s- compatriot Arnold Schwarzenegger gave directing a shot too, knocking out the ‘heartwarming’ TV movie Christmas in Connecticut in 1992. At least Steven Seagal had the sense to stick to the genre he knew best, delivering the absurd eco-action-thriller On Deadly Ground in 1994. Elsewhere, Tom Cruise directed a single episode of the long-forgotten noir anthology Fallen Angels in 1992, Eddie Murphy immediately quit after winning a Worst Director Golden Raspberry for 1989’s woeful Harlem Nights, and Nicolas Cage tried and failed with the obscure 2002 drama Sonny. Don’t give up the day job guys!