The Actor-Director A-List

Hollywood is the epicenter of screen talent, especially when it comes to motion pictures, a place where a sea of directors, writers, and actors work together in order to bring wondrous stories to life and project them onto a screen the size of my front porch. For awhile, each singular part of the entire filmmaking unit its own job, it own responsibility that it had to uphold in order for the process to be completed excellently and in a timely fashion – directors directed, actors acted, screenwriters wrote screenplays, and so on. However, as the timeline of cinematic history has progressed closer to the present, it’s became regular for individuals to start taking on more than just one labeled role within the filmmaking process. Sometimes an actor chooses to direct a film while lending his or her hand to the writing process, other times a director or technical person scores a supporting role in another director’s film.

Though pioneered by the genius Charlie Chaplin, it was Orson Welles who revolutionized this movement after his quadruple threat breakthrough, Citizen Kane, a film he directed, stared in, produced, and co-wrote; he was shortly followed by actors like Laurence Olivier and Gene Kelly, who tackled Shakespeare and movie musicals respectively. Time continued and greeted John Cassavettes, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Warren Beatty, and Penny Marshall on the screen and in the director’s chair alike; these professionals proved their multitalents throughout their long and fruitful careers, providing individual innovations to the artistic medium and solidifying their place in film history. Even contemporarily, actor Billy Bob Thornton jumpstarted his acting career in Wellesian fashion with Sling Blade, while singing sensation Barbara Streisand surprised viewers with directing credits on Yentl, The Prince of Tides, and The Mirror Has Two Faces. Though unfavorable in the modern public eye, Mel Gibson was a premiere film star who dramatized both history (Braveheart) and the Bible (The Passion of the Christ) while in the director’s chair and Italian crime star Robert De Niro proved his understanding of cinematic construction with A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd (he will also demonstrate to audiences that he’s still one of the best living and working actors presently with his upcoming supporting role in Silver Linings Playbook).

It’s almost a daily routine for actors to decide to become directors, though what compels each and every one of them surely differs from person to person. Go-to British baddie Ralph Fiennes made his directorial debut last winter with Coriolanus and received much critical acclaim, while young A-listers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ryan Gosling are in the pre-production stages of their own helming debuts. Keep in mind, the coin falls the other way as well and directors do dabble and take on acting roles every now and then; Vittorio De Sica in A Farewell to Arms, John Huston in Chinatown, François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third King, Quentin Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn, Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Blvd., and Werner Herzong in the upcoming Jack Reacher are all examples of directors who performed in other filmmakers’ work.

Currently, the hottest actor-filmmaker is Ben Affleck, whose third feature, Argo, scored big during its box office opening this past weekend (grossing $20 million), making it his third consecutive commercial and critical success in a row after Gone Baby Gone and The Town. While I could go on about why Affleck is an interesting figure within Hollywood (actually I already did here: https://reelreactions.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/affleck/), he is an absolute standout as an actor-director because of his continued success as an actor as well as his thriving and prospering filmmaking career; he’s currently turning in a fine performance in Argo and had one of his finest ever in The Town, plus he’s scheduled to star in Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder and Brad Furman’s Runner, Runner before helming an undeclared fourth directorial project. While some directors, like Howard or Eastwood, have decided to stick to directing for the most part these days, Affleck is still just as prominent as an actor, and his success as a filmmaker has only hoisted him higher than he was during his early days of stardom, circa Good Will Hunting.

In honor of another successful project from actor-director Ben Affleck, here are five more living, present day actor-directors (in no particular ranked order) who showcase an individual tone or auteuristic eye as a filmmaker while also achieving continuous performance excellence in numerous films outside of their own.

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Ben Stiller

Acting Highlights:  The Ben Stiller Show, There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, The Royal Tenenbaums, Greenberg

Directing Highlights:  Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder

Living in a household of comedians, one would be foolish to think that the product of Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller would be a talentless hack. Borrowing his sister’s tights to perform Shakespeare around the house at the same time that he was becoming fixated with Super 8 cameras, Stiller performed on Broadway and scored a skit on Saturday Night Live after he and fellow actor John Mahoney filmed a spoof of The Color of Money that caught the eye of Lorne Michaels. A film debut in Empire of the Sun was followed by the underseen The Ben Stiller Show, which scored him an Emmy but put him out of work when it was a ratings sinker.  n an attempt to save his dwarfing career when it was just starting, Stiller went back to his childhood camera fanaticism and directed Reality Bites, which he also starred in, and that 1994 film is now considered a cult classic.  Independent acting gigs followed, like David O. Russell’s debut film, Flirting With Disaster, before he teamed up with Jim Carrey and directed the dark, offbeat comedy The Cable Guy. When There’s Something About Mary exploded in 1998, Stiller’s career as an actor was off and running, and while subpar films like Mystery Men, Duplex, Starsky & Hutch, and Envy were inevitable, he proved his diversity with excellent performances in The Royal Tenenbaums, Meet the Parents, and Dodgeball; concurrently, directing the beloved Zoolander and the brilliantly meta Tropic Thunder kept him on everyone’s radar as a quizzically talented filmmaker (it doesn’t hurt either that his last two directed films featured two of his best performances). Whether you find him annoying or hilarious, Ben Stiller continues to impress as a director and as an actor, in every genre from drama to comedy.

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Sean Penn

Acting HighlightsFast Times At Ridgemont High, Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, I Am Sam, Mystic River, 21 Grams, Milk

Directing Highlights:  The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, Into the Wild

As a young talent, Penn propelled forward with memorable roles as unruly, tumultuous youths in Taps and Fast Times at Ridgemont High before graduating into more mature films like The Falcon and the Snowman, At Close Range, Colors, and Casualties of War.  Though his fame may have been enhanced by his marriage to 80’s pop icon, Madonna, and their repulsive film together, Shanghai Surprise (a horrid little thing that’s a notch on his belt that I’m sure he’d love to rid himself of), Penn progressed in the 90s when he decided to try his hand at directing. The interestingly original, but intensely sad, portrait of conflicted brothers with opposing world views entitled The Indian Runner, followed by the Jack Nicholson starrer, The Crossing Guard, earned Penn warm reviews as a filmmaker, but this was a role he wouldn’t return to until the next decade. Oscar nominations for Dead Man Walking and Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown were among Penn’s acting highlights in the 90s, but he stayed just as prevalent when the 21st Century began. A third Oscar nomination for I Am Sam and his first win for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River evidenced his application acceptance to the A-list while another traumatic performance (my personal favorite of his) in 21 Grams and a return to the director’s chair, again with star Jack Nicholson in The Pledge, kept his résumé impressively updated. Unfortunately, his overt and obtrusive political views and statements were not particularly favorable by many and a divorce from his wife, Robin Wright, was a stain on his image, but it did not stop him from crafting the magnificent and heartbreaking Into the Wild or winning a second Oscar for the biopic, Milk, about the first openly gay elected official in California. With two projects down the pipe with him attached as director and the much anticipated Gangster Squad being released this January, Sean Penn remains one of Hollywood’s most famous, and most controversial, multitalents; an acting and directing phenomenon.

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Thomas McCarthy

Acting Highlights:  Meet the Parents, Syriana, Duplicity, Boston Public, 2012, The Wire

Directing Highlights:  The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win

Though recognized as ‘Tom’ McCarthy on screen, this talented independent filmmaker and wonderful character actor goes unfairly under the radar by most viewers. A native of my own home state, New Jersey, McCarthy began as a blink-and-you-miss-him performer before leaving an impact as Dr. Bob Banks in Meet the Parents, a role he later returned to in the franchise’s third installment, Little Fockers. A fourteen episode stint on Boston Public caught him notice by George Clooney, who cast him in Good Night, and Good Luck and who worked alongside him in Stephen Gaghan’s cluttered but politically strong and emotionally resonant Syriana. Afterward, writer Tony Gilroy tapped him for a tiny role in Michael Clayton and a supporting role in Duplicity, which opened up his option for his biggest role yet, Gordon Silberman in Roland Emmerich’s cataclysmic, Mayan calendar-inspired disaster flick, 2012. Though not the most choice film to feature any actor’s best film role, McCarthy had the chance to play off star John Cusack as the man who replaced him within his marriage to Amanda Peet and, to McCarthy’s benefit, he gets most of the funnier lines providing the majority of the comic relief. Amazingly, throughout his growing filmography, McCarthy directed three films: The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win, and co-wrote Pixar’s Up, which earned him an original screenplay Oscar nomination. The Station Agent, released in 2003, featured a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage in an outstanding performance as a friendless dwarf who encounters some disparate people after mourning a personal loss. With The Visitor, McCarthy created a meandering story about racial profiling and surrogate families starring familiar face Richard Jenkins in a reserved performance that scored him an Oscar nomination. And finally, most recently, Win Win, set in New Jersey, like The Station Agent, which stars Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan as a struggling suburban family who adopt a conscious loner whom possesses a remarkable wrestling talent. These truthful, personal dramas reflect McCarthy’s individualistic writing style and his love for bonding character relationships and the feeling of familial strength. Yet, within his entire career, his finest role is still his arc as the slimy and fake journalist, Scott Templeton, in the final season of David Simon’s opus, HBO’s The Wire. With the recent stardom of Peter Dinklage and the massive acclaim that The Wire has developed over the past few years, here’s hoping that more people start to discover the immensely talented work of Thomas McCarthy.

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Kenneth Branagh

Acting Highlights:  Henry V, Hamlet, Wild Wild West, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, My Week With Marilyn

Directing Highlights:  Much Ado About Nothing, Frankenstein, Sleuth, Thor

Belfast born and classically trained by the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts, Kenneth Branagh is one of the UK’s finest actors, most notably premiering in a number of William Shakespeare adaptations, many of which he has directed himself. Breaking through as the director and star of Henry V in 1989, the film scored him two Oscar nominations and began a lengthy and impressive cinematic career. Self-propelled through the 1990’s, Branagh directed and starred in Dead Again, Peter’s Friends, Much Ado About Nothing, Frankenstein, and his epic, Briton star-studded take on Hamlet for which his adapted screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Slowly but surely, Branagh branched out of his own directorial work and began starring in other filmmakers’ films like Oliver Parker’s Othello, where he rivaled star Laurence Fishburne as the villainous Iago, Robert Altman’s ensemble thriller The Gingerbread Man, Woody Allen’s Celebrity, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s atrocious Wild Wild West; he also stared as German soldier in Valkyrie, headlined BBC’s Wallander, and, most memorably for us Americans, embodied the vain Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Directing slowed down in the 2000’s with Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It, and the remake of Sleuth allworking as passion projects for the actor-director. However, in 2011, Branagh made a huge splash in both the directing and acting departments when he helmed the Marvel franchise opener, Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth, and portrayed personal inspiration Sir Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at all the major galas. With Thor, his implication of Dutch angles annoyed many viewers, but overall the superhero actioner was a big success, inching Marvel toward another lucrative comic book franchise, the box office titan known as The Avengers, and sparking cinematic stardom for actor Chris Hemsworth. On the horizon, Branagh has taken the reigns of the Jack Ryan franchise, based on the Tom Clancy character, and is directing Chris Pine in Jack Ryan, a spy thriller reboot that will also feature Branagh as the film’s villain. It should be an exciting spectacle for Branagh is always a wonder to behold in front and behind the camera.

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George Clooney

Acting Highlights:  From Dusk Till Dawn, Ocean’s 11, Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, The Descendants

Directing Highlights:  Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck., Leatherheads, The Ides of March

Southern born George Clooney began pursuing an acting career after a life in sports proved doubtful (the Cincinnati Reds did not offer him a contract after he tried out), and he broke out as Dr. Doug Ross on the long running television program, ER. Film roles like Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn catapulted him forward, but the public almost dismissed him entirely when he donned the mask of the caped crusader in Joel Schumacher’s notorious Batman & Robin. Critical hatred ended that franchise, but soon-to-be-frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh tossed him a role that he could now perform with ease in his sleep: Jack Foley in Out of Sight. David O. Russell’s bizarre Gulf War comedy Three Kings followed, aligning him with budding rappers-turned-actors Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, as well as cult director Spike Jonze. But Soderbergh again came to Clooney’s side with Ocean’s 11, the casino heist remake that made Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon massive Hollywood stars and spawned two rather unnecessary sequels. The Perfect Storm and the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? segued into the formation of Section Eight Productions,founded by Clooney and Soderbergh, which backed Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman and based on TV producer Chuck Barris’ autobiography. With apparent visual style and a charismatic turn from Sam Rockwell, Confessions was stamped a solid and very admirable directorial debut. But it was Clooney’s sophomore effort, Good Night, and Good Luck that blew audiences and critics away. A rousing period piece biopic chronicling Joseph McCarthy’s takedown by journalist Edward R. Murrow and starring an expansive top rate cast, the film was nominated for Best Picture of 2005 and scored Clooney nominations for writing and directing. At that very Oscars, Clooney did go home victorious, but for acting in Stephen Gaghan’s interconnected politically-driven Syriana. Three consecutive Best Actor nominations followed thanks to Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, and The Descendants, all featuring crippled portraits of a singular man in a very unique situation (they were wonderfully handled by Clooney on all three accounts, the last of which proved Clooney’s growing expertise with age). At fifty one years old, Clooney is still racking in outstanding performances and is wildly busy on the technical end, contributing to the behind-the-scenes political scandaler, The Ides of March, as a co-writer, director, and supporting actor. Unfortunately, the film was a taut and intricate backdoor thriller that went mostly unnoticed exactly one year ago; he also produced this article’s catalyst, Argo. With no director credit scheduled for the near future, Clooney will next be seen in Alfonso Cuarón’s much awaited Gravity. A heartthrob from day one to the present, Clooney is a talent that Hollywood is lucky to have.

Argo is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

Article by Mike Murphy

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