Alfred Hitchock, regarded by many as the greatest director of all time, once said he thought “all actors should be treated like cattle”, which gives you a good idea as to why the auteur and the talent often don’t get along. Some directors resent the praise lavished on stars they remember as lazy and difficult, whereas actors, like Shelley Duvall during production for The Shining, often bemoan the obsessive attention to detail and despotic neuroses of their taskmasters. Kubrick famously hated Duvall’s interpretation of his and Diane Johnson’s screenplay, once forcing her to repeat 127 takes of a single scene.
Taking this into account, it’s easy to understand why either side of the fence would think they could tend to the other’s lawn better. But a lush and green crop can be a difficult thing to achieve when you’re working with unfamiliar tools. Yes, for every Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney) there is always a Sonny (Nicolas Cage) or a Fool’s Gold (James Franco); and each time we strike it lucky with a Citizen Kane, you can be sure some bozo like William Shatner will be right along with a Star Trek V: The Final Frontier to lower the tone (thankfully his one and only shot behind the camera).
However, this hasn’t prevented any of our favourite filmmakers from giving it a go in the chair. The one and only Lara Croft, otherwise known as Angelina Jolie, releases her latest authorial picture, By the Sea, this week, in which she stars alongside her husband Brad Pitt. The film depicts the failing marriage of a former dancer and American writer in a typically charming seaside French town during the 1970s, and marks the first time the Hollywood power couple have appeared on-screen together in ten years.
Also out on the 11th is the quintessentially British actor Paul Bettany’s debut directorial effort Shelter. No stranger to the superhuman effort it takes to finish a job – see Avengers: Age of Utron – Bettany’s heartfelt analysis of two homeless women and the events that lead them to the gutter actually stars none other than Jennifer Connelly in the leading role. Who also happens to be the A Beautiful Mind actor’s wife. I wonder how that subject was broached to her? At the dinner table perhaps? – “Darling, I really do think you’d do a wonderful hobo, now pass the salt would you?”
Given the timely release of these two new flicks, now is as good an excuse as any to pick out our top ten actor-directors. So here they are.
10. Angelina Jolie
While By The Sea might be the first time Jolie’s given direction to her husband Pitt, it certainly isn’t her first outing as the lady in charge. Her feature-length debut was the solid enough Bosnian war drama In The Land of Blood and Honey. Both moving and involving, the 2011 effort was decent enough for a first go, but it was with her next movie that Jolie’s directorial instincts really started to sizzle. Unbroken (2014) is a peculiar sports biopic-war film hybrid that garnered Jolie three Academy Award nominations for just her second feature. Already highly regarded in the industry for her work ethic and keen insight, Jolie has a bright future ahead of her; and when coupled with a storied and Oscar-winning career as an actor, we can only expect Jolie’s star to continue to rise.
9. Elia Kazan
Upon putting this list together, one of the key parameters for success was determined as combined directing and acting prowess, but on this occasion (and a couple of others), such is the majesty of Elia Kazan’s directing canon, that we can’t not sneak him in at the bottom of the list. Despite his limited film-acting experience we do know from the history books that Kazan helped to revolutionise American theatre in the 1930s as a leading player in Lee Strasberg’s Group Theater. There is little doubt, however, that his work behind the camera is of the highest order. On The Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), America America (1963) and A Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) aren’t a bad few films to put your name to are they?
8. Rob Reiner
Somehow the possessor of both the friendliest and most disagreeable face in cinema, Rob Reiner’s acting credits aren’t to be snorted at. Meaty(ish) roles in classics like This Is Spinal Tap (1984), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Sleepless In Seattle (1993) firmly establish Reiner’s acting chops, and that’s the hard part. When you get on to his directing archive it’s obvious this man has talent. Buckets of it. Apparent from the get-go with his inaugural picture, rockumentary Spinal Tap, Reiner can craft a good yarn with ease, but serious films like A Few Good Men (1992), When Harry Met Sally (1989) and The American President (1995) don’t happen by accident, and that’s before we even get to perhaps the defining movie of the ’80s, the incomparable Stand By Me.
7. Sofia Coppola
Okay, so Coppola didn’t exactly distinguish herself during a torrid acting career. Although blamed by half the cinematic world for the bloody awful third Godfather installment (in which she really isn’t that bad), anyone that can say they took the wheel on the utterly perfect-in-every-single-way Lost In Translation (2003) has a claim to actor-director greatness. Quite frankly, even if Coppola’s only acting credit had been the clown at my fifth birthday party she’d have gotten in. It’s almost admissible that she took up a bit part role in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), and no, she doesn’t wear any black and red makeup in it.
6. Woody Allen
Allen had long perfected his neurotic, sanctimonious Alvy Singer persona by the time Annie Hall rolled around in 1977. But not only is he better in Manhattan, he’s not quite so insufferable or unlikable as a character, with Allen moving further than ever from his comfort blanket of standup gags. It’s easy to forget, of course, that Woody’s powerhouse performances aren’t his only job on set; he’s also the director, writer and (once, on Sleeper) even the composer. Allen is as close as it gets to the complete filmmaker without being, well, you’ll see further up the list.
5. Richard Attenborough
As an actor, Attenborough has almost too many stellar performances to count. There’s his deliciously sinister take on psychopath Pinky in Brighton Rock (1947); the warm and fuzzy portrayals of wise old grandpa characters in Jurassic Park (1993) and Miracle on 34th Street (1994); the stiff-upper-lipped Bartlett from The Great Escape (1963); and his criminally underrated young factory worker in The Angry Silence (1960). It is more than possible to go on. Direction-wise Attenborough spun cinematic gold long before Gandhi (1982) won a whopping eight awards at the 1983 Academy Awards. Magic (1978) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) are solid films, but to follow your magnum opus with Cry Freedom (1987) and Shadowlands (1993) – all pictures any director would be proud to sign their name on – is a magnificent achievement.
4. Dennis Hopper
Notoriously one of the most difficult actors to work with – on location for Apocalypse Now (1979) he reportedly lived on “a daily diet of a half gallon of rum, 28 beers and three ounces of cocaine” – Hopper was undeniably a thespian genius. Early roles in James Dean’s Giant (1956) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955) started his career off on the right foot, before The American Friend (1977) and Easy Rider (1969) established him as a countercultural icon of the mid-20th century. What is more, Hopper actually co-directed with Peter Fonda on Easy Rider, which became perhaps the most influential film of the ’60s, and can largely take credit for the rising star of Jack Nicholson, who appeared there in his first major role. Later, a manic display in David Lynch’s fabulous Blue Velvet (1986) and the effortlessly cool True Romance (1993) would introduce Hopper to a whole new generation of moviegoers in the ’80s and ’90s. His was a career that never hesitated to venture into strange and new corners of the movie map, and his position on this list reflects that.
3. Clint Eastwood
A titan of modern American cinema, Eastwood’s shadow looms large (as an actor or director) over almost any male figure in film since. Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, and Johnny Depp have all taken their less-talk-more-lookin’-cool approach from The Man With No Name, whose Dollars trilogy singlehandedly revolutionised the tired Spaghetti Western genre in the ’60s, even before carving out a niche for himself as a new kind of antihero in films like Dirty Harry during the 1970s. He’s actually been leading his own pictures since the ’70s, but has gone on somewhat of a golden run in later life. Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Flags Of Our Fathers (2006), Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), Gran Torino (2008), Invictus (2009) and American Sniper (2014) isn’t exactly bad form is it? Even for a man who famously spent over ten minutes talking to an empty chair…
2. Charlie Chaplin
Seemingly unknown in 21st-century popular culture, Chaplin is less an ‘actor-director’ and more a movie wizard, able to spin millions of dollars’ worth of celluloid magic from a single idea, germinated in the back of his mind. Chaplin wrote, directed and starred as the lead role in almost every single one of his films throughout a 55-year career spanning two world wars. Classics such as Modern Times (1936), City Lights (1931) and The Great Dictator (1940) are still heralded today as touchstones in the shaping of modern cinema. The only reason the ‘Little Tramp’ doesn’t nab the top spot in this list is because it’s simply become too difficult these days to comprehend the talents of a man who made his name in a completely different world to the one we live in now. Oh, and he didn’t make Citizen Kane.
1. Orson Welles
Often accused of living his artistic career in reverse – he delivered his masterpiece with full artistic control in his first attempt at a feature-length movie, before later moving into smaller, indie projects – Orson Welles had a charisma hitherto unequaled in cinema. Whether it was transposed through his flawlessly authoritative performances in Citizen Kane (1941) and A Touch Of Evil (1958), or the way in which he was able to effortlessly turn his vision into classics like The Lady From Shanghai (1947) or Macbeth (1948), Welles conquered all. Confidence leaked from his every pore, and only Marlon Brando has been able to achieve the same kind of electricity Welles exhibits on screen or, come to think of it, off-camera as well.