10 great film debuts by actors-turned-directors

With Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the latest Hollywood actor to step behind the camera to take up directing. To mark its screening as the Laugh Gala at the 57th BFI London Film Festival, we count down 10 films that have set the bar for actors’ directorial debuts.

Paul O’Callaghan
Updated:

Don Jon (2013)

Don Jon (2013)

With Don Jon making its UK debut at the BFI London Film Festival next month, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the latest in a long succession of well-known actors to make an apparently effortless transition into feature directing. The film, a comic tale of a modern Lothario’s love life and porn addiction, has already played to receptive audiences and critical acclaim at this year’s Sundance and Toronto film festivals.

From the early days of his acting career, Gordon-Levitt has seemed determined to prove himself as an artist, and to avoid being typecast as a conventional Hollywood leading man. His choice of roles is frequently bold – see his impressive turns as a gay teenage prostitute in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), and as an anachronistic high school detective in Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005). In 2005 he founded HitRecord, an innovative collaborative production company and online community, which today hosts over 80,000 members. With several short films under his belt, his move into feature filmmaking feels like a logical progression.

Hollywood in particular has had a long-standing love affair with the notion of the actor-turned-
director. Earlier this year Ben Affleck completed his rehabilitation from laughing-stock star of Gigli (2003) to industry powerhouse with the Oscar triumph of Argo (2012), his third film as director. Affleck’s career trajectory of course has numerous precedents; over the past few decades Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and Robert Redford, to name but a few, have reaped substantial rewards for making a move behind the camera.

Looking beyond mainstream American cinema, the trend is far less pronounced – with the notable exception of India, where the Bollywood industry is comparably star-fixated. But if this selection of first-rate directorial debuts by established screen actors is somewhat US-centric, the variety of work covered will hopefully serve as compensation.

On the Town (1949)

Director Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly’s first film as director proved a game-changer for the screen musical. While not, as is sometimes claimed, the first musical to be filmed on location, Kelly’s insistence on incorporating real New York landmarks into the production resulted in a far more cinematic experience than audiences were used to. By calling in his friend Stanley Donen to choreograph, and subsequently crediting him as co-director, Kelly also effectively launched another of the most illustrious careers in musical filmmaking history.

Regardless of context, this loose, vibrant adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 Broadway hit remains a joy to behold. Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin have a riot as three sailors let loose on Manhattan for a single day of shore leave. Their race against the clock to meet and seduce women – complete with regular on-screen time updates in the manner of TV’s 24 – ensures a breathless pace throughout. Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s script is packed with goofy wise-cracking humour, while the choreography is varied and consistently impressive.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Director Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton’s expressionistic tale of kids on the run from their murderous guardian is a perennial gift to compilers of film lists. In recent years it has featured prominently in surveys of the greatest directorial debuts, the most thrilling American films, essential films for young people and the most beautiful films ever madeRobert Mitchum’s preacher-turned-killer antagonist Harry Powell is also firmly established as one of the all-time great screen villains.

Yet famously the film was a critical and commercial failure on its initial release – indeed it very recently featured in this series as one of 10 great films that flopped – ensuring that Laughton never directed again. As such, it stands today as a compelling, frustrating glimpse of what might have been an extraordinary directorial career.

One-eyed Jacks (1961)

Director Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando’s sole foray into directing may not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with The Night of the Hunter as a perfectly formed masterpiece, but it is certainly among cinema’s most fascinating one-offs. This meditative western casts Brando as Rio, an outlaw who escapes from prison to enact revenge on the man responsible for his incarceration, former mentor Dad Longworth (Karl Malden). Stanley Kubrick was initially attached to direct, but pulled out after allegedly clashing with his leading man over character development. Brando stepped in himself, eventually turning in a cut that ran $4 million over budget and weighed in at almost five hours.

Though Brando expressed displeasure with the 141-minute version subsequently released by Paramount, the film is nevertheless charged with the same brooding intensity that characterises his best work as an actor. The relationship between Dad and Rio (also known as ‘The Kid’) is fascinatingly ambiguous, tinged with hints of sadomasochism that find full expression in an extraordinary public whipping scene. In making a hero of a deeply amoral philanderer, Brando also paved the way for Sergio Leone’s similarly dark-hued Dollars trilogy.

Play Misty for Me (1971)

Director Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood eased himself into the director’s chair with this taut, streamlined psychological thriller, a clear precursor to Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1988) and the cycle of ‘bunny boiler’ films that came in its wake. Eastwood stars as Dave Garver, a California radio DJ who finds himself trapped in a nightmarish relationship with psychotic fan Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter).

Elements have dated badly. The treatment of Evelyn’s mental illness is at times crude and insensitive, while her lack of back story leaves the filmmakers vulnerable to charges of misogyny. The depiction of a minor gay character, meanwhile, is downright homophobic.

But if you’re willing to accept the film as a product of less enlightened times – and you’ll be highly aware of its early 70s origins thanks to the extraordinary hairstyles on display – there is much to admire. Chiefly, Eastwood demonstrates an immediate grasp of the fluid, unfussy filmmaking style he has continued to hone over the course of his directorial career.

The sense of place is also striking. Eastwood shot on location in his hometown of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and the city’s laid back, bohemian atmosphere serves as an effective counterpoint to the escalating sense of tension. And those who know Jessica Walter primarily for her comic work as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development may be startled by her raw, at times terrifying performance here.

Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

Director Danny DeVito

The first of Danny DeVito’s occasional dalliances as a director is a deft, playful riff on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). When embittered writing teacher Larry (Billy Crystal) suggests that his inept student Owen (DeVito) becomes au fait with the Master of Suspense, Owen misinterprets this as a coded signal of murderous intent. Taking it upon himself to dispense with Larry’s poisonous ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew), Owen reports back expecting assistance in his quest to free himself from the oppressive clutches of his grotesquely nasty Momma (Anne Ramsey).

This slick black comedy plays to the greatest strengths of its fine cast. Crystal is on top form as the tightly-wound, neurotic Larry, while DeVito turns in an enjoyably self-deprecating performance as a downtrodden mummy’s boy at breaking point. But it is the Oscar-nominated Ramsey who steals the show, in what would be the last major role of her career (she died in 1988 aged just 58). The delight she takes in tormenting her son lends the comedy an enjoyably cruel edge, and her creatively profane insults are a consistent source of amusement. 

Violent Cop (1989)

Director Takeshi Kitano

Modern renaissance man Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi) became a household name throughout Japan in the late 1970s as one half of TV comedy duo Two Beat. He turned to serious film work in the 80s, with a breakthrough performance in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983). He was initially attached to Violent Cop as lead actor, but stepped up to direct himself after Kinji Fukasaku pulled out of the project.

This is an elegantly simple tale of a psychologically damaged police officer’s journey towards self-destruction. Though the film today feels like a stepping stone towards greater achievements such as Hana-bi (1997) and Zatoichi (2003), Kitano’s flair for filmmaking is evident. In early scenes he capitalises on his natural aptitude for deadpan humour and comic timing, with titular protagonist Azuma dispensing street justice in an almost slapstick manner.

Kitano gradually steers the viewer towards much darker territory, but maintains an impressive level of restraint throughout. Rather than subjecting us to a drawn-out torture scene, he tells us all we need to know with a split-second shot of a bloodied face being slammed into a locker. These startling bursts of violence are contrasted with moments of stillness and silence, encouraging the audience to contemplate every instance of brutality.

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Director Gary Oldman

When promoting the release of Nil by Mouth, Gary Oldman professed that he had had “no great desire to direct a movie for the sake of it”, but that he had a “story that I needed to get out”. These claims are certainly borne out by on-screen evidence – this semi-autobiographical drama is filmmaking as an act of gut-wrenching personal catharsis.

The film unflinchingly depicts a working-class south London family ripped apart at the seams by one man’s alcoholism and another’s drug addiction. Ray Winstone is terrifying as violent patriarch Raymond, while Kathy Burke is a revelation as his long-suffering wife Valerie – she deservedly won the best actress award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. While the subject matter and setting are remorselessly grim, the female characters’ stoic strength in the face of adversity is almost unbearably moving, and ultimately offers hope of redemption.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Director George Clooney

George Clooney’s first stab at directing remains in many ways his most ambitious and impressive film to date. Taking major cues from previous collaborators the Coen brothers and David O. Russell, Clooney plays fast and loose with convention to tell the story of American TV mogul Chuck Barris (played by Sam Rockwell), who claimed in his 1984 autobiography to have lived a secret life throughout the 1960s and 70s as a CIA assassin.

The film superficially appears to take Barris’s extraordinary claims at face value, but the highly stylised production design and downright bizarre camerawork tell another story. The overriding tone is one of absurdist humour, but as the pressures of Barris’s double life begin to take their toll, he begins to lose his grip on reality in an altogether more disturbing manner. In its darker moments, the film anticipates the unsettling flights from reality depicted in David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (2006) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008).

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Director Tommy Lee Jones

As a consequence of his refusal to play the Hollywood PR game, Tommy Lee Jones has over the years acquired a reputation as a humourless curmudgeon. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a powerful rebuttal to that notion; this masterful modern western is narratively playful, darkly funny and deeply compassionate.

Jones plays Pete Perkins, a Texas ranch hand who goes to extreme lengths to ensure that his recently deceased friend Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) receives a proper burial in his Mexican home town. Tracking down Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), the border guard responsible for the death, Pete forces him to join his quest as a means of atonement.

Together with veteran cinematographer Chris Menges, Jones evokes a wonderful sense of listlessness in the opening scenes, situating the drama in a dusty backwater littered with drab diners, derelict trailer parks and sleazy motels. When our unlikely hero crosses the border with corpse and hostage in tow, the camera shifts focus towards the vast, desolate splendour of the desert, and the tone moves towards classic western territory. It all builds confidently towards a climax that is deeply enigmatic and unexpectedly tender. Truly one of the standout American films of the past decade.

Away from Her (2006)

Director Sarah Polley

Young Canadian actor Sarah Polley made a remarkably assured debut as writer-director with this elegant, quietly devastating study of a couple’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, adapted from Alice Munro’s short story ‘The Bear Came over the Mountain’.

Julie Christie stars as Fiona Anderson, who takes the bold step of admitting herself into a nursing home after showing early symptoms of the disease at a relatively young age. Her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) finds himself standing by helplessly as Fiona’s condition quickly deteriorates. He returns to the home after her first month of residence to discover that she has essentially forgotten him, and formed an intensely emotional relationship with a fellow patient.

Christie’s first lead role in almost a decade was deservedly met with widespread acclaim, but Polley’s precise direction and finely crafted screenplay are the film’s great revelations. Commendably avoiding flashbacks to earlier, happier times, the depth and complexity of the Andersons’ decades-long marriage is instead conveyed through a series of spare, fragmentary conversations. Direct and heart-wrenching without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality, Away from Her is a weepie that earns every tear it elicits.

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