Monday, January 28, 2013

Top 10 Actors-Turned-Directors

It’s funny, despite the fact that Ben Affleck’s Argo is killing it this awards season, it seems like most people still prefer to talk about the mystery concerning an award he wasn’t nominated for. But either way, with all the current chatter about Affleck’s filmmaking career (and with my recent post on Clint Eastwood’s work as a director), I got to thinking: who are the best actors-turned-directors of all time?

In drafting this list, I realized something strange: with the exception of one filmmaker, every person listed below is still alive and making films. Some star in their own films, others take crap roles to fund their worthy directing efforts. No matter, here are my favorite filmmakers who started their careers in front of the lens, and have flourished behind it.

Note: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, and many more (like… Edward Burns) became famous for directing at the exact time they became famous for acting, so they have been excluded from this list.

10. Ben Affleck
Matt Damon recently gave an interview in which he “joked” that the only reason his pal Ben Affleck started directing was so he could bail himself out of actor’s jail. Which may not be that far off. After winning Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting, Damon’s acting career took off in respectable ways, while Affleck’s fluttered in quick-cash impulses. Soon enough, the roles became harder and harder to come by, so he made the brilliant Boston-set thriller, Gone Baby Gone. Months later, with Gone Baby Gone a critical success, Affleck still saw no spike in his demand as an actor. So he cast himself as the lead in The Town. Pause. Repeat. Argo. As far as I’m concerned, he can keep repeating that cycle for as long as he wants.

Top Three Films, in order: Gone Baby Gone, Argo, The Town

9. Warren Beatty
The evolution of Beatty’s directing career is not dissimilar to Affleck’s. While Beatty was never at a shortage for film roles, he did, however, become increasingly frustrated by the lack of worthy material. To amend his irritation, he produced two wildly successful films (Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo) before churning out Heaven Can Wait, and his epic magnum opus, Reds. While not entirely prolific (he’s only directed four films), Beatty was a pioneer of the do-it-your-own-way approach to making the films you want to make.

Top Three Films: Reds, Dick Tracy, Heaven Can Wait

8. Rob Reiner
Reiner was a well-known television star long before he helmed the iconic This Is Spinal Tap. And although he hasn’t directed a moderately decent film in nearly two decades, the man is responsible for a number of classic movies from a variety of genres. He’s made us laugh, he’s made us cry, and he’s made us remember. As in… how can you possibly ever forget Jack Nicholson screaming, or Mandy Patinkin sword fighting, or Meg Ryan climaxing, or Kathy Bates swinging? The man may not be a legend, but he’s surely responsible for creating a few.

Top Three Films: A Few Good Men, Misery, When Harry Met Sally…

7. Ron Howard
Another young star who realized he had outgrown his acting capabilities, Ron Howard turned his fame into a hell of a directing career. He’s racked up Oscars, critical acclaim and commercial triumph. Not half bad, Opie. Not half bad.

Top Three Films: Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, Cinderella Man

6. Robert Redford
Ordinary People is a phenomenal film. It’s quiet, gut wrenching, angry, and mature. And the fact that it was made by a Hollywood playboy at the height of his stardom only makes me appreciate it more. Redford has said that, from a technical standpoint, he didn’t have the slightest idea what he was doing when he helmed Ordinary People. Didn’t matter. His desire to tell a real story in an unflinching way trumped all technical inefficiencies. To this day, the man makes small movies with small stories, and does a rather fine job doing it.

Top Three Films: Ordinary People, Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It

5. Sean Penn
Unlike most of the people on this list, Sean Penn is an acclaimed actor who elects to not appear in his own films. And while his first three features remain too grim for some (I personally think The Pledge is near perfect), many fell in love with the subtle power of his Into the Wild. Say what you want about Penn, the actor (or Penn, the man), there was passion etched into every frame of Into the Wild. I cannot wait to see what he cooks up next.

Top Three Films: Into the Wild, The Pledge, The Crossing Guard

4. George Clooney
There’s a trend forming. I think a lot of the ambition for actors to direct films comes from the fact that they want to create good material for themselves. And while Clooney has preferred to take supporting roles in his own films, there’s no denying that he is outstanding in all of them (well, let’s just forget Leatherheads… okay?). His next flick, The Monuments Men is a WWII-set art/historical thriller with a dynamite cast. Sounds right up his alley. Sold.

Top Three Films: Good Night, and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Ides of March

3. Sofia Coppola
I suppose you could argue that Coppola’s inclusion here is a bit of a cheat, as she only really appeared in her daddy’s own films. But semantics aside, Coppola thankfully gave up acting to create calm, impassioned works of indie art. I thought her Somewhere was a hypnotic, patient film of utter transcendence. The Bling Ring sounds fun, but I wonder if she’ll ever top Somewhere’s delicate power?

Top Three Films: Somewhere, Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides

2. Clint Eastwood
By far the most insanely prolific filmmaker on this list, Clint Eastwood has spent the majority of his famed career directing 32 feature films. Some are iconic works of art, others are complete crap. But gaps in cinematic effectiveness are irrelevant. If there’s one thing I learned while penning my career post on Eastwood, it’s that the good certainly outweigh the bad. And the masterful most definitely outweigh the ugly.

Top Three Films: Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Unforgiven

1. John Cassavetes
Earlier this afternoon, I was asked if I thought Eastwood was the finest actor-turned-director of all time. Without putting too much thought into it, I quickly said yes, and went about my day. Then a faithful commenter brought someone to my attention. A man who, more so than anyone on this list, became sickened by trends in the marketplace as an actor, and sought to change the game as a director. And change it did he ever.

For a spell there, John Cassavetes owned the American independent film movement. He proved that with a single camera and a few friends, greatness can be achieved. Examples? How about his ordinary-men-in-disarray character study, Husbands, his mob thriller tour de force, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, his grueling, behind the scenes exposé, Opening Night, and, of course, his generation-defining masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence.

If there’s a common theme among the names on this list, it’s the fact that people who understood how the business worked wanted to make the films they wanted to see. Everyone here can be credited for doing just that, and doing it well. But only a few can actually say they altered the landscape a film. A few… or maybe just one.

Top Three Films: A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, Opening Night


  1. Ooh, great list. I approve the hell out of all the entries. (Okay, maybe not as much for Reiner and Howard.)

    1. Nice. I'm admittedly not the biggest fan of Reiner and Howard's films, but they've crushed out some fine ones in the past.

  2. Nice list man. Hate to admit it, but I haven't seen a Cassavetes film yet. Just bumped Woman, Husbands, and Opening Night to the top of my Netflix queue.

    1. Good stuff. I cannot recommend those highly enough. Just be warned, they're different. Very very long scenes of people talking and acting how people really talk and act. No sensationalizing. I love 'em.

  3. I definitely approve this list as well though everything Rob Reiner did after A Few Good Men (w/ the exception of An American President) has been crap while Ron Howard is quite overrated.

    What about Penny Marshall? She was a TV actress turned filmmaker. After all, she's made some great movies like Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own and was the first woman filmmaker to make a film that grossed more than a $100 million.

    1. Good stuff. I agree that Reiner's career for the past several years has been utter crap. And I too think a lot of Howard's films are quite overrated (I've never liked A Beautiful Mind, as an example).

      Marshall was really close to making the cut here. Big... god, I just love the hell out of that movie. Renaissance Man is pretty fun too.

  4. Ooh, Mum came home with the Ides of March the other day, so maybe I'll finally get to see it soon!
    I did not know Rob Reiner was an actor before he became a director :/ I always think of him as the director of The Princess Bride and Misery, haha
    Looooved Argo and Affleck. I would be okay to see it win the Oscar, though it's pretty much an open field this year (and I'm secretly hoping for Amour, really).
    Super post!

    1. I love Princess Bride and Misery. Two very different films... I always think it's funny that they were made by the same guy.

      I'd be cool with Argo winning as well. But if I voted, Amour would easily get my vote.

      Hope you like Ides of March!

  5. Ugh I've yet to see a Cassavetes film myself. I'm tempted to buy the 5 film set that Criterion has.

    1. That would in no way be a bad purchase. Completely worth it, my friend.

    2. Good news my friend actually just gave me her hulu plus account which has all 5 of his films. I'm debating about which film to start with. I might go with Shadows since it qas his first one.

    3. That's awesome. Yeah, my advice is to always start as far back as you can and work your way down. Enjoy.

  6. Love the inclusion of Redford, Clooney, Coppola and Cassavetes! Especially the last two. But why isn't Woody Allen on the list? Or Charlie Chaplin?

  7. Replies
    1. Yeah, didn't seem fair to list directors who made themselves famous from their own movies, you know?

  8. Well, I think you should include or at least consider Laurence Olivier.

    1. I considered him, but I've actually only seen Hamlet. And I'm not the biggest Shakespeare fan either (or at least Shakespeare film adaptations). But he is a worthy choice at any rate.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  9. When I saw the title of this post, I was like, does Sofia Coppola count? And she does! Yaay!! Now, how about Woody??
    As much as I love Clooney, Penn, Reiner, I have to mention Affleck. I hated him as an actor, and now I am truly championing his film to win Best Oscar. It's bloody amazing.

    1. Woody (and Chaplin, and Keaton, and Welles) weren't considered here because they became famous for acting and directing at the same time. I only wanted to consider people who were known actors first, ya dig?

      I'd love to see Argo upset Lincoln as well. That'd be killer.

  10. Coppola is a little bit of a cheat but I love her inclusion. Clooney is really on form in all that he works on these days - he might have a best picture Oscar under his belt come next month..who knows. Great post Alex

    1. Thanks!

      If it's a worthy cheat, then I suppose it's all good! Wouldn't that be great if Argo upset Lincoln? I'd love to see that.

  11. Great list! I have to say I prefer all of these people as directors rather than actors.

    1. Thanks! I really like Penn as an actor (most of the time) and Clooney's got some chops, but I agree that most of them are better off behind the camera.

  12. Great work as always, Alex! Just another reminder I need to see more from Cassavetes. Glad to see Sofia Coppola included as well -- Lost in Translation may very well be my favorite film from the last decade, and Somewhere is grossly underrated.

    1. Thanks man! I'm so glad you're a Somewhere fan. I too think that flick is seriously underrated.

      One can never watch too many Cassavetes, my friend. Hope you enjoy.

  13. I learned so much reading this post, Alex. It's such a smart observation that actors-turned-directors may be bailing themselves out of actors' jail. I never thought of that but it seems true, especially with Affleck and Clooney.

    Also, I can't wait to see Clooney's The Monuments Men! The Rape of Europa documentary about the Monuments Men is my all-time favorite.

    1. I'm glad you liked the post! And hey, if you can't find any acting gigs, then why not cast yourself in your own movie? Seems smart to me!

      I can't wait to see The Monuments Men either. Sounds perfect for Clooney.

  14. Fantastic lists of really worthy actors-turned-directors, though I can't help but think that Sofia Coppola is a total cheat haha
    I can't say I like Sean Penn, in fact, I almost despise the guy as a person, but one can't deny his talents in front or behind the camera. Maybe he's just too passionate and outspoken to keep from turning off a lot of people in the process. At least that is my hope.
    This post of yours made me realize I need to brush up on some John Cassavetes who I know very little about. Sure, I've read upon the extend of his influence but never really seen any of his work.
    Have you seen Rob Reiner's Flipped? I thought it was a cute and heartwarming film that is just a couple of years old. Certainly not great, but definitely worthwhile.
    Great post and list !

    1. Ah come on, Sofia's a bit of a cheat, not a total one! Either way, I hope most can agree: horrible actress, fantastic director.

      Cassavetes is just... he was a monumental talent. His movies aren't for everyone, but they're written how people talk and acted how people act, which isn't very cinematic, but it's breathtaking to me all the same.

      I honestly stopped bothering with Reiner's career a long time ago. Given the classics he's cooked up in the past, it's a damn shame his filmography has turned into what it has. But still, I'm curious to see Flipped now, given your praise.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  15. Yes, its a great list, but this is in the order of their directing. In the order of their acting? Worst to best.

    1. Tough question. Okay, worst to best:

      Sofia Coppola
      Rob Reiner
      Ron Howard
      Ben Affleck
      Warren Beatty
      Robert Redford
      Clint Eastwood
      George Clooney
      John Cassavetes
      Sean Penn

  16. Top 10 directors performance from films they didn't direct
    Top 10 films directed by actors (not in your list)