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