There’s a reassurance that instinctually accompanies a fruitful director/actor collaboration. As soon as we hear that one of our favorite directors is once again teaming up with one of our favorite actors, an immediate excitement takes hold. Even if we don’t end up liking their most recent effort, we take solace in the fact that they’ve delivered before, and will surely deliver again.
This is a good time to reiterate the purpose of lists on this site. Every single list on post here is simply my opinion. I would never insist that, for example, the 15 collaborations listed below are the 15 best director/actor collaborations of all time. These are simply my favorite director/actor collaborations. Which, of course, I hope you enjoy. And as there are many others to choose from, please feel free to share your favorite pairs as well!
15. Quentin Tarantino/Samuel L. Jackson
Why? Because Quentin Tarantino is one of the most uniquely influential screenwriters to ever grace the medium, and Samuel L. Jackson was born to speak his lines. Rufus… he’s the man.
14. Federico Fellini/Marcello Mastroianni
One could argue that the Fellini/Mastroianni collaboration occasionally produced weak results. But the way I see it, few films are more accomplished than La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. Two glorious examples of an actor and director exploring a new vision, and reinventing the wheel in the process.
13. Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon
Does absurdist comedy get better than Some Like It Hot? Does comedic desperation ever succeed The Apartment? Say what you will about Widler and Lemmon’s later films, their first two (or three, or four) are cinematic staples that will endure forever.
12. Wong Kar-Wai/Tony Leung
I love how Kar-Wai’s films have a way of just washing over me. They’re so poetic and beautiful, and Leung has proven to be the best possible facilitator to execute Kar-Wai’s fluid vision.
11. Paul Thomas Anderson/Philip Seymour Hoffman
I have no words. From the impossibly humorous way in which he shot craps in Hard Eight, to the coldly melancholic manner in which he sang “Slow Boat to China” in The Master, never was Philip Seymour Hoffman as consistently good as he was through Anderson’s lens. Rest well, fine sir.
10. Alfred Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart
This is career reinvention at its finest. Before his collaboration with Hitch, Jimmy Stewart was the good ol’ boy. The man who fought for us – who rallied our cries and sang our praises. Then Hitch turned him into an obsessive, manipulative, conniving asshole. And I loved every frame of it.
9. John Cassavetes/Gena Rowlands
John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands were married for 35 years, creating a lifetime of love, three children, and seven works of cinematic art. Rowlands’ work in A Woman Under the Influence remains the best female acting performance I’ve ever seen. What trust it must have taken to bring that character to life.
8. John Huston/Humphrey Bogart
How can you possibly pick a favorite? The Maltese Falcon is as potboiler noir as it gets, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre captures madness hauntingly, Key Largo is shamelessly entertaining, and The African Queen is a mix of both Huston and Bogart’s best qualities as artists. A genuinely impeccable collaboration.
7. Jean-Luc Godard/Anna Karina
Godard and Karina were lovers who carried the fire of their tumultuous marriage over to the big screen. A Woman Is a Woman is pop French New Wave at its finest, and Vivre sa vie… forget about it. Seldom has the plight of a woman been better realized on film.
6. Woody Allen/Mia Farrow
Given current events, it seems dangerous to talk about this collaboration today. But no matter the he said-she said family horror that these two suffer through, the 13 films they made together deserved to be remembered. For my money, movies don’t get much better than Another Woman, but as far as Farrow’s acting goes, The Purple Rose of Cairo is her crowning achievement. That final scene. That. Final. Scene.
5. Akira Kurosawa/Toshirō Mifune
Again, how the hell can you pick a favorite? Damn near all of the Kurosawa/Mifune films are classics, but I suppose Seven Samurai is the best evidence of their collaborative strength. The film remains, in a word, astonishing.
4. Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski
What I love most about the Herzog/Kinksi collaboration is that these two really, genuinely, truly detested one another. Since Kinski’s death, Herzog has been asked countless times why he continued to work with Kinski. Considering the actor’s erratic behavior, why not just cast someone else? “There was no one better,” Herzog often quips. A true testament to the work outweighing the personal bullshit.
3. Ingmar Bergman/Max von Sydow
This collaboration reads like a roll call of perfection. Together, Bergman and von Sydow made a handful of the best films ever committed to celluloid. Their work has been copied, parodied, celebrated and adored for more than half a century, and will continue to do as such. If you’re a fan of von Sydow, I highly recommend watching Shame, Hour of the Wolf and The Passion of Anna in quick succession. It’s basically a trilogy of Max von Sydow slowing going insane. And it is utterly mesmerizing.
2. Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro
This is the one we all talk about, and for damn good reason. Scorsese and De Niro started at the same time – developing their respective crafts together, from the beginning. Two New York kids who grew up two miles apart and connected at a time when they were both looking to change things. And boy, did they ever.
1. Ingmar Bergman/Liv Ullmann
For me, film collaborations don’t get better than Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. The films they made together have had such an indelible impact on my life – creatively, artistically, and humanly. The other day, I rewatched the masterful Passion of Anna and was reminded why I love film. The combination of Bergman’s experimental, patient style and Ullmann’s pained innocence is something I find endlessly compelling. And consider this: out of the 10 films they made together, I would rank The Passion of Anna eighth. That leaves a hell of a lot of room for greatness.
On Their Way
Steve McQueen/Michael Fassbender
Give it some time. McQueen and Fassbender will widely be considered one of the inarguable, all-time great film collaborations soon enough.
Fifteen More I Love
John Ford/John Wayne: 21 films
Ingmar Bergman/Bibi Andersson: 13 films
Richard Linklater/Ethan Hawke: 8 films
Wes Anderson/Bill Murray: 7 films
François Truffaut/Jean-Pierre Léaud: 7 films
Joel and Ethan Coen/Steve Buscemi: 6 films
David Lean/Alec Guinness: 6 films
David Mamet/William H. Macy: 6 films
Yasujirō Ozu/Setsuko Hara: 6 films
Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney: 6 films
Lars von Trier/Stellan Skarsgård: 6 films
Pedro Almodóvar/Penélope Cruz: 5 films
Nicole Holofcener/Catherine Keener: 5 films
Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio: 5 films
Spike Lee/Denzel Washington: 4 films