At the age of 40, Ben Affleck has already enjoyed one of the most varied – and enviable – careers in Hollywood. After co-writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting in 1997, he quickly established himself as a bankable leading man, starring in such blockbusters as Armageddon, Pearl Harbour and Daredevil. More recently, he has sought to add directing to his long list of talents, with the highly acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town typifying his penchant for making intelligent action thrillers.
Yet Affleck is by no means the first A-list actor to have turned his attention behind the camera. Just this year Angelina Jolie released the Bosnian war drama In the Land of Milk and Honey, while iconic stars like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford began their directing careers in the early 1980s. As Affleck’s third feature film, Argo, hits UK cinemas this week, it’s therefore interesting to reflect on the long tradition of the actor-director.
Instances of performers taking control of film productions can be found in the very earliest days of cinema. In the silent era, undoubtedly the most successful examples were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose megalomaniac tendencies often caused them to singlehandedly write, direct and score their slapstick comedies. Even during the Golden Age, when stars were put under strict contracts, there were a few who managed to carve out careers as actor-directors. Legendary figures such as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, for example, both began their careers acting and directing in the theatre before going on to make some of the most renowned films of all time.
That said, it wasn’t until the decline of the studio system, that actor-directors became increasingly common – especially in the independent sphere. Indeed, throughout the 1970s, well-known stars like Dennis Hopper, Woody Allen and John Cassavetes began ranking amongst America’s leading auteurs. Nowadays, of course, it’s common to find many famous actors directing major tentpole movies, with Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh and Sylvester Stallone having all helmed expensive blockbuster franchises in recent years.
Without a doubt, the majority of actors who turn their hand to directing do so for the greater creative control it affords. Discussing his decision to make Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney has explained how it gave him the opportunity to push his own artistic limits and tell the kind of stories that he felt were being neglected by the main studios. Similarly, despite directing twelve acclaimed features, veteran actor Richard Attenborough has said he really only became a director so that he could make just one film: his epic biopic Ghandi.
On the other hand, there are some actors who see directing as a necessary career move. Sydney Pollack, for example, famously quipped that nobody would hire him as an actor, so he had to become a director in order to hire himself. Additionally, former actors Ron Howard and Sofia Coppola have stated that performing was never their primary interest, but proved a good segue into writing and directing their own films.
But whatever motive drives them, making the transition from actor to director can be hard. Perhaps the biggest single problem encountered by first-time actor-directors is an inherent misunderstanding of basic film grammar. Indeed, having not spent time learning their craft at film schools or producing their own low-budget shorts, many actors will simply turn up on set without a clue about cinematic storytelling. Madonna, who’s directing somehow manages to outdo her truly abysmal acting, is a classic example of this; her disastrous directorial debut, 2008’s Filth and Wisdom, was shot so incoherently that it’s astonishing she was allowed to inflict WE on audiences last year.
Making matters worse, many actors have no idea about what constitutes a clear and engaging narrative. Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights perfectly demonstrates this tendency. Written, directed and starring the comedy genius himself, it was widely lambasted as one of the worst films of the 1980s due to its bloated script and shambolic direction, which failed to realise a major cinematic principle: comedy lives in the wide shot. It serves as a clear indicator, then, that some actors are afforded too much control by studio heads who hope that big names will equate to big bucks.
Yet it would be wrong to imply that all actors make poor directors. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the majority of actors make perfectly good – often excellent – directors. After all, while Madonna and Murphy appeared to have tried directing on a whim, the likes of Eastwood and Redford have clearly learned from their encounters with master directors in their youth. Eastwood, in particular, owes much of his style to Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, both of whom were thanked during the end credits of Unforgiven.
Furthermore, as is perhaps to be expected, actor-directors are generally able to glean some excellent performances from their casts – and even themselves. Just think of such films as Million Dollar Baby, Annie Hall and The Ides of March – all superb movies that boast first rate performances from both their actors and director. As such, Hitchcock may have asserted that they should be treated like cattle, but it seems that a more empathetic and supportive approach can bring out an actor’s best work.
Ultimately, then, it would seem that the actor-director is a force for good. While there are some such as Robert De Niro, who undoubtedly make better performers, it’s for the benefit of cinemagoers that they should be allowed to step behind the camera ever once in a while. It’s still early days at the moment, but it’s not inconceivable that Affleck could be the next actor to win the coveted Best Director Oscar. I, for one, wouldn’t rule it out.