Setting aside the vagaries of the box office, Ben Affleck appears to have gone two-for-two as a filmmaker, with his latest drama, The Town, scoring a 93% fresh rating on the review-tabulation website RottenTomatoes.com as of opening day. (To give a sense of how high that number is, the lauded blockbuster Inception currently carries an inferior 87% rating.) This sort of praise is quite a turnabout for a performer whose acting career includes such critical punching bags as Armageddon, Gigli, and Pearl Harbor.
Affleck’s behind-the-scenes work has always been more impressive than his acting output (he and Matt Damon won Oscars for writing their breakthrough film, Good Will Hunting), but his still-surprising emergence as a viable director makes him an exception to the rule: Most actors who try to become filmmakers deliver disappointing results. One cannot imagine, for instance, that the world breathlessly awaits the next cinematic statement from Drew Barrymore, whose 2009 directorial debut, Whip It, did okay with critics but flat-lined with audiences.
On the occasion of Affleck’s against-the-odds ascendance, therefore, it’s entertaining to ponder an obvious question: Does any single factor help determine which actors successfully transition to directing, and which don’t? A look at some of the great successes and failures in this arena offers a possible answer.
Note the strong connection between Affleck’s best onscreen moments and his directorial milieu. The movie that really put him on the map was Good Will Hunting, in which he played a streetwise Boston character, and both of his directorial endeavors-the first was Gone Baby Gone (2007)-have depicted streetwise Boston characters. This isn’t a matter of an artist repeating himself, but rather one of an artist identifying a milieu in which he thrives. And that seems to be the secret: The actors who move behind the camera most smoothly are those whose earliest filmmaking endeavors are elaborations of their onscreen personas.
A quick survey of Hollywood history supports the thesis. Among the first iconic actor/directors was Charlie Chaplin, who utilized his established Little Tramp persona, and/or variations thereof, in such early-cinema classics as The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). Chaplin had a masterful grasp of what audiences loved about his onscreen work, so he wisely blended his performance skills and his directorial abilities: Acting as the Little Tramp lured audiences, and pulling the narrative strings allowed Chaplin to explore thematic interests. More importantly, Chaplin utilized the innate strength of a great film actor, the ability to know what the camera will read when it photographs human beings, to infuse his pictures with effective performances, by himself and others. The bottom line to his successful transition is that the pictures Chaplin directed felt of a piece with those in which he merely acted; his transition was an organic continuation of his rise to stardom.
Orson Welles’ shift behind the camera was equally organic, even though he didn’t really have a screen persona before starring in and directing his towering debut feature, Citizen Kane (1941). Previously, he had only appeared in two short films. He did, however, have a public persona, based on his lauded stage work and the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938. Add the fact that the making of Kane was covered by breathless reporters amazed that “boy genius” Welles had been given the keys to the Hollywood kingdom, and Welles had a reputation as a larger-than-life figure. Appropriately, his first film was about a larger-than-life figure. Kane was not successful during its initial release, but it later earned legendary status. One can argue that Welles’ initial glory was dulled by the ignominy of his later career, but one cannot argue with the statement that Kane represents one of the most effective acting/directing balancing acts in movie history.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood and through to the late studio era, precious few actors made successful transitions behind the camera, but those who did reinforced the concept that a parallel between screen persona and directorial style is essential. Laurence Olivier built a screen reputation with literary adaptations including Wuthering Heights (1939), then won an honorary Oscar as the auteur of the Shakespearean epic Henry V (1944). Ida Lupino made her name acting in tough pictures like the crime thriller High Sierra (1941), then directed tough pictures such as the well-regarded noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Actor/dancer Gene Kelly took his first shot behind the camera by co-directing Singin’ in the Rain (1952), still regarded as a peak achievement in screen choreography and dancing. Jerry Lewis scored in dopey comedies along the lines of The Geisha Boy (1958) before emerging as a comic auteur with pictures like the original The Nutty Professor (1963).
Strangely, however, some seemingly can’t-miss transitions didn’t work. Burt Lancaster became a star playing virile types like pirates and trapeze artists, but his first directorial endeavor, The Kentuckian (1955), lacked the actor’s signature flair. And Charles Laughton, a flamboyant British thespian known for chewing scenery to delightful effect, made a stylized debut with the eerie horror fable The Night of the Hunter (1955), but the picture flopped during its initial release, only to be rediscovered well after Laughton’s death in 1962. Things didn’t go well, either, for John Wayne, who flopped with The Alamo (1960), then failed to learn the lesson of the phrase most closely associated with the battle that film depicted-instead of remembering The Alamo, he directed an even worse movie years later, The Green Berets (1968). All three of these actors operated roughly within the worlds of their screen personas-both of Wayne’s pictures, for instance, are characteristically macho-but none made the jump to viable directing careers.
Representing a dramatic transition from the rigidity of the studio era, John Cassavetes turned a middling career as a second-string leading man (most famously in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) into the financial foundation for an innovative directing career that produced such edgy pictures as Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Seeing as how Cassavetes is often credited with setting the template for American independent film, perhaps no actor has more brazenly collateralized Hollywood success in order to make un-Hollywood movies.
Acknowledging Cassavetes’ career as a historically important aberration, the die was cast for actors-turned-directors by the time the floodgates opened for untried filmmakers in the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In an explosion of artistic ambition, a horde of on-camera performers played to their acting strengths in order to secure directorial gigs. Onetime Rebel Without a Cause costar Dennis Hopper stuck to rebellious themes in the counterculture classic Easy Rider (1969). Woody Allen made his proper directing debut with the satire Take the Money and Run (1969), showcasing his nebbish persona and launching one of America’s most important filmmaking careers. Similarly, Clint Eastwood kept to his signature thrillers and Westerns for his first two pictures, Play Misty for Me (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973); obviously Eastwood has done pretty well for himself in the director’s chair since that time. In the Heat of the Night star Sidney Poitier played yet another righteously indignant avenger in his directorial debut, the offbeat Western Buck and the Preacher (1973), before diversifying with comedies like Stir Crazy (1980). Deliverance actor Burt Reynolds went back to the bayou with his first picture, Gator (1976), and Sylvester Stallone reprised his Italian-bruiser type by starring in his early efforts Paradise Alley (1978) and Rocky II (1979).
In other words, once the rules had become clear, those who played the game by the rules had a fair chance of successfully transitioning from acting to directing. As the ’80s ushered in the modern era, however, it became clear that those who defied the rules paid a steep price. For every Robert Redford, who complemented his thoughtful screen persona with the contemplative Best Picture winner Ordinary People (1980), there was a James Caan, who suppressed his macho vibe in the sensitive but unsuccessful drama Hide in Plain Sight (1980). For every Barbra Streisand, who put her celebrated singing voice front and center in the acclaimed Yentl (1983), there was an Anne Bancroft, who flamed out with Fatso (1980), a movie that neither featured Bancroft onscreen nor had any logical connection to her work in classics like The Graduate (1968). And for every Ron Howard, who cut his light-comedy teeth by acting on decades of sitcom episodes before scoring with light-comedy features including Splash (1984), there was an Eddie Murphy, who set aside the charm that made him a star and focused on violence for the crude Harlem Nights (1989).
By the end of the ’80s, in addition to those mentioned previously, some of the survivors who earned Directors Guild of America cards to accompany their Screen Actors Guild credentials included Warren Beatty (Reds), Albert Brooks (Lost in America), Danny De Vito (Throw Momma From the Train), Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek IV), Penny Marshall (Big), and Rob Reiner (The Princess Bride), while those sent back to acting after failing to become credible hyphenates included Emilio Estevez (Wisdom), Jack Nicholson (The Two Jakes), and William Shatner (Star Trek V).
Today, the Hollywood landscape is filled with actors who played the game right, even if sustaining directing careers has proven more difficult for some than initiating directing careers. To varying degrees of success, Peter Berg, Kenneth Branagh, George Clooney, Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Jon Favreau, Todd Field, Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, Christopher Guest, Ed Harris, Sean Penn, Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins, Denzel Washington, and Forest Whitaker are all viable actors-turned-directors, and the aforementioned thesis seems to withstand scrutiny during close examinations of their careers. Foster won her Oscars for starring in grown-up dramas, so she directs small films for grown-ups; Harris and Penn make pictures as serious and intense as those in which they perform; Washington’s Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters exude the mixture of charm, intelligence, and power that distinguishes his acting; and so on.
Ultimately, looking for a through-line that connects every successful actor-turned-director is a parlor game-the sort of parlor game that entertains movie geeks for hours upon hours, but a game nonetheless. That being said, it can be edifying to seek connections in mainstream entertainment; examining why some actors become successful filmmakers helps illuminate what made those actors fascinating in the first place, and the better we understand our cultural interests, the better we understand our culture. Luckily, the overview visible in this particular circumstance is flattering. With rare exceptions, the actors whom audiences have elevated to the rarified status of successful hyphenates are the ones with gifts for showing us something interesting about ourselves.
In the long progression of artists shifting from the front of the camera to the back, one sees venerable artists rooted in classicism and sophistication (from Welles to Olivier to Branagh), clowns with a nimble gift for satirizing social mores (from Chaplin to Allen to Guest), and seers capable of penetrating the veneer of polite society (from Cassavetes to Eastwood to Penn). The club into which Ben Affleck has just been granted admission is an exclusive one, and membership has been denied to such impressive figures as Alec Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp, Bill Murray, and Richard Pryor-each of whom directed only one unsuccessful narrative feature. Even luminaries Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and Kevin Spacey took multiple at-bats and struck out every time.
So the next time you marvel that yet another actor has stepped behind the camera, look at the history on the subject and you’ll realize that many have tried to make the shift, but only a few have done so successfully. Rather like those who excel in the subtle art of film acting, the great actors-turned-directors make it look easy.