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Actor/directors: A brief history of the artistic and egotistic

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As Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, debuts at Cannes, a look at some notable actor/directors.

“Yes I am an actor, but what I really want to do is direct.”

This statement is probably the most oft-heard phrase spoken by baristas and waiters across Los Angeles, second only to “I have a screenplay…” So it comes as no surprise that many famous actors turn their hand to directing a film or two. Does this desire to direct stem from an impetus to create and shape stories for the big screen, or are actors merely driven by ego?

We consider actor/directors who appear in their own films to be egotists who want to control the very spotlight that they crave

Ryan Gosling seems determined to undermine his Hollywood persona by acting in some edgy films (see his collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn), and now he continues this trend with his first film as director. Lost River, which debuts at the Cannes Film Festival this year, looks to be a dark, surreal thriller with more than a few splashes of influence from his Danish mentor. Despite his popularity, Gosling has opted out of appearing in the film, possibly out of a desire not to detract from the story he wants to tell.

We differentiate actor/directors between those who appear in their own films and those who do not, considering the former to be unapologetic egotists who want to control the very spotlight that they crave. Certainly this can appear to be the case with someone like Warren Beatty, who has always starred in the films he directed, but even so, these became American classics in their own right because, despite any egotism on Beatty’s part, they are undoubtedly terrific films (yes, even Dick Tracy). Starring in as well as directing your own films might not be the sign of a massive ego, or at least it doesn’t have to get in the way of your talents as a filmmaker.

dick tracy warren beatty

 

Clint Eastwood has also starred in many of his own pictures. In his early directing career, Eastwood turned his on-screen cowboy persona inside out with some very dark westerns – then he put the whole genre to bed 20 years later with the Oscar-winning Unforgiven. In between, Eastwood became a classic journeyman director with unflashy but dependably solid films, who is still capable of the odd masterpiece here and there, even in his twilight years.

Takeshi Kitano distinguishes himself between his persona as a director and as an actor. There is no ego – he’s an entertainer doing what he does best

Takeshi Kitano, the Japanese comedian, game show host and politician, directs lyrical and explosively violent Yakuza films and stars as the main character in pretty much all of them. There is no ego here, as he is an entertainer doing what he does best. He even distinguishes himself between his persona as a director and as an actor, when he goes by the name ‘Beat’ Takeshi. Violent Cop, Hana-Bi and his samurai film Zatoichi always find ‘Beat’ in a pensive yet playful mood, whether he is contemplating the painting of a flower or shoving a chopstick through a gangster’s eyeball.

Barbara Streisand and Jodie Foster have made significant contributions to the art of acting and directing, but the actress they possibly owe the biggest debt to is Ida Lupino, who in almost 50 years starred in about as many films but also directed seven of them herself between the late 1940s and 1960s. A true trailblazer, Lupino’s films covered provocative social issues that were dear to her heart and often came in conflict with the strict censorship of the time; Never Fear (1949) was about a female tennis player who contracts polio, while Outrage (1950) tackled the very controversial subject of sexual assault.

More on film: Five great debut directors who made bad follow-ups

night of the hunter robert mitchum

 

Sometimes, though, an actor/director can make a film that goes horribly wrong. Beloved comedian Jerry Lewis did such a thing when he decided to direct The Day the Clown Cried, where he starred as a clown in a WWII concentration camp ‘comedy’. Anecdotally, the film is so wrong-headed and in such bad taste that Lewis, out of shame, had it completely buried and it has never been seen by the wider public. Whether this disaster was a result of an enormous ego or a complete lack of talent remains to be seen.

British thesp Charles Laughton never directed again, but his Night of the Hunter has taken its rightful place as an all-time classic

On the other side of that equation, there is renowned British thespian Charles Laughton, whose filmography as a director contains only one, albeit astonishing film, the gloriously dark masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. The film was rejected by critics and audiences of the time as they were not ready for such a relentlessly grim, yet ultimately hopeful fairy tale. Laughton never directed again, but the film has now taken its rightful place as one of the all-time classics of cinema.

Hopefully Gosling’s debut will be more Charles Laughton than Jerry Lewis – the early promo images and synopsis certainly suggest an influence of the former. But he has a wealth of films by actor/directors from which to learn from, whether they are masterpieces or complete disasters. Only time will tell which category Lost River will end up in.

 

More on film: Why director’s cuts are a bad idea

 

Featured image: Warner Bros

Inset images: Buena Vista; United Artists

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