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Weekend Roundtable: Best and Worst Actor/Directors

They say that every actor wants to direct. Quite a few directors have also attempted to act. (This week, even Tyler Perry makes a bid for action stardom.) Some have pulled this double-duty off better than others. In today’s Roundtable, we investigate some of the best and, sadly, some of the worst actor/directors.

Daniel Hirshleifer

Best: Orson Welles is one of America’s great artists. Most people know him mainly from ‘Citizen Kane‘, and while that film is rightfully heaped with praise, it alone doesn’t do justice to the breadth of the man’s talents. Even before his film career, Welles was hailed for his innovative theatrical stagings at the Mercury Theater, and was infamous for his 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast that some people mistook for a real news report. Of course, his abilities as both a director and actor are amply on display in ‘Kane’. While circumstance dictated that Welles would never reach those heights again, he still remained a vital presence both in front of and behind the camera. Whether it be the near masterpiece ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ or his Shakespearean adaptations, Welles was always an innovative filmmaker. Even his unfinished projects are more interesting than most completed films. As an actor, he had an incomparable screen presence. Just look at his turns in ‘The Third Man‘ or ‘A Man For All Seasons’ as proof. You can’t take your eyes off him whenever he appears.

Worst: M. Night Shyamalan, on the other hand, is one of the worst directors working in cinema today. While he showed promise with ‘The Sixth Sense‘ and ‘Unbreakable‘, he quickly descended into self-parody. Many people like ‘Signs‘, even though it had several glaring flaws, the most obvious of which was that Shyamalan had written himself into the film. Granted, it was only a minor role, but Shyamalan was terrible in it and looked like a complete amateur when sharing the screen with a veteran like Mel Gibson. He then wrote an even bigger role for himself in ‘The Village’, as an unnamed guard who might as well have been called “Mr. Exposition.” The final straw came with ‘Lady in The Water‘, where Shyamalan literally made himself the messiah. It was an astonishing act of hubris that was almost as audacious as the movie was terrible. I can’t put it any better than Sean Barnes did in the Philadelphia Weekly: “…watching the movie feels a bit like walking in on your roommate while he’s masturbating… to a picture of himself.” I’m sure that Shyamalan believes he’s the second coming of Hitchcock and, like the old master, thinks it’s clever to put himself in his films. The difference is that Hitchcock had brief cameos, but even when he would introduce stories in ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ or his own film trailers, he had charisma, dry wit, and the ability to deliver lines with more intonation than a wooden board. Shyamalan possesses none of these traits, and has a hard time resisting yet another chance to stroke his ego.

M. Enois Duarte

Best: When it comes to the best actors-turned-directors, George Clooney is one that I really want to see more from, because he’s actually pretty damn good at both jobs. With all due respect to Charlie Kaufman (by far my favorite writer working in Hollywood today), I like the way Clooney directed ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind‘. Clooney then proved himself a genuine filmmaker with the amazing bio-drama ‘Good Night, and Good Luck‘. He doesn’t have a style that necessarily stands out as particularly unique, but he knows how to capture the moment and imbue a great of emotion through his straightforward approach. ‘Leatherheads‘ is a mostly forgettable sports comedy, but Clooney struck back hard and with stunning force in last year’s political drama ‘The Ides of March‘. His strengths lie in drama, and he needs to do more of them.

Worst: For worst, I can’t help thinking of William Shatner and the sad mess that became ‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier‘. The guy had some moderate success behind the camera during his ‘T.J. Hooker’ years, but when it came to a 100-minute feature, he didn’t know diddly-squat. I’ll admit that the story about the search for God, which was also conceived by Shatner, is actually intriguing and has several fascinating thoughts. The problem is that Shatner does a terrible job of pulling off something so vastly abstract and complex. His good ideas sadly went to waste.

Shannon Nutt

Best: There was a time not so long ago when Ben Affleck was the punchline to many a Hollywood joke. Although he found himself attached to more than a few box office failures as an actor (including the disastrous ‘Gigli’), he’s always been a solid performer, even when given sub-par material. However, even the biggest fans of Ben (myself and Kevin Smith included) couldn’t have foreseen the kind of quality we’d be treated to when he took the reins as a director. His first feature-length film, ‘Gone Baby Gone‘, was good. His next, ‘The Town‘, was really good. Now comes ‘Argo‘, which – I’m just going to say it – is easily the best movie (so far) of 2012. Oh, and although it’s not a topic we’re examining here, need I mention that Ben also wrote two of the three movies he’s directed? (‘Argo’ is from a screenplay by Chris Terrio.) Ben Affleck already has an Oscar for writing. By this time next year, he may have one for directing as well.

Worst: There are, however, no gold statues anywhere in the future for Peter Berg, a decent actor who has done little more than cashed a paycheck (and spent more than his fair share of studio money) in the director’s chair. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have any directorial skills. One need only to look at the visuals provided in movies such as ‘The Rundown‘, ‘Friday Night Lights’, ‘Hancock‘ or (most recently) ‘Battleship‘ to know that Berg is no novice behind the lens. But what he provides in visuals he totally lacks in storytelling. In movie after movie, he provides audiences with cardboard cut-out characters that the viewer can put no emotional investment into. Berg seems to excel at the technical side of directing (i.e., visual effects, action, etc.), but has no clue how to pull good performances out of his actors or tell cinematic stories with any depth or meaning. Berg is often compared to Michael Bay in style… and Mr. Berg, that’s NOT a compliment!

Brian Hoss

Best: Kenneth Branagh worked his way from the British theater to successful acting and directing in a number of movie gems. ‘Dead Again’ is a favorite of mine, but most people will know him for his excellent Shakespeare adaptations, or perhaps as one of the British all-star cast in either ‘Valkyrie‘ or the ‘Harry Potter’ movies. Having worked on the stage and in television for so many years, he seems to know how to get the most out of a cast and a production budget, as well as how to balance a plot and characters in a way that the audience will be compelled to watch. I give him all the credit for turning a dud comic book character like ‘Thor‘ into a surprise success, complete with characters that we cared about. I wish he could do the same for a DC property like ‘Wonder Woman’. I blame Helen Bonham Carter for derailing his career for so many years. We can only hope that his current project, ‘Jack Ryan’ (which sounds more like ‘xXx: State of the Union’ than Tom Clancy), will have enough grounding to be taken seriously.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Best: You might not expect that a guy who spent just about the entirety of the 1970s being called “Meathead” would make it big on the other side of the camera, but that’s exactly what happened to Rob Reiner. After ‘All in the Family’ went off the air, Reiner reinvented himself as a director. For quite a while there, pretty much everything he touched wound up being a near-instant classic: ‘This Is Spinal Tap‘, ‘Stand By Me‘, ‘The Princess Bride‘, ‘When Harry Met Sally…‘, ‘Misery‘ and ‘A Few Good Men‘, one after another after another. Those that didn’t find an audience in theaters more than made up for that on cable and home video.

Worst: …and then came the universally-reviled ‘North’, the disaster that inspired Roger Ebert’s legendary “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie” rant. Reiner has had a couple of hits since then, most notably the commercial juggernaut of ‘The Bucket List‘, but his filmography for the past couple of decades is mostly littered with tepid reviews and indifferent box office receipts.

Still, when I think of my favorite actors-turned-directors, Reiner’s name is among the first that springs to mind. ‘North’ makes it pretty tempting to chalk him up as one of the worst too, but Reiner’s prolific enough that a course correction isn’t out of the question. His next project will mark the director’s return to the thriller genre in more than twenty years.

Josh Zyber

Best: As a movie star, Clint Eastwood has had an incomparable career. From Spaghetti Westerns to “Dirty” Harry Callahan, and many more before and since, the man has earned his status as an icon. Amazingly, he’s also incredibly talented as a director. I’m continually impressed with his craftsmanship and steady hand with drama. Maybe I’m just an apologist at this point, but I’ve found a lot to admire even in lesser recent works like ‘Invictus‘ or ‘Hereafter‘.

Honorable Mention: Our site editor Mike Attebery is on vacation this week. In his absence, I’ll toss a shout-out to his boy Woody Allen.

Worst: As much as I love Quentin Tarantino’s movies, the man really needs to stop putting himself in them. His scenes in ‘Pulp Fiction‘ grind the film to a halt. He’s even totally unconvincing in his small role as a bartender in ‘Death Proof‘. Great director, terrible actor.

10 comments

  1. Alex

    One of the classics (and the obvious inspiration for Mr. Branagh) is Sir Laurence Olivier. Marvelous actor, superb director. Even if his Shakespearean work is a bit on the classical side and doesn’t quite jive with modern Shakespearean interpretations, it’s marvelous stuff.

  2. Mike Attebery

    Thanks Josh! Woody Allen for sure!

    Worst… hmmmm…I’m gonna go with someone I mention a lot when it comes to sh!tty movies..Jay Chandrasekhar. Nothing worse than an unfunny man who thinks he’s hilarious.

  3. JM

    Even though crazy-beard Mel Gibson is concurrently blacklisted, ‘Braveheart’ is the best.

    (Branagh is my 1st favorite, but he was taken by The Hoss.)

    Jon Favreau, Ben Stiller, and Sydney Pollack are my runners-up.

    Worst is Ron Howard. That dude sucks.

    Chaplin and Gene Kelly are on the to-do list.

    • That is especially funny after thinking Clint Eastwood! and whomever that idiot was who helmed ‘the Room,’ I thought about how much I was impressed by ‘The Man with No Face’ some twenty years ago, but I can never get over how Mel Gibson impaled a US Senator with an American flag during his Simpsons remake of ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington’ only to later do something similar during the climax of ‘the Patriot.’

    • JM

      If Angelina Jolie directed ‘Cleopatra’ instead of UNICEF porn she could totally become the female Clint Eastwood.

      We should probably give a Sieg Heil! to Leni Riefenstahl.

      Sofia Coppola’s ‘Bling Ring’ I’m hoping will be as sexy as it sounds.

  4. Barsoom Bob

    Orson Wells , Woody Allen they broke rules, influenced cinema.

    Pollack was a good director and good actor.

    Can we qualify theses two directors for their acting cameos:

    Alfred Hitchcock > Almost every movie he made.

    David Lynch > Radio operator on the doomed spice harvester in Dune.

  5. Tuggy Blumpkins

    A few of my favorites that haven’t been mentioned…

    Peter Bogdanovich: for The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon alone.

    Spike Lee: wildly inconsistent, but he’s made at least 3 classics and isn’t too bad of an actor.

    Spike Jonze: has been more inventive and creative with 3 films than most filmmakers can hope to be in their careers.

    Charles Laughton: veteran screen actor, and director of just one film – Night of the Hunter. Thematically and stylistically well ahead of it’s time, it’s one of my favorite films and arguably the best directing debut by an actor.

    I would also argue that Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz), Todd Field (In The Bedroom, Little Children) and Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, NY is a personal favorite) have the potential to leave a substantial mark on cinema.