Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 15, 2015
Today on TCM, John Huston has a few movies on the schedule, including The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo. Not showing are any of the movies he acted in but he did both and did both well. Many actors also direct (Richard Attenborough, Robert Redford, Ida Lupino) and many directors also act (John Huston, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock) while others did both from the start and are so intertwined as actor/directors, it’s hard to single them out as mainly one or the other (Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton). Still, we have our preferences in all things in life and choosing between an acting career and a directing career might as well be one of them, too. When it comes to actors who only directed one or two movies, like, say, Lionel Barrymore or Charles Laughton, it’s an easy call so I won’t be talking about them. For others, it’s harder but clear preferences still arise.
I suppose the most difficult ones to deal with are the ones whose careers as actor/directors ran from the start of their career to the end. Choosing which I like better, Charlie Chaplin the actor or Charlie Chaplin the director, is a difficult task. I like both but more to the point, I feel both are connected inextricably. That is, I don’t think Chaplin the director exists without Chaplin the actor and maybe that’s why movies directed by Chaplin but not starring Chaplin suffered in comparison.
With someone like Buster Keaton, it’s easier. Despite many fun and energetic performances in everything from In the Good Old Summertime (which he directed part of without credit) to a time travel episode of The Twilight Zone, it’s his talents as director that win the day. His persona and comedic performances were great but his movies, on the whole, were even better. Or was that because he was in them?
Orson Welles is the easiest of all three. I love him as an actor but as a director he has always and continues to pretty much stun me with his talents. The cinematographers and editors changed from movie to movie but the look and pace stayed consistent, showing Welles’ hand in action for each of his films (all due credit to Gregg Tolland and Stanley Cortez due, but Welles is the connecting visual force from Kane to Ambersons). Keep in mind that in Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, Welles gives what I believe to be two of the best performances of the forties and fifties and I still think his direction outshines them both by a mile.
With actors turned director, I almost always favor the actor over the director. Richard Attenborough did very little for me as a director. I don’t see much in his directorial work that’s impressive and find much that detracts. There’s a scene in Gandhi that’s supposed to be powerful, a scene where he burns his i.d. card along with those of several others while a policeman beats him with a club. It should be powerful but it’s not. There’s a dull, almost lazy feel to the scene, where the camera work and editing feel more appropriate to a parlor room conversation, hanging there, observing, a couple of closeups and reaction shots, all perfectly respectable and acceptable but nothing giving fire to the scene. That’s Attenborough for me as a director, reduced to a single scene. He wanted to direct but didn’t quite have the passion, or feel for it. But as an actor, a completely different story. His performance in Seance on a Wet Afternoon is just amazing and his career as an actor is one I will never take for granted.
Robert Redford was a better director than Attenborough but not as good an actor. I like Redford in a lot of movies but, honestly, from Ordinary People to Quiz Show, I like him as a director more, and he hasn’t even directed that much! Too bad, I think he’s got a feel for it.
Ida Lupino I have to choose as a director simply because she took small films like The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist (which I wrote up here at The Morlocks) and made headway into the low-budget modern look of many of the indies that would follow in the sixties. Because she was a women fighting to get work as a director, at a time when Hollywood couldn’t care less (hasn’t really changed much there), she had to work with small budgets and limited means. As a result, her films have a rough and tumble feel that makes them less dated today than many of her bigger budgeted contemporaries. As an actress, I love her, too, but she works best as a director for me.
What about all the rest (and, yes, I will, naturally, leave out dozens, but that’s the comments are for)? Martin Scorsese hasn’t done a lot as an actor so obviously I’ll take him for his directing first but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed his acting in Taxi Driver and Quiz Show. Alfred Hitchcock obviously gets the nod for direction as well but his cameos and introductions to his tv show, as well as the trailers he made, are so entertaining I feel he could have been a successful entertainer on the stage had the movie career never worked out. And John Huston, who I mentioned at the top of this post, is another clear directing genius. Nonetheless, his performance in Chinatown is downright chilling.
Of course, there are too many director/actors to mention and some that started out as actors became so well known as directors that the lines later blurred. Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen both started fame in the public eye as performers but, by now, both are equally acknowledged as directors and have been for decades (I’ll take Eastwood as actor and Allen as director, by the way). When they decided to make the transition to directing, many people probably thought they were just another case of a star wanting more power with the old cliche, “I want to direct.” In their cases, it turns out they both had a lot of talent behind the camera, enough that they became thought of as directors first. When others do it, it’s not as successful. Either way, I welcome a director who wants to act or an actor who wants to direct. In fact, I encourage it, the better for me to decide which role I like better. As long as they realize which they’re better at, too, and move in the proper, er, direction.
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