Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Brief Guide to the Great Directors as Actors

And now for your amusement and edification, I present a brief guide to famous directors appearing in the films of other famous directors. It's been an interesting tradition in films that goes back, a long, long way, and there have been some interesting encounters over the years between one great artist and another. I'm putting aside those accomplished directors who are primarily known as actors, including Mel Gibson, Dennis Hopper, and Charles Laughton.

Then we have Orson Welles (The Third Man, Jane Eyre), John Cassavetes (The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary's Baby), Sydney Pollack (Eyes Wide Shut, Husbands and Wives), Clint Eastwood (The Dollars Trilogy), Lawrence Olivier (Rebecca, Marathon Man), and Vittorio de Sica (The Earrings of Madame De...), who were prolific actors both before and after they became directors. Their collaborations are fairly well known, and I don't think I need to put much emphasis on them here. And then there's Jean Renoir, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, R.W. Fassbinder, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and David Lynch, who often put themselves in their own projects, plus Alfred Hitchcock, who famously made a great game of it. For my purposes, let's set them aside too.

A borderline case that I include because it's one of the most celebrated is Erich von Stroheim, a director of such obscure early silent masterpieces as "Greed" and "The Wedding March." He took up acting after his directing career went bust, and is probably best remembered for playing Colonel Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion," and the sinister butler, Max, in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." Max, of course, was revealed to be a former silent film director, and brief clips of Von Stroheim's "Queen Kelly," starring "Sunset Boulevard" leading lady Gloria Swanson, were used to illuminate their past relationship and forgotten career successes. "Sunset Boulevard" also featured cameos from Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton.

Several other well-established, successful directors turned out to be very good actors once they took the plunge. John Huston began acting steadily in his later years, most famously appearing in Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" and Otto Preminger's "The Cardinal." Werner Herzog has popped up in some interesting places, including Harmony Korine's "Julien Donkey Boy" and just recently in Christopher McQuarrie's "Jack Reacher" as the villain. Ingmar Bergman recruited his idol, the silent film director Victor Sjostrom, to star in "Wild Strawberries," one of his very best films. And one of my absolute favorites in this category is Francois Truffaut, who made first contact in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Speaking of Truffaut, the French New Wave was at the center of a web of directors appearing in the films of their friends or devotees. Jean-Pierre Melville was very influential on the New Wave directors, and ended up in many of their films, including Jean Cocteaus' "Orpheus," Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless," and Eric Rohmer's "Le Signe du Lion," which also had cameos by Jean Luc Godard and Alan Resnais. Melville also appeared in Robert Bresson's "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne," and Louis Malle's "Zazie Dans le M├ętro" for good measure. Godard, paying homage to his major influences, put Fritz Lang in "Contempt," playing an aging, frustrated director. And he put Sam Fuller in "Pierrot le Fou" to explain what cinema was: "A film is like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.”

The urge to pay homage has had mixed results. There have been some bizarre one-offs like Martin Scorsese playing Vincent Van Gogh in a segment of Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams" and Quentin Tarantino as a gunslinger in Takashi Miike's "Sukiyaki Western Django." Wim Wenders decided to cast directors in all the gangster roles in "The American Friend," based on one of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels, and recruited Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray for the job. Then there are the ones where it's not clear if the appearance is for an homage, or as a lark, or just for convenience's sale. I'm not sure what Federico Fellini is doing as the bum in Roberto Rossellini's "L'Amore." Or why John Waters shows up briefly as a club owner in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown." Did you even notice George Romero playing an FBI agent in "Silence of the Lambs"? The short, funny stuff, like the Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz cameos in John Landis's "The Blues Brothers," usually worked best.

Otto Preminger was an interesting case, as he initially intended to pursue acting, but proved to be a much better director, and so he accumulated very few screen credits. His most notable parts were as the German warden in Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17," and two episodes of the "Batman" TV show as Mr. Freeze. I feel like Spike Jonze ought to be in the same category. Though he was a director from the start, there was a period early on where he was doing a fair amount of acting work, in David Fincher's "The Game," and as one of the leads in David O'Russell's "Three Kings," which eventually petered out. And of course we we all remember Sofia Coppola in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part III." She quit acting after that, but it's worth noting that she did have a bit part as one of Queen Amidala's attendants in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

And finally, we close with a project that didn't quite make it, but that I think still deserves a place on this list. Orson Wells' unfinished "The Other Side of the Wind," intended to be an ambitious Hollywood satire, would have featured John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Claude Chabrol, and a very young Cameron Crowe.
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