Max Evry October 1, 2013
Hollywood has a soft spot in its heart for movie stars who take up the bullhorn and yell “action,” with the common wisdom being that they’re around brilliant filmmakers all day and must have soaked up experience and wisdom to spare. Chances are they also know how to talk to actors.
Unfortunately, for every wunderkind like Clint Eastwood or Ben Affleck there’s a Johnny Depp or Eddie Murphy who, despite proven track records at the box office, couldn’t hack it in their single crack at the director’s chair. That hoary old cliché phrase “What I’d really like to do is direct” doesn’t always have a happy ending, which is perhaps what keeps mega names like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt from taking up the call at all.
Last week, up-and-comer Joseph Gordon-Levitt threw his hat into the directorial arena with debut effort “Don Jon,” and with generally positive reviews coming his way he could have a real career behind the camera ahead of him. Let’s examine 30 cases of thesps who only helmed one movie in the hopes that young Joe can avoid joining the one-and-done club.
This is the big kahuna burger of all single-serving actor-turned-director stories: 1955’s classic “The Night of the Hunter” as brilliantly crafted by classically trained Englishman Charles Laughton (“Mutiny on the Bounty,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”). The story of two orphans pursued by a maniacal preacher/serial killer (Robert Mitchum) with a thing for finger tattoos (“love”/”hate”) channels the aesthetic spirit of silent-era German Expressionism and D.W. Griffith, employing styles and, yes, actors from that part of film history (hello Lillian Gish) that had been outmoded for decades even then. The result is a film of ultra-potent suspense as well as stylistic assuredness, so much that you’d think Laughton had already made two-dozen movies. It’s just the one, though, partly due to its initial box office failure, as well as Laughton’s death in 1962. This is one of the most influential movies of all-time, making its mark on everything from “Badlands” to “Do the Right Thing” to “Undertow.”
If the “greatest movie actor of all-time” can’t pull off a directorial career then maybe we don’t want to live in this world. Revisionist western “One-Eyed Jacks” (Marlon Brando, 1961) was troubled from the get-go, with none other than Stanley Kubrick working from a script by Sam Peckinpah for over a year before both were given the heave-ho. Brando shot acres of footage, delivering a (unreleasable) five-hour cut butchered by the studio, though the final cut proved highly influential to the spaghetti western anti-heroes of Sergio Leone, and gave us the immortal line “Get up, you big tub of guts!”
“Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling” (Richard Pryor, 1986) gave a comic genius the chance to explore his storied life, from growing up in a Peoria, Illinois brothel to finding stand-up fame, right up to the whole “setting himself on cocaine fire” thing. Its elliptical narrative took cues from “All That Jazz,” proving a sensitive self-portrait of a volatile artist.
Naming the protagonist “Jet” was about the only autobiographical element in “Born to Defence” (Jet Li, 1986), and no that is not a typo that’s how the title is spelled. This Chinese-language World War II martial arts fare casts Li as the hero and those dirty Americans as bad guys, which probably made it difficult to market in the west.
Speaking of criminally underrated, “Quick Change” (Bill Murray w/Howard Franklin, 1990) is perhaps the biggest overlooked gem in the deadpan filmography of our favorite Ghostbuster. Murray successfully robs a bank dressed as a clown, but when he and his cohorts attempt to flee New York it turns into a Kafka-esque nightmare where they’re essentially reduced to panicked worms trying to wriggle out of a rotted Big Apple. A scene where two Latino men have a jousting match on bicycles is just one of many surreal dark comic touches in a brilliantly cynical film that gives the first flutterings of Murray’s later post-Wes Anderson blue period movies.
He may have been Chairman of the Board, but failed to function as a movie’s CEO: “None But the Brave” (Frank Sinatra, 1965) was a noble effort from the crooner to show World War II from both sides of the Pacific theatre, the first-ever U.S./Japanese co-production. The anti-war message predated many similarly-themed pictures years later, though ultimately suffered from wooden performances via its young cast, including future Bread frontman David Gates.
Before they were “Grumpy Old Men” Walter Matthau let the other half of their “Odd Couple” team direct him to an Oscar-nomination in “Kotch” (Jack Lemmon, 1971). Though in later years they wouldn’t need make-up to appear as cantankerous wrinkly prunes, Lemmon ultimately found his experience calling the shots exhausting.
Another grumpy old man made his long-time-coming directorial debut with “Bopha!” (Morgan Freeman, 1993), an affecting drama about a black police officer during South African apartheid who becomes involved with the movement to end racial injustice. Despite casting Danny Glover while still in his “Lethal Weapon” heyday, it barely cracked $200,000 bucks at the box office. Directing clearly doesn’t pay the bills like an occasional voiceover gig.
Riding the black filmmaking renaissance of the early ’90s, two major African American voices attempted to break out behind the camera with “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” (Martin Lawrence, 1996) and “The Players Club” (Ice Cube, 1998). One was a dark comedy based on a hit by The Persuaders where Lawrence is a ladies man who feels the fury of a woman scorned (Lynn Whitfield) while the other is a comedic thriller about a promising young girl who starts stripping for money at a club run by Bernie Mac. “Make the money, don’t let it make you.” Cube and Lawrence must have taken that advice to heart, since neither movie made mad bank, and Lawrence’s well-publicized hospitalizations coincided with his film’s production and release.
Ferris Bueller didn’t get any days off when he directed and starred in “Infinity” (Matthew Broderick, 1996) opposite Patricia Arquette, and scripted by his mother Patricia Broderick no less. He played Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who copes with his wife’s ultimately fatal tuberculosis while developing the Atomic Bomb at Los Alamos in the ’40s. This was an important but not all-encompassing aspect of Feynman’s classic book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” which is a work in desperate need of a more deft comedic touch (Barry Levinson would have been perfect) and a more anarchic leading man. Years later Broderick had a brilliant cameo on “Louie” where he directs Louis C.K. in an “all-Jew” remake of “The Godfather.”
Stark drama is the name of the game for two former bad boys of British cinema (who starred together in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”) as they made their lone directorial outings fairly close together: “Nil By Mouth” (Gary Oldman, 1997) and “The War Zone” (Tim Roth, 1999). Coincidentally they both featured prominent roles for the great barrel-chested Ray Winstone before he became such a “Sexy Beast.” Both films deal with dysfunctional families confronting taboo issues (drug abuse and incest, respectively) and were critically acclaimed, won numerous awards, and had a nearly identical gross ($266,130 vs. $254,441). Wait… are these the same movie???
Even though they both played The Hulk, neither “Keeping the Faith” (Edward Norton, 2000) nor “Sympathy for Delicious” (Mark Ruffalo, 2010) were all the rage with critics or audiences. “Faith” cast Norton as a downtrodden Catholic priest in a love triangle with his Rabbi pal (Ben Stiller) over the affections of a cute blonde woman (Jenna Elfman), yet the humor is never elevated above hackneyed rom-com gags stitched together on a wing and a prayer. Then there’s Ruffalo, the more robust Hulk, delivering an unpleasant dramedy about a DJ who takes to faith healing after becoming paralyzed. Winning points for a solid performance from real-life paraplegic Christopher Thornton (who also scripted), it caused intense controversy when it received Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival despite being roundly panned by critics. Guess they feared unleashing the beast.
Nobody had climbed to greater heights of fame and popularity than Eddie Murphy in the ’80s. He’d had a golden streak of hit after hit from his debut in “48 Hours” through “Coming to America”… and then he got ambitious. He said in 1985, “I’d like to produce, direct, write, score, and star in a film in exactly the way Charlie Chaplin did. I’ll do that before I’m thirty.” Thus 1989’s period comedy “Harlem Nights” was born. The potential was HUGE in teaming three generations of comedy legends in Murphy, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, but the art deco-drenched 1930s gangster antics were surprisingly flat, and Murphy’s typical charm toned down in favor of left-handed action sequences.
Murphy’s fellow SNL alum and “Trading Places” co-star fared even worse with the aptly titled “Nothing but Trouble” (Dan Aykroyd, 1991), a misguided horror farce where Chevy Chase and Demi Moore wind up trapped in a backwoods town run by an evil old judge (Aykroyd in disgusting make-up). Supposedly Chase knew this “was going to be the worst film he would ever make,” but did a solid for his buddy. The massive bomb marked a downward turn for the formally touch-of-gold creator of “Ghostbusters,” “The Blues Brothers” and “Spies Like Us.” Aykroyd’s other “Trouble” lead literally didn’t live long enough to see his debut fail with the posthumously released “Hostage for a Day” (John Candy, 1994), a George Wendt vehicle which by all accounts is nye on unwatchable.
Even though it was a Made-for-TV situation, any list of this ilk must include the movie that terminated the Governator’s directorial inclinations, “Christmas in Connecticut” (Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1992). If we told you that the star of “Total Recall” would make his debut in a movie with zero machine gun fire or use of human shields you’d blink, and if we said it was a cooking-themed holiday comedy starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson it might cause a myocardial rupture so big you could drive your hummer through it. It happened, though, and may prove more embarrassing than any housekeeper dalliances in Ah-nuld’s skeleton-lined closet.
Another ’90s action star whose head grew bigger than the explosions in his films produced the environmentally-themed action turn “On Deadly Ground “(Steven Seagal, 1994). King of the paycheck role Michael Caine slums it as the yin to Seagal’s deadly yang, playing a ruthless oil exec foiled by the martial arts master/fireman. The incompetence of this vanity vehicle peaks during a climactic 4-minute speech (!) Seagal delivers about the effects of big business on natural habitat -especially plankton- over shots of oil covered bird and bears. It was around this time that Hollywood execs realized life was too short to deal with Seagal, and let him live out his days as a decorated law officer in reality show peace.
Before he bombed as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” our swarthiest pirate bombed even harder while attempting to illustrate the plight of Native Americans in “The Brave” (Johnny Depp, 1997). Largely self-funded, the movie teamed him with Marlon Brando for a story of a poor dude who agrees to star in a snuff film in order to provide for his family. Of his decision to direct Depp said, “I should be commited to an institution immediately for even thinking I could get away with that. These two things [acting and directing] are opposing, they oppose one another.” Critics at Cannes were certainly opposed to “The Brave, panning it so hard Depp refused to allow the film to be shown in the States.
An equally eccentric thesp and longtime Depp pal took his shot at challenging those opposing forces with “Sonny” (Nicolas Cage, 2002), in which star James Franco puts on his best Matt Dillon face as a depressed gigolo working in his own mother’s brothel. What Cage was trying to say (or exorcise) with this film is beyond us, with Slant calling it “soulless” and “a rotten-to-the-core hookers-have-feelings-too dramedy.” There you have it.
As with “The Brave” some directorial debuts are so bad they should not be allowed to leave the lightless vaults their negatives are stored in, especially if it’s “Shortcut to Happiness” (Alec Baldwin, 2003). In a career that’s for the most part been a big victory lap (we’ll forget about “The Shadow” for now), this modern adaptation of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” was a true blue disaster for Baldwin, whose film suffered from lack of funding and a protracted release; it started shooting in 2001 and eventually hit STARZ channel around 2007, with Baldwin replacing his name with the silly nom de plume “Harry Kirkpatrick.”
The Oscar-winner who plays Daniel Webster in Baldwin’s misfire took his own crack at it with “Slipstream” (Anthony Hopkins, 2007), an experimental narrative that pokes fun at all sorts of inside-baseball Hollywood types. Thing is Hopkins must have been off his Ritalin when he edited it, since his cut confounded audiences at Sundance who couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. It wound up grossing just north of $8000-bucks domestically before presumably being sealed in a time capsule and buried so future generations can make sense of it.
Then there’s guys like a certain “Home Improvement” star who direct out of necessity, especially since no major director would want to work with them after something like “Wild Hogs.” So we get “Crazy on the Outside” (Tim Allen, 2010), which did just as poorly with critics and the ticketbuyers as one would imagine. “Santa Clause 4” negotiations no doubt began shortly afterwards.
THE NEW CLASS:
Finally there are the newcomer directors who have helmed something recently with enough promise that it warrants another chance at bat, like Drew Barrymore‘s all-girl roller derby flick “Whip It” (2009), or Michael Keaton‘s well received “The Merry Gentlemen” (2009), on which he replaced an appendicitis-suffering director Ron Lazzeretti right before shooting. A couple Hoffmans channeled their trademark intensity to amiable late-career debuts “Jack Goes Boating” (Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2010) and “Quartet” (Dustin Hoffman, 2012), the latter of which did surprising business with the AARP crowd.
If you’re looking for the next Ron Howard/Robert Redford-style Oscar-winner, though, you may look no further than Angelina Jolie, whose Serbian war drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011) caused quite a stir of critics proclaiming, “Hey, this broad can actually direct her brains out!” Or words to that effect. She has another project called “Unbroken” starring man slab Garrett Hedland and written by none other than the Coen Brothers, but lord knows what kind of adoptions or surgery could keep that from going forward. We’re pulling for ya, Angelina!
Only six out of the 30 actor/directors on this list are deceased, so technically there could be a bright filmmaking future for all of them. Hear that, Arnold Schwarzenegger? You can still direct and star in a remake “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and yes you can throw a phone booth during your filibuster scene.
Categories: FeaturesTags: A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Alec baldwin, Angelina jolie, Anthony hopkins, Arnold schwarzenegger, Bill murray, Bopha!, Born to Defence, Charles Laughton, Christmas in Connecticut, Crazy on the Outside, Dan aykroyd, Don Jon, Drew barrymore, Dustin hoffman, Eddie murphy, Edward norton, Frank sinatra, Gary oldman, Harlem Nights, Hostage for a Day, Ice Cube, In The Land of Blood And Honey, Infinity, Jack goes boating, Jack lemmon, Jet li, Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling, John candy, Johnny depp, Joseph gordon-levitt, Keeping the Faith, Kotch, Mark Ruffalo, Marlon brando, Martin Lawrence, Matthew broderick, Michael keaton, Morgan freeman, Nicolas cage, Nil By Mouth, None But the Brave, Nothing But Trouble, On deadly ground, One-Eyed Jacks, Philip seymour hoffman, Quartet, Quick Change, Richard Pryor, Shortcut to Happiness, Slipstream, Sonny, Steven seagal, Sympathy for Delicious, The Brave, The Merry Gentlemen, The Night of the Hunter, The Players Club, The War Zone, Tim allen, Tim Roth, Whip it