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Friday, February 1, 2013
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The Top 10 Actors Turned Directors

By Joey Magidson
Film Contributor

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I’ve always had a soft spot for films that are directed by actors. In one of my recent pieces, I spoke about how the Academy looks at actors who direct. Now, I’ll be continuing my interest by focusing in on which of these multi-hyphenates are the best at what they do.

By and large, the films that actors make when they choose directorial projects have some sort of significance for them or at least play to their strengths, so disasters are few and far between. This makes it a lot of fun to celebrate the best of the bunch, since I’m able to draw from a larger pool than you normally can when looking at one particular type of filmmaker.

I take some comfort in knowing that most films directed by actors tend to be at least decent, if not better. I see almost 300 movies in a given year (in 2012 I saw 290 in total), so I undoubtedly see a lot of garbage to go along with the gems, but the flicks that actor-directors put out almost never turn out terrible.

For this list, I’m going to be highlighting the top ten actors turned directors. This is as objective a ranking as possible, but I certainly am a big fan of most of them, and at least appreciate the rest. Multi-hypenates such as Jon Favreau, Mel Gibson, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner and Barbara Streisand could easily have been included too, but for different reasons they were left off. The ones below are going to be getting the royal treatment, but keep these other worthy filmmakers in mind as well.

10. George Clooney

When George Clooney is on as a director, there are few better than him in the game. He’s had some misfires, but by and large he’s become an A-list filmmaker while remaining a sought after and highly respected movie star as well. His debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was very interesting, and he’s gone from there to bigger and better projects. This year, he’ll be back in the Oscar race with the World War II film The Monuments Men.

Though Leatherheads isn’t anyone’s idea of a classic, I’d say that Goodnight and Good Luck certainly is. That was top-notch filmmaking, and while The Ides of March wasn’t a smash, it was still incredibly good in my book, too. Clooney knows how to make a great movie, and as he continues to direct, I’d expect to see him move up this list.

9. Kevin Costner

Few actor-directors are as ridiculed as Kevin Costner, but to reduce his output to mere puns is to miss just how talented he’s shown himself to be. Look at Dances with Wolves, a terrifically crafted work that showed the Costner’s directorial skill. He’s never come close to matching it, but he’s certainly a better filmmaker than he seems to be given credit for these days.

The debacle of The Postman, coming on the heels of his uncredited directorial work on the boondoggle Waterworld, seems to have taken away Costner’s taste for directing. He did do a very solid Western in Open Range, but it’s been almost a decade since he’s stepped behind the camera. I for one hope he gets over this and tries his hand again at it, since Dances with Wolves is still such fine filmmaking.

8. Warren Beatty

He’s more or less given up directing (though he’s supposedly working on a new project), but Warren Beatty was one of the very best actor-directors of his time. His four directorial efforts are by and large well respected (give or take Dick Tracy), and his debut Heaven Can Wait was a real hit with the Academy. Beatty knows how to make a movie that appeals to both viewers and voters.

He certainly changed pace with his last film Bulworth, but Reds is a stunningly good movie and an undisputed classic. Few filmmakers could have gotten that flick made, but Beatty was able to do it. If he winds up making another movie at some point, you can be sure that I’d be there for it.

7. Ben Affleck

In a few years, I think Ben Affleck will be much higher up on this list. In fact, when he calls it a career, I’m actually fairly confident that he’ll be known as one of the very best actors turned directors, if not the best. Three-for-three as a director now, he’s also managed to rehabilitate his previously damaged acting career by stepping behind the camera. Affleck is an A-lister again, but for all the right reasons.

Gone Baby Gone surprised people with its strength as a debut, and The Town was another step up. Argo, however has managed to become a huge hit, both with audiences and Oscar voters. Affleck is now in the stratosphere and courted for just about every project out there (just look at how he was up for the Justice League, Man of Steel, and Star Wars: Episode VII jobs), but more importantly, he can now choose whatever project interests him. He has the type of clout that only a handful of directors in Hollywood currently have.

6. Robert Redford

While his recent output has left something to be desired, Robert Redford is still an actor and director to be reckoned with. From his debut Ordinary People to his soon-to-be-released flick called The Company You Keep, Redford makes the films that interest him, and he can usually make them pretty damn good as well.

Occasionally Redford can get caught up in making a message movie, but when that doesn’t happen, we get products like the aforementioned Oscar winner Ordinary People or Quiz Show. From creating the Sundance Film Festival to these well-honored films, Redford is a true multi-hyphenate who’s not content to just be one thing.

5. Ron Howard

A master of a certain type of film, Ron Howard pretty much gave up acting to pursue directing, and regardless of what you think of him, it’s hard to argue that wasn’t a terrific decision. From his early comedy hits like Splash to his Oscar winners like A Beautiful Mind, Howard has shown that he’s capable of handling almost any project that comes his way. His impending new film Rush could certainly be an interesting genre entry for Howard, if not more.

Yes, there have been some duds in his filmmography, especially the recent misfires Angels and Demons and The Dilemma, but by and large Howard makes truly good movies. Anyone who’s directed Apollo 13, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon is allowed an off day here and there. Howard isn’t exactly a sexy director, but he’s one of the better ones that we’ve got.

4. Clint Eastwood

I’ve found the recent output of Clint Eastwood to be severely mediocre at best, but the legendary film figure has also crafted some of the better Best Picture winners of all time, at least in my book. Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven are his high points, but he even started off well with Play Misty for Me. Eastwood has been a driven filmmaker at times, and when the semi-retired actor has that fire in his belly, well … the results are simply better.

For all the fault that some (including me) can find with the likes of Gran Torino, Hereafter and J. Edgar among his more recent failings, Eastwood is still the man who crafted Letters from Iwo Jima and Mystic River. He was consistently on the way up with his early genre works and then hit it big with Unforgiven, which led to more mixed success. He hasn’t made a real great film in some time, but he’s still a legend and certainly has one more classic in him.

3. Woody Allen

He may really only act in his own films, but personally, Woody Allen is my all time favorite actor turned director. From his early laugh riot comedies to his Oscar-winning dramedies, all the way to his recent European re-invention, Allen is not only a prolific filmmaker, but he’s a master of the craft as well. Anyone who has Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Sleeper on the resume is a cinematic god in my book.

I happen to think even the worst Allen movies are still decent (except maybe The Curse of the Jade Scorpion … yes, I even think Anything Else is criminally underrated), but the best films of his are absolute classics. With over 40 directorial efforts to his name, he’s easily made at least 25 really good movies, if not more. How many directors can boast that, let alone actor/directors?

2. Orson Welles

Take away the final years of Orson Welles’ cinematic life — the ones when he was easy to make fun of — and it’s easier to focus on the amazing achievements that he made as a filmmaker early on. Welles made a directorial debut that’s simply impossible to match: a little flick known as Citizen Kane.

Welles was a giant of the industry, and if his post-Citizen Kane output was never able to match that incredible beginning, he’s still someone whose work is downright humbling. The man is the epitome of a legend and one of the very best actors turned directors ever. There’s absolutely no denying that one.

1. Charlie Chaplin

A true revolutionary figure in film, Charlie Chaplin was not only a top-notch actor, but he was one of the best directors of his time as well. People rightfully love his acting skills, but not enough people recognize his talent behind the camera. Between shorts and features, he has over 70 directorial endeavors to his name, many of which are among the best of the cinema’s early history.

Chaplin made more shorts than features, but of the latter category he has a trio of history’s great works. City Lights, The Great Dictator and Modern Times mix comedy and drama with an expert hand. They’re massively entertaining, but they’re also exquisitely made. Chaplin is certainly a legend, but he’s also just plain and simple the best director to ever come from the game of acting.

As you can see, all of these talented individuals have a lot to offer the cinematic universe. They’ve made a ton of classics, and if there’s a bomb here and there in the bunch, well that’s just the price of ambition and greatness. As good as they all are as actors, directing is where their true talents reside.

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  • randall gerber

    you forgot jerry lewis,buster keaton,mel gibson and gene kelly.

  • Rachel

    Great list! Love your #1.

  • Long_Live_Kubrick

    I love most of your list but I just have one reservation…how does Warren Beatty (as much as I admire him) get on this list before Mel Gibson considering their track record? Just an opinion and nothing more.