‘But what I really want to do is direct.’
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read an interview with an actor who, in the process of dissecting the minutiae of their career, decides that if they could they’d prefer to create films rather than just perform in them. Actors will often lament a lack of control in the overall filmmaking process. The fragile ego many of them seem to be cursed with buckles upon the realization that it’s merely a small cog in the big wheel that powers the movie apparatus.
Of course, throughout the history of cinema these fragile egos have motivated many actors to move behind the camera with impressive results. The list is long and varied and includes: Woody Allen, Orson Welles, John Cassavetes, Charlie Chaplin, Vittorio De Sica, Ida Lupino, Nanni Moretti, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Jodie Foster, Takeshi Kitano, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Gene Kelly, Julie Delpy, Sydney Pollack, Quentin Tarantino, Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, Ron Howard, Dennis Hopper, Diane Keaton, Billy Bob Thornton, Sofia Coppola, Barbra Streisand, Ed Harris, George Clooney, Ben Stiller and Sarah Polley.
Each of these actors slash directors has a different reason why they made the move and I won’t be delving into all of them here.
But those worth talking about at some length made the move because they had something unique or personal to express that the craft of acting (alone) didn’t allow them.
Three titans of American cinema – Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), Orson Welles (1915-1985) and John Cassavetes (1929-1989) – made the move and repositioned themselves as Hollywood outsiders. Each in their own way innovated how stories are told with a camera, changing the imagery, grammar and sociology of film along the way.
Creative control and artistic integrity was their prime motivator. While Chaplin initially wanted a bigger salary than he was getting at Keystone, he also wanted much greater independence as a storyteller. Along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffiths, Chaplin founded United Artists film studio in 1919, to capitalize on this. Chaplin made his finest films during this period of freedom – The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). City Lights (one of my favourite films of all time) is particularly interesting as an example of Chaplin’s refusal to direct his films to the beat of Hollywood’s drum because by this time sound had been introduced. Chaplin rejected this new technology and made his greatest silent film featuring an exquisitely moving ending that is all the more affecting for its silence.
Welles transitioned to Hollywood from the theatre taking up what is often referred to as the greatest contract ever offered to an untried director – a two-picture deal with RKO Radio Pictures with complete artistic control over script, cast, crew and final cut (although to what degree he actually had control over the final cut of his films has been a long-disputed issue). After toying with a number of ideas including an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, RKO finally agreed on his third suggestion for Citizen Kane. Whatever you think of Citizen Kane (1941) it’s even more impressive when you realize that it was Welles’ first full-length film as (co) writer, director, producer and star, and that he was only 26 years old at the time. With Citizen Kane he was taking risks that few filmmakers were willing to take and setting the auteur theory that the French New Wave would later exalt into full-throttled motion.
Later in the twentieth-century, a great pioneer of American independent film presents us with a fascinating example of what it means to be on double duty as an actor slash director.
As an actor, John Cassavetes had roles in some big Hollywood films, including Edge of the City (1957), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) while he was simultaneously striking out for new territory on his own.
Impressed by the ethos of the French New Wave and dissatisfied with the Hollywood method of filmmaking, Cassavetes began writing and directing his own films, independently financing them with his acting paychecks and employing his friends and acquaintances as part of his own stock company that included his wife, Gena Rowlands, and actors Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. He was driven by the desire to know whether films could be made differently from the way he experienced them as an actor.
Speaking to Ray Carney, Cassavetes explained:
As an actor you don’t get the freedom to function the way you’d like to. I know I never got the lines I wanted under other directors. I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting around for a couple of years waiting for the phone to ring. It drove me crazy. So I found other people that it drove crazy too and we started working together. I started a workshop because I went crazy. It saved me from going off the deep end.
(Ray Carney (ed), Cassavetes on Cassavetes, 2001)
Cassavetes major films, Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), though scripted, were often improvisational in style and followed the naturalistic lighting, editing, camera and acting techniques of cinema vérité. As Carney notes,
Cassavetes pioneered a new conception of what film can be and do. His vision was of film as a personal exploration of the meaning of his life and the lives of the people around him. It was a way of asking deep, probing questions about the world in which he lived, and of asking others to question and explore their own experiences.
Later, excellent films, like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977) continued to push the envelope. Cassavetes carefully straddled a position both inside and outside Hollywood and left a legacy of challenging, truthful and uncompromising filmmaking that paved the way for the New American Cinema.
There are big actors too, superstars with careers littered with box office successes, who have picked up a camera so often now that the second phase of their career is defined almost exclusively by their role as director. Here, I’m thinking of Redford, Beatty and Eastwood. Eastwood, in particular, has found acceptance and respect within the Hollywood establishment as a director in the classical style, like few others in the actor/director club.
And then there are those, like Penn and Clooney, who move back and forth quite successfully between acting and directing. Clooney makes films that probe and promote his small ‘l’ liberal values. His second film as director, 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck is one of those polished, note-perfect evocations of another era, with style to burn, formidable dialogue and beautiful performances all round (including his own). In every way it feels like the work of a seasoned director; it’s Clooney’s finest foray behind the camera so far and ample proof that Gorgeous George is much more than just a handsome face.
Penn also wears his political views on his sleeve but his films as director have a much more personal feel. The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995), The Pledge (2001) and Into the Wild (2007) are highly accomplished slices of cinema (Penn also wrote the scripts for all but The Pledge) that reveal great compassion for characters living ordinary lives.
But unlike Clooney, Penn doesn’t do double duty in any of these films, remaining firmly behind the camera. These reprieves from the spotlight would seem to be a relief for Penn who despite repeatedly being named the greatest actor of his generation famously maintains a love-hate relationship with acting, declaring on several separate occasions that he’s through with it. During a short period of self-imposed exile from Hollywood in the early 1990s (before his highly acclaimed and career changing role in 1995’s Dead Man Walking), Penn claimed that acting is ‘basically tearing yourself apart for other people’s amusement.’ If it hurts that much you can understand why he needs to escape behind a camera from time to time.
I don’t know what drove Ben Affleck behind the camera but I’m glad he decided to go there.
Maybe it was the residue of his annus horribilis, 2003, the year of Jennifer Lopez (Bennifer) and his Golden Raspberry Award trifecta, Gigli, Daredevil and Paycheck. Or the faint echo of the mockery he received as the less successful half of the Matt & Ben show, the rapid rise he shared with best buddy Matt Damon after their screenwriting Oscar win for Good Will Hunting (1997) that suggested his star might crash with the same speed with which it rose. (Remember the spiteful, though hilarious sendup of their ‘bromance’ in the Off-Broadway play, Matt and Ben set in 1995, where the screenplay for Good Will Hunting literally falls from the sky and into their laps as they try to write in Ben’s messy apartment.)
And indeed Damon’s star did seem to rise with greater nobility than Affleck’s. Damon followed up Good Will Hunting with diverse roles in The Rainmaker (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), All the Pretty Horses (2000), Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its sequels, and then his starring role as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity (2002) and its sequels. He was also excellent in Syriana (2005), The Departed (2006) and The Informant! (2009). I have to say his comic turn as Liz Lemon’s pilot boyfriend Carol on 30 Rock is also pretty terrific stuff.
But Affleck’s post-Good Will Hunting resume offers a smattering of hits – Chasing Amy (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Hollywoodland (2006) – overshadowed by mostly misses – Armageddon (1998), Forces of Nature (1999), Bounce (2000), Reindeer Games (2000), Pearl Harbour (2001), The Sum of all Fears (2002), Surviving Christmas (2004) and Jersey Girl (2004). I won’t go on.
I’m not writing this to be cruel. I actually really like Ben. He’s handsome and very charismatic (as one critic has noted, he’s a ‘supporting actor trapped in a leading man’s body’). And I think in the right role he can be much better than just good. He definitely has screen presence. It just seems to me like he lost his way somewhere in the early 2000s, like he lost control of his career, what he wanted to do and how he wanted to be seen by audiences. Or maybe he just hadn’t figured it out yet.
Until 2007, that is. Ben stopped wandering in the Hollywood wilderness when he co-wrote (adapting the novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Eastwood’s Mystic River), produced and directed the crime drama Gone Baby Gone with his younger brother Casey in the leading role. There is something mesmerizing and haunting for me about this film with its dark and morally ambiguous territory. I think it was a really smart directorial debut for Affleck, a lifelong Bostonian, to make a film set in its underbelly. And it made sense for him to stay firmly behind the camera for this one.
But Ben can obviously direct himself better than most other directors have before. In his second expedition behind the camera, The Town (2010), his performance as career criminal Doug MacRay is solid and soulful from beginning to end. His performances have definitely matured since 2003. Similar in tone and style to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), The Town reveals Affleck’s talent for directing tense action sequences and for directing actors, coaxing excellent performances from his entire cast.
Clearly there is reciprocity between acting and directing – you learn about one trade from the other. Since becoming an actor slash director I’d say that Ben has taken on some really interesting roles in films where he is on acting duties alone. He is excellent in both State of Play (2009) and The Company Men (2010). Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder hasn’t opened here yet, but I am sure Ben rises to the occasion in what many critics are calling a bit of a ‘fiasco.’
My most recent cinematic encounter in the dark last weekend was with Ben’s third and most assured film as actor slash director, Argo.
Argo is a tight dramatic thriller that chronicles the real-life drama that unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran hostage crisis, when the CIA took on a covert operation to rescue six Americans who had escaped to the Canadian embassy.
It’s a classy film, entertaining and very, very funny in the parts where it pokes fun at the film industry (Alan Arkin and John Goodman are brilliant), and nail-bitingly tense in its final quarter even if it does maybe fiddle with the truth a little for the sake of a Hollywood ending. And once again Affleck, as CIA agent Tony Mendez, is outstanding – understated and solid, in the absolute best meaning of that word, he is the rock-solid core of his film.
I’m looking forward to seeing Ben’s next move whichever of his hats he’s wearing. So far it’s been a great second act. As one critic has said, ‘Your move, Matt Damon.’