Are actors who direct themselves on screen an asset or a liability to their projects? I ask this question in the wake of Motherless Brooklyn, directed by the actor Edward Norton, which came and went in the UK in the couple of weeks before Christmas, having received lukewarm reviews.
It is not a bad film, but is certainly a disappointing one. Norton directed his first movie, Keeping the Faith, a romantic comedy, back in 2000, and he has been developing Motherless Brooklyn for the screen since around the same time. You can easily see what attracted Norton the actor to the project.
The private detective protagonist, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette syndrome, and disability roles tend to be Oscar bait. But Norton also wrote the screenplay, transposing the plot of Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed novel from late-1990s Manhattan back to the 1950s, when urban planner Robert Moses was tearing down old neighbourhoods to create highways for suburban commuters.
Norton the writer was plainly channelling Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), another tale of urban corruption and murder that won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Robert Towne. Norton the writer gives his protagonist an implausible trans-racial love affair in which he rescues actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw as she saves his damaged soul. Although it offers some pleasures (art direction, broody jazz score), the limp grandiosity of Motherless Brooklyn stems from its unhappy alignment of actor, writer and director.
In the classic hollywood era, the actor-director hybrid was rare. It started in the silent era with comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Indeed, it has been a more common phenomenon with comedians than other types of actor, perhaps because their personae remain constant whereas actors often like to play vastly different characters.
Plenty of directors have performed cameos in their own movies, from Hitchcock’s trademark fleeting appearances to Martin Scorsese’s scene-stealing turn as the passenger contemplating the gruesome murder of an adulterous wife in Taxi Driver. But film data researcher Stephen Follows has crunched the numbers and concluded that “the actor-director hybrid is more commonly created when an actor becomes a director than when a director decides to come out from behind the camera”. Even so, straightforward actors who have made a career out of directing themselves have been few and far between.
Orson Welles was the actor-director par excellence. He yearned for creative control of every aspect of his projects, but Hollywood shunned him, in this respect at least, for most of his career. He played major roles in around a dozen of the features he directed, from Citizen Kane onwards, but was often preoccupied with chasing funds. Plenty of ambitious actors — Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, George Clooney — dream of doing an Orson. Some have soared, others have crashed and burned, and some have managed both (Beatty’s Reds versus his Dick Tracy and Bulworth).
The truth is that directing takes a lot of effort. The director will be subject to numerous questions and requests from dozens of different operatives, while the actor will often want to lock himself in his trailer and go over his lines or explore his Method persona. Indeed, some Method actors even demand, while on set, to be treated by all cast and crew as if they are the characters they are playing. How is that going to work when the lighting designer needs an instantaneous decision about a set-up? A director can only delegate so much to his director of photography.
Actors often can’t see the wood for the trees or else need reining in, while screenwriters may think too much in terms of highfalutin dialogue. If actors are cattle (as Hitchcock once famously said), how can an actor be expected to herd himself? On the other hand, if you are a star, why entrust your pet project to a director who might screw it up? Better the devil you know.
The most commercially and critically successful actor-director in modern times is Clint Eastwood, who started with Play Misty for Me in 1970. He has since directed 38 feature films, starring in 20 of them, ranging across the genres of western, thriller and comedy, while also starring in numerous films directed by others, though he has rarely allowed anyone else to direct him since the mid-1990s. He twice won the hat-trick of Oscars for best picture, director and actor, with Unforgiven (1993) and Million Dollar Baby (2005). He twice fired directors from his films — Philip Kaufman from The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Richard Tuggle from Tightrope (1984) — prompting the Directors’ Guild to introduce its “Eastwood rule”, which prohibits an actor-producer from firing a director and taking their place.
The Eastwood paradox is that while he rejects what he has called “the auteur crap” he nonetheless has a consistent directorial approach based on favouring location shooting over studio work, avoiding special effects, and relying on trusted editors and cinematographers, such as the late Bruce Surtees (known as “The Prince of Darkness” for his crepuscular lighting palette). Yet he also understands the collaborative nature of filmmaking and chooses to work with familiar cast and crew where possible. He directed himself as the elderly protagonist in 2018’s The Mule, but for 2019’s Richard Jewell, released here this month, he remained behind the camera.
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