Thursday, 3 March 2011
When Directors Act (for Others)
Back in the day, directors stepping out in front of the camera to act was rare, saved for those iconoclastic directors who have a flare for dramatics. Or perhaps directors with the biggest egos, a little bit of both maybe. Orson Welles is the best example, directing and starring in his first film. His bombastic reputation was equalled by prodigious talent in front of and behind the screen.
His best and most well known performance directed by someone other than himself is Carol Reed’s post-war noir The Third Man. Playing the mysterious Harry Lime. He doesn’t appear until the second half of the film, only referenced numerous times as a dead man, and the reason why the film’s hero Holly Martins has come to Vienna. Lime’s and thus Welles’ appearance in the film comes as a great suprise. Welles’ self-written cuckcoo clock speech is deservedly a classic, same with Welles’ frantic chase through the sewers of the city, so dramatically shot by Reed.
Erich von Stroheim was also an early director who memorably appeared in other director’s films. Even more impressive than Welles perhaps, not only doing it inside and outside of Hollywood, but in two different languages. His performances as the artistocratic aviator in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is a classic, same with his iconic portrait as Norma Desmond’s butler in Sunset Boulevard.
Sydney Pollack just has a great voice, if he didn’t direct he would have made a great character actor. His gruff smoker’s voice and midwestern accent, and strong screen presence made him an ideal white collar bureaucrat. His fine character work in Tootsie and Eyes Wide Shut added strong sense of credibility to his roles.
Nineteen Ninety-Nine was a great year for Spike Jonze. Months before his Being John Malkovich garnered him a Best Director Oscar nomination for his first feature film, he played one of key supporting principals in David O Russell’s high profile summer action flick Three Kings. The film actually should have been called Four Kings, because Jonze’s character Conrad has equal weight and stake in the hero’s journey. Despite the fine performance it would be Jonze’s only significant appearance as an actor in a feature film (thus far).
Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica may be lesser known in North America, but the two-time Palme D'Or winner had shown to have a wide range of acting talent, acting in English and French, in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief and Patrice Leconte's The Widow of St. Pierre, most notably his lead role in Christian Carion's acclaimed spy thriller L'Affaire Farewell alongside another actor-director Guillaume Canet.
In lesser roles, directors such as Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg have had fun and memorable cameo roles in other people’s films. Cronenberg's touching performance in Don McKellar’s Last Night for instance, or his cameo in Gus Van Zant’s To Die For. Cronenberg seemed to make regular appearances in other horror films, thus lampooning his own predalictions for the genre, but since the 2000’s he’s stayed strictly with directing. Scorsese first had a remarkable acting debut in his own Taxi Driver, but later adapted well for Robert Redford in Quiz Show, Irvin Winkler in Guilty By Suspicion and Akira Kurosawa in Dreams.
Outspoken and larger-than-life 90's directors such as Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino have tested the waters outside their own films without much lasting success. For Smith, recently he's branched our farther than cameos sending up his persona, in legitimate comic relief roles in Catch and Release and Live Free or Die Hard. For Tarantino there was his title role in the forgettable Destiny Turns on the Radio in 1995 at the height of Tarantino-mania. But the most memorable performance in the worst movie of all listed in this piece is Tarantino's brief appearance at the end of the fogettable relationship drama Sleep With Me, taking a page out of Orson Welles' book writing his own memorable speech, discussing the homo-erotic undertones in Top Gun.