DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: When Directors Act (for Others)

Thursday 3 March 2011

When Directors Act (for Others)

By Alan Bacchus

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.

The stories of director Otto Preminger's on set temper and tyrannical nature are legendary. His passion in life (he once had a relationship with burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee) matched his work on screen. Laura, The Man With the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent are some of his more famous works as director, but to many he's most recognizable as Mr. Freeze in the 60's Adam West Batman series. His greatest on role was no doubt in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 as the ruthless comandante, a role that perhaps mirrored the terrifying presence he was on set of his own pictures.

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.

The presence of John Huston in Chinatown has a similar effect as the presence of Welles The Third Man. He first appears as an old, deprepit and presumably innocent businessman questioned by Jake Gittes into the disappearance of Hollis Mulwray. Later Robert Towne, via Roman Polanski (another director/actor), reveals a darkness in his character no one ever could have predicted.

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.

The casting of Francois Trauffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps the most unlikely. After all, Truffaut barely spoke English, let alone having any association to the style of filmmaking associated with Steven Spielberg. Then again, maybe not, through his work with Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut began analyzing auteurs in Hollywood, including populist directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. If he were still writing into the late 70’s, he might have been lauding the work of a young Steven Spielberg. His performance as the sympathetic French scientist Lacomb, was a large role, requiring a tender side which Truffaut brought in spades.

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.


Mark said...

Woody Allen is another. Although he started out acting and moved to directing, he seldom acted for others once the transition was made. He did a voice in Antz and acted in Paul Mazursky's Scenes from a Mall with Bette Midler. Both films tried to exploit the Woody Allen persona.

Werner Herzog has acted in several films that were not his own as well including playing himself in Incident at Loch Ness.

Speaking of John Huston... He acted in Orson Welles unreleased Other Side of the Wind. You can view one of the scenes on youtube.


Mark said...

Other Side of the Wind with Peter Bogdanovich, another director/actor.

Alan Bacchus said...

Cool. Thanks for the additions Mark!

Anonymous said...

"The film actually should have been called Four Kings, because Jonze's character Conrad has equal weight and stake in the hero's journey." You need a deeper understanding of hero's journey as applied to film - suggest http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html