It’s not rare for behind the scenes Hollywood talent to jump in front of the camera every now and then, but when someone primarily known for directing takes on a proper acting role, it can make a real impact on screen.
There are plenty of famous actor/directors who excel in both categories: Woody Allen; Mel Brooks; Laurence Olivier. There are plenty of actors who’ve successfully moved into directing: Robert Redford; Ben Affleck; Clint Eastwood. And there are plenty of directors who should never again be allowed in front of a camera: Quentin Tarantino; Eli Roth; M. Night Shyamalan.
But when certain directors (who may or may not have had some sort of acting background) take on an acting role, they can bring an incredible depth of understanding to their roles, as if being a director gifts them with the skills to make a performance really pop. It’s a concept more apparent in live theatre where such duties can be more fluid, but I love identifying it in cinema.
In this blog entry, I’m gonna highlight some of my favourite performances by people who are primarily known for directing.
The formidable, Oscar-winning (for Out of Africa) Sydney Pollack sadly died in 2008 but he left behind a staggering body of directorial work that includes such disparate films as Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The Firm (1991).
Pollack came out of a TV acting and directing background to make his cinematic directorial mark with films like They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969) and The Way We Were (1972). He hadn’t been on screen for decades when he stepped in front of the camera for his own film Tootsie (1982) to play Dustin Hoffman’s hilariously exasperated agent.
The performance garnered him good notices but it took Pollack ten years to take on another significant acting role, that of the second male lead in Woody Allen’s Husbands And Wives, and he knocked that out of the park.
Pollack engaged various acting roles over the following years and was rarely less than awesome (he’s particularly great in Eyes Wide Shut), but the one performance that really sticks out to me, and is the reason I consider him the gold standard for directors who act, is his role in the underrated 2002 thriller Changing Lanes.
As Ben Affleck’s boss and father-in-law, Pollack projects a chilling authority that I want to ascribe to his directorial mastery of the craft:
He rolled out similar work in 2007′s Michael Clayton, which he also produced. The world lost a great director when Pollack died. As much as I love many of his films, it was the acting I’ll miss the most.
Iconolastic Canadian auteur David Cronenberg has done a bunch of cameos but he’s also taken on several major acting roles. The one I particularly enjoyed is his performance in fellow Canadian Don McKellar’s gently apocalyptic 1998 drama Last Night, which I have been thinking about a lot lately due to its striking similarity to the upcoming Keira Knightley/Steve Carrell vehicle Seeking A Friend For The End of The World.
In Last Night, Cronenberg plays a power company employee calmly calling customers to reassure them that the electricity will remain functional until the world ends that evening for unspecifified reasons. He’s great.
While Cronenberg has admitted taking on acting roles helps develop his skills as a director, I love that he’s not above appearing in schlocky horror films like Nightbreed and Jason X. As a horror icon himself, Cronenberg can’t help but infuse such roles with layers of meta joy.
Legendary director John Huston (The African Queen) took on numerous roles over the years, but his most famous was when he played one of the most memorable villains in movie history – shady industrialist Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown. Polanski himself used to take on acting roles in his own films. He’s generally pretty repellent, but he’s great as the hood that slices Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown.
Spike Jonze (director of Being John Malkovich) displayed considerable onscreen charisma in his memorable supporting role in 1999′s Three Kings, but hasn’t shown much interest in acting since, outside of several cameos.
Paul Mazursky, the director behind Down and Out In Beverly Hills and An Unmarried Woman has a storied acting career that appears to have outlasted the directorial phase of his career. He’s appeared in everything from The Sopranos to Kung Fu Panda 2, but I’ve particularly enjoyed his recurring role as Norm, one of Larry’s golfing buddies in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Mazursky is one of many directors who cameo in John Landis’ 1985 film Into The Night. Although I should probably write a whole separate blog on notable director cameos, Into The Night feels worth singling out here as no less than seventeen show up.
Landis (An American Werewolf In London) has always enjoyed casting directors in cameo roles in his films (see Steven Spielberg in The Blues Brothers and George Lucas in Beverly Hills Cop III) but he took it to the next level with Into The Night, roping in everybody from Don Siegel to Jim Henson to Lawrence Kasdan. Landis himself also takes a small role and Cronenberg gets in there too.
German director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man; Rescue Dawn) turns up here and there (mostly in Harmony Korine films), and is apparently playing a significant antagonist in the upcoming Tom Cruise film Jack Reacher. Awesome.
What are some of your favourite acting performances from directors? Any you think should act more? Comment below!