Roman Polanski's recent supporting role in Brett Ratner's Rush Hour 3 raised more questions than the film itself ever could. What could that dynamic have been like? How could one of the world's greatest directors have taken orders from one of the world's worst? We know from previous films (The Fearless Vampire Killers, Zemsta, etc.) that Polanski has a yen for acting, even if his skills in this arena run toward broad, rather than subtle. Likewise Kevin Smith working for Len Wiseman in Live Free or Die Hard. Would Smith have made suggestions on how to make the movie nerdier? It got me thinking about the many directors who have performed for their colleagues, and the very interesting dynamics they created. The following are the seven best and/or most interesting combos. I've only included people who are primarily known as directors, as opposed to actor-directors, like Jackie Chan, George Clooney, Denzel Washington, etc.. I've also left out glorified cameos (Steven Spielberg in The Blues Brothers) and jokey appearances (Samuel Fuller in Pierrot le Fou). Finally, I've excluded Quentin Tarantino, whose lack of thespian skills is unquestioned. (Though I would have loved to have been on the set of Spike Lee's Girl 6 the day those two crossed paths...)
1. Orson Welles in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949)
This is the most obvious one; the Big Guy's presence as Harry Lime has led generations of moviegoers to believe that Welles actually directed this movie. Certainly his fingerprints are on it. He spoke often about building up to the first appearance of a character by having other characters talk about him long before we actually see him. Welles managed to do this with his Rochester in Jane Eyre (1944), and even more memorably here. We know all about Harry Lime before those lights unexpectedly splash on his face and he lets slip an amused smile. Reportedly, the famous "cuckoo clock" speech was his own. However, Reed undoubtedly directed; the overall suspense and structure of the film has more in common with Reed's The Fallen Idol than with anything Welles made.
2. John Huston in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974)
The maverick director had a terrific screen presence with his large, ambling frame, cavernous face and sonorous voice, and acted in many films, mostly his own, and notably in cult films like Winter Kills (1979) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Happily, the news recently broke that rights issues surrounding Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind have been resolved, and so the world may get to see Huston's lead performance in that film as well. In Chinatown, Huston gives a flat-out great performance as the insidious industrialist who gets away with more than murder and justifies it with a hearty laugh. Jack Nicholson may have got his nose cut, but Huston emerges untouched.
3. David Cronenberg in Gus Van Sant's To Die For (1995)
In person, Cronenberg comes across as gentle and professorial, but Gus Van Sant capitalized on his inner creepiness by casting him as a stoic hitman in this sexy satire. It's not a particularly fleshed-out role, and Cronenberg will probably never upstage the performers in his own films. Yet, it gives the movie an extra layer and a fresh charge as things move toward the third act. Likewise, Cronenberg's other acting jobs have also ranged toward the darkly humorous, from Don McKellar's Last Night (1999) and James Isaac's Jason X (2002) to a recurring role on TV's "Alias."
4. Fritz Lang in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963)
Though Lang does play himself in Contempt, it's a good deal more than just a cameo. He's a real character, and one that clearly comes just as much from writer-director Godard as from Lang. In interviews, Lang was playful, elusive and just a bit vindictive. Here he's rather sweet and almost fatherly, giving advice and spouting wise witticisms about the cinema. His most famous line is that Cinemascope was only good for "snakes and funerals," even though two of Lang's own films, Moonfleet (1955) and While the City Sleeps (1956) were shot in that format, as well as Contempt. While it doesn't make sense that Lang would direct Homer's The Odyssey, as he does in the film, it was actually the last film he would ever do. (Lang's own final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, came three years earlier.) So, in a sense, it's a lovely goodbye to one of the century's greatest.
5. Buster Keaton in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952)
As evidenced in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2004), film scholars still love to argue over who was the better filmmaker: Chaplin or Keaton? I went through stages during which I admired one over the other, though now I love both equally. In 1952, both Keaton and Chaplin were on the outs in Hollywood. Chaplin still had enough clout overseas to get a film made though, while Keaton would never direct again. It's not clear why Chaplin cast Keaton in one sequence of Limelight as an onstage comedy partner. Chaplin doesn't even mention Keaton in his autobiography, though some suggest that it was an act of kindness. Even though Chaplin worked out all of Keaton's gags in advance, it was reported that Keaton managed to upstage Chaplin, and that Chaplin cut the sequence down in the editing room.
6. Werner Herzog in Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)
Herzog was one of the few who expressed admiration for Korine's bizarre and audacious feature debut Gummo (1997), so Korine cast Herzog as the vicious, heartless father in his follow-up, the first American Dogme 95 film. Herzog behaves strangely and verbally torments his three children (Ewen Bremner, Chloe Sevigny and Evan Neumann) in a drama apparently based on members of Korine's own family. Herzog is a fascinating personality both behind the camera and in front (his DVD commentary tracks are among the best ever recorded), so it's no surprise that he's up for anything here. His performance is harsh, with moments of off-kilter brilliance.
7. Francois Truffaut in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
A generation of moviegoers probably still knows Francois Truffaut more for his portrayal of a French scientist in Spielberg's movie than for any movies he made himself. (On the IMDB, Truffaut's most popular film, The 400 Blows, has 12,000 votes, while Close Encounters has over three times as many.) In my estimation, no one ever loved movies more that Truffaut did (one only has to read his great collection of movie criticism, The Films In My Life), and the young Spielberg wanted to pay tribute to one of his heroes, so when Truffaut appears onscreen, his enchantment is touchingly genuine.
A few others:
Martin Scorsese in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)
Sydney Pollack in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Elaine May in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (2000)
Emir Kusturica in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief (2002)
Erich von Stroheim in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Peter Bogdanovich in "The Sopranos" (2000-2007)
Vittorio de Sica in Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
Spike Jonze in David O. Russell's Three Kings (1999)