With the arrival of Ben Affleck's 'The Town' on the big screen this weekend, audiences can decide if Affleck is a better director than actor. Or is it a draw? Ben Affleck the actor plays a highly intelligent leader of a four-man gang of bank robbers who yearns for a better life. Affleck the director creates a dark, moody atmosphere that occasionally erupts in violence and bloodshed. It's a good performance, but the film as a whole is even better, building on the promise Ben Affleck displayed with his first feature, 'Gone Baby Gone.' It gives weight to the idea that Affleck has joined the small gang of actors who are better directors than actors.
"What I really want to do is direct" is often heard in Hollywood, especially from actors who feel constrained by the limited range of roles offered to them. While actors have made the leap to the director's chair since the silent film days -- think Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton -- the trend has gained traction since the 1980s, when two well-known television actors began making their presence felt behind the camera. Here's our list of seven established actors whose directorial careers have eclipsed what they accomplished in front of the camera.
1. Ron Howard
Howard was an adorable and beloved child actor ('The Andy Griffith Show,' 'The Courtship of Eddie's Father') who grew up to become an appealing and awkward young man ('Happy Days'). He made a couple of decent stabs at dramatic respectability ('The Migrants' was an especially good TV drama) before brokering a deal with legendary producer Roger Corman to direct his first feature ('Grand Theft Auto') in 1977. He distanced himself from his wholesome image with the raunchy 'Night Shift' in 1982 and began mining box office gold with 'Splash' two years later, eventually winning an Academy Award for 'A Beautiful Mind' in 2001. His taste may be too populist for some, but his sure sense of craftsmanship as a director proves that he found his proper place -- behind the camera.
2. Rob Reiner
As Michael 'Meathead' Stivic on 'All in the Family,' Reiner was consistently recognized for his fine work as a comic actor, nominated five times for an Emmy Award, and winning twice. But he may have created such a distinctive iconic character -- the angry liberal counterpoint to father-in-law Archie Bunker's conservative windbag -- that audiences could not accept him as anyone else. Along came 'This is Spinal Tap,' a rib-cracking comedy that poked fun at self-important musicians and self-important music documentaries in fresh and exciting ways, and then 'The Sure Thing,' a winning romantic comedy with John Cusack, and then 'Stand By Me,' which nailed the exact early adolescent feelings of a generation of young men, and then so forth ('The Princess Bride,' 'When Harry Met Sally') and so on ('Misery,' 'A Few Good Men'). Despite the missteps of recent years, Reiner is still capable of turning out enjoyable flicks ('The Bucket List'), causing memories of Meathead to recede into the distance.
3. Peter Berg
Berg never gave less than a good performance, but neither did he find any role that he could truly own -- the hapless victim in John Dahl's 'The Last Seduction' may have come closest. He might have continued to drift from one character to the next if not for his second feature, 'The Rundown.' Unlike his directorial debut, the unexceptional and unlikable 'Very Bad Things,' 'The Rundown' showcased his talent for transforming potentially routine material into breezy entertainment, a talent he's continued to show with such varied films as 'Friday Night Lights,' 'The Kingdom,' and 'Hancock.' Now he definitely owns his films.
4. Ben Stiller
Stiller is a big-money star and is often the first choice for anyone who wants to make a comedy in Hollywood. No doubt, he's a funny man, and he's made several forays into dark dramatic territory -- but has anyone been truly convinced or blown away by his acting? On the other hand, consider the films he's directed: the seminal 'Reality Bites,' which captured the zeitgeist of 1994; the under appreciated 'The Cable Guy,' which was disguised psycho brilliance and featured Jim Carrey's best performance; the daft 'Zoolander,' which took narcissism to new extremes; and 'Tropic Thunder,' which expertly lampooned action movies, self-obsessed actors, and the audiences that watch them. Stiller's acting pales by comparison.
5. Jon Favreau
Who would have thought that the ungainly but likable actor would become a world-class director of superheroes? Favreau began popping up in bit parts before following in the footsteps of Sylvester Stallone and writing himself a starring role in 'Swingers.' But it was his friend Vince Vaughn who got the bigger break from a custom-fit role, rolling easily into stardom while Favreau continued to toil in supporting parts and the occasional lead. His skillful direction of Will Farrell in his first starring role in 'Elf' proved successful, leading to the fluid fantasy of 'Zathura' and the powerhouse 'Iron Man' and its sequel. Now the actor who was best known for being the hero's best friend is putting the finishing touches on the sci-fi western 'Cowboys & Aliens' and deciding what new worlds to conquer.
6. Woody Allen
It may be hard to remember, but Allen was once a notable stand-up comic, and his "early, funny" movies were weighted heavily toward the comedy. Allen was a very fitting, neurotic leading man, the one actor most capable of communicating the off-handed one-liners and paragraphs of comic despair that he wrote for the films. His artistic ambition was, at first, greater than his ability as a director to fulfill it, but as his skills as a filmmaker caught up, he kept pushing at the edges, and his talents as an actor -- never really up to the task of creating anyone but variations upon himself -- fell to the wayside. There's no question that his best directing efforts far outstrip his work as an actor.
7. Clint Eastwood
Eastwood has become such an iconic figure that it feels disrespectful to say that he's a better director than an actor, but it's true. As enjoyable as he was as The Man With No Name, as canny and charming as he was as Harry Callahan, as craggy and crusty as he was as Walt Kowalski, his body of work as a director has grown more diverse and more penetrating than his performances.