Clint Eastwood's 'Hereafter' opens wide this week and Woody Allen's 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' is still around; while it's easy to picture the faces of those two big-time directors, you will not actually see them in their respective movies. Eastwood announced his retirement from acting two years ago and, as for Allen ... who knows?
It's fairly easy to figure out what drives an actor to want to direct, but it's much harder to understand the decision of whether or not to appear in the movie you're helming. Then there's the question of whether to play the lead, take a supporting role, appear in a cameo or perhaps just narrate. Finally, there's the option of not acting at all and staying 100 percent behind the camera. This choice may be the most artistic act of humility, or it may be the most colossal act of ego. Here are seven great ones:
1. Charles Laughton - 'The Night of the Hunter' (1955)
Laughton (1899-1962) was one of the biggest hams in movie history; hardly anyone so heartily enjoyed wrapping his lips around some good dialogue in films ranging from 'The Old Dark House' to 'Witness for the Prosecution.' How he wound up directing this one and only film, starring Robert Mitchum and not himself, is something as mysterious as the film itself. Some critics credit the film's creepy beauty as a combination of the screenplay by James Agee and the cinematography by Stanley Cortez, but surely Laughton's show-off personality must have contributed something. When the film flopped both critically and commercially, Laughton vowed never to direct again.
2. Clint Eastwood - 'Mystic River' (2003)
I could easily have chosen 'Bird' (1988), 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' (1997), 'Letters from Iwo Jima' (2006) or even 'Hereafter', but this one is one of the toughest and most emotionally wrenching films from the great director, who built his career on confidence and stoicism. Watching the painful vulnerability in the performances of Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Marcia Gay Harden (to name a few) simply rends the heart.
3. Woody Allen - 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' (2008)
Hardly anyone likes any of Woody's late-period films, which starts roughly at the point that he began publicly dating Soon-Yi Previn. I have written elsewhere about why this is not a coincidence, and why Woody's films are as interesting now as they have ever been. For me, 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' is a kind of breakthrough for the veteran director; it moves him to the position of an observer from an older generation, looking back with a mixture of sadness and acceptance. Thankfully, that doesn't keep the film from feeling constantly vibrant.
4. Tim Roth - 'The War Zone' (1999)
Roth is still known for his performances in 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction,' as received an Oscar nomination for his villainous turn in 'Rob Roy,' but when it came time for his directorial debut -- he has never made a follow-up -- he stepped quietly behind the camera and poured out such a storm of gray pain that most people couldn't take it. 'The War Zone,' a powerful, wrenching tale of sexual abuse and incest, didn't even gross a quarter of a million dollars. Now that Tilda Swinton and Colin Farrell are bigger stars, maybe you could do yourself a favor and check it out. You won't regret it.
5. John Cassavetes - 'The Killing of a Chinese Bookie' (1976)
Cassavetes sometimes feels like a lot of work, a filmmaker more suited to textbooks than to actual viewing, but this desperately sleazy crime film is my favorite. It's shot with the director's trademark rangy, improvised style, following Ben Gazzara as he sets out to perform the title deed, which will wipe clean his debt and allow him to keep his beloved strip club running.
6. Sarah Polley - 'Away From Her' (2007)
In person, Polley is small and sweet, and it's almost hard to imagine her bossing around a set full of actors and technicians, but once you see this impossibly tender film, it all comes together; she seems to have gently wandered directly into the great short story by Alice Munro. 'Away from Her' is technically a disease-of-the-week film (Alzheimer's), but the film does it right by focusing on the characters rather than on the disease itself or on hospital clichés. Julie Christie rightly earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, but Gordon Pinsent is equally good as her husband.
7. Jodie Foster - 'Home for the Holidays' (1995)
I seem to have focused on several harrowing, painful movies here; I wonder if that means anything when it comes to analyzing the psyche of actors? In any case, I'll end with a fun one, a dark, dysfunctional comedy about a crappy, hilarious family Thanksgiving. Foster directs so that all the actors pop out like refugees from a Preston Sturges film, all wit and heart. Robert Downey Jr. especially cracks me up, but what I remember most is the film's tender moments, like Charles Durning watching his old home movies and wondering what the hell happened.
Runners Up: Ben Affleck - 'Gone Baby Gone' (2007), Todd Field - 'In the Bedroom' (2001), Jack Nicholson - 'Drive, He Said' (1971), Tim Robbins - 'Dead Man Walking' (1995), Takeshi Kitano - 'Dolls' (2002).
Readers: What are your favorites?