by Michael Nadeau
The transition from actor to director seems to be a natural one; after a career in front of the camera, what actor wouldn’t want the extra degrees of freedom and creativity that an opportunity behind it delivers?
This October sees the directorial debut of one of the world’s finest actors, as Ewan McGregor steps behind the lens for the big-screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.
TEN GREAT DIRECTING DEBUTS FROM ACTORS
Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990) – Costner’s debut may have diminished a tad over time, as a consequence of the movie’s in-retrospect inexcusable win over Goodfellas for Best Director and Best Picture, but it’s still a beautiful, memorable epic, marked by sterling cinematography and a wonderful score. As for the rest of Costner’s directorial output … well, let’s just not talk about “Waterworld,” huh?
Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980) – Poor Martin Scorsese. His two best films – “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull” – were denied Oscars by the acclaimed debuts of actors behind the camera. Again, poor choices in retrospect, but Robert Redford’s emotional and stark 1980 drama that follows a family’s dissolution after the loss of one of their own remains a powerful, moving feature film. Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for his feature film debut, and Mary Tyler Moore earned a Best Actress nomination.
Gone, Baby, Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007) – The Affleck comeback started here. After an early 2000s cold streak in front of the camera and in the tabloid headlines, the Good Will Hunting Oscar winner surprised the whole world with his confident work on the adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s mystery novel. Starring Affleck’s brother Casey, Michelle Monaghan and an Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone didn’t do too much at the box office; but the critical clout gave Affleck credo to do another wonderful Boston thriller in The Town and pick up another Oscar for Argo. His next directorial effort, the Lehane adaptation Live By Night, hits in December.
Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, 1971) – The talent that would bring Clint Eastwood two Best Director Oscars was evident in his taut debut, a creepy jilted-lover thriller starring a very, very young Jessica Walter – best known as Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development. Eastwood, of course, is still directing at least a movie a year, and still making some classic ones.
This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984) – This movie goes to eleven. Veteran TV actor, Rob Reiner of All in the Family fame, created one of the funniest movies of all time with his debut, a “rockumentary” following the exploits of a hilariously fake British hard-rock band with a penchant for exploding drummers. One of the best bits of trivia about the film? Eddie Van Halen, after seeing it for the first time, believed it to be a true story, and didn’t know why people were laughing. That’s fantastic.
Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty, 1978) – Warren Beatty technically co-directed this remake of a 1941 film, along with Buck Henry. Beatty stars as a taken-too-soon NFL quarterback who comes back to Earth in the angelic form of a team’s new owner. The film is studded with a 1970s dream cast – Charles Grodin, James Mason, Julie Christie, and Dyan Cannon. Beatty would win Best Director three years later for his star-studded communist epic Reds.
Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, 1989) – Shakespeare doesn’t get more stirring than this historical epic from Kenneth Branagh, who earned an Oscar nomination for his debut work. If you’re not roused by Branagh’s remarkable St. Crispin’s Day speech, then you may not be human. Also, look out for a very young Christian Bale in the cast.
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999) – Coppola took a firestorm of criticism for her first film role, stepping in for Winona Ryder to play Michael Corleone’s daughter in The Godfather Part III to … mixed results (we’ll be generous). However, her transition to work behind the camera? It’s been remarkable, with an Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation and acclaim for Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring. Her first film, the tenuous and harrowing The Virgin Suicides (an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenidies book) remains one of her most memorable features.
Throw Momma From the Train (Danny DeVito, 1987) – Danny DeVito’s signature black humor permeated this dark late-1980s film, starring DeVito and Billy Crystal in a comedic twist on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Anne Ramsey had a memorable, Oscar-nominated role as DeVito’s henpecking mother.
The Station Agent (Tom McCarthy, 2003) – McCarthy earned praise in 2015 for his work in the Oscar-winning Spotlight; his first feature film was the marvelously low-key tale, The Station Agent, starring Peter Dinklage (years before Game of Thrones) as an introverted New Jersey man seeking quiet in a rural piece of land he has inherited. It’s a fabulously cast movie, with Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Williams all popping up.
Antwone Fisher (Denzel Washington, 2002) – In his directorial debut, Denzel Washington crafted a heart-wrenching film based on the triumphant true story of former Navy seal, Antwone Fisher. After his first feature received critical acclaim, Washington went on to direct another acclaimed drama, The Great Debaters. This Christmas, his screen adaptation of August Wilson’s celebrated play, Fences, hits theaters with Washington and Viola Davis reprising their Tony award winning roles.