It feels like it’s rare to find an actor who doesn’t at some point in his or her career get the urge to direct. Even stars barely out of their teens discuss the desire to direct in interviews (some even get around to it: “Submarine” actor Craig Roberts premiered his first film “Just Jim” last year at the age of 24, and former child star Xavier Dolan was only 20 when he made his first). Sometimes the results are terrible, as anyone who saw Mark Ruffalo’s “Sympathy For Delicious” or Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River,” to name but two recent examples, would tell you.
But sometimes, such films are terrific. And with “Miles Ahead,” Don Cheadle’s pretty decent first film as director, hitting theaters on Friday (read our review), Nate Parker’s “Birth Of A Nation” storming Sundance, and the news that Jonah Hill is the latest to join the ranks with the announcement of his upcoming “Mid ’90s,” we decided it was a good time to take a look at some of our favorites actor-turned-director debuts.
From the father of indie cinema, to a beloved British thesp, to a ’90s outsider, to a tainted megastar and beyond, the following is a mixed bunch of actors, but all are united by having made excellent debut films. Let us know what you’d have picked in the comments.
Kasi Lemmons – “Eve’s Bayou” (1997)
Initially most recognizable as Clarice Starling’s best friend in “Silence Of The Lambs,” actress Kasi Lemmons has become better known in the ensuing years for her work behind camera than for the work in front of it, beginning with her striking 1997 debut “Eve’s Bayou.” A remarkably assured and complex film for a first feature (Roger Ebert called it the best of its year), it’s a sprawling coming-of-age melodrama about a middle-class African-American family in 1960s Louisiana. Eve (the tremendous Jurnee Smollett, who just returned to the spotlight in WGN America’s “Underground”) is the middle daughter to doctor Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Roz (Lynn Whitfield), who one day discovers her father’s infidelity with a family friend, beginning a series of events that take in burgeoning sexuality, voodoo and murder. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume that Lemmons’ film was adapted from an acclaimed novel from an author following in the footsteps of Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner: it finds an enormous amount of breadth and depth in a lean 109 minute running time, creating (with the help of Amy Vincent’s photography and Terence Blanchard’s score) an indelible atmosphere. Lemmons weaves her story with a maturity that belies it being her first feature and gets some killer performances from her cast, including a young Meagan Good as Eve’s sister, Debbi Morgan as her aunt, and Jackson giving one of his very best turns. Rewatching the film now, it’s baffling that Lemmons hasn’t directed more —followups “Caveman’s Valentine” and “Talk To Me” went disappointingly underseen. Hopefully, her long-gestating adaptation of Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” finally gets going soon.
John Cassavetes – “Shadows” (1959)
Cassavetes didn’t only more or less invent the American independent film world —he also patented the idea of filmmakers using their Hollywood acting paychecks to finance their movies, with his work in “The Dirty Dozen” and “Rosemary’s Baby” helping to finance his groundbreaking films like “Faces,” “A Woman Under The Influence” and “Opening Night.” But it all began with “Shadows,” initially completed in 1957, but eventually unveiled in a radically different version in 1959, springing out of exercises in the acting classes that Cassavetes was teaching in New York, and with a budget raised in part thanks to donations from listeners to “A Christmas Story” author Jean Shepherd’s radio show (he even pioneered Kickstarter!..). The mostly improvised film, assembled over several years as the polymathic Cassavetes was starting to make a name for himself (he starred with Sidney Poitier in Martin Ritt’s 1957 film “Edge Of The City”), follows three siblings, jazz singer Hugh (Hugh Hurd), feckless trumpeter Ben (Ben Carruthers) and flirtatious artist Leila (Leila Goldoni), all barely surviving on the breadline common to artists in New York in the late 1950s. It’s a scrappy, rough-edged film, with Cassavetes clearly learning the form as he went, and now feels like a napkin sketch compared to the more fully-realized work that would follow a decade later. But it’s also still a thrilling inversion of traditional moviemaking with an energy that still feels infectious, and must number among the most influential movies ever made.
Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott – “Big Night” (1996)
What’s better than one actor turned director? Two actors turned directors, especially when they’re beloved longtime character actor favorites like Tucci and Scott, and double especially when they make a film as exquisite as “Big Night.” Both had been familiar faces —Tucci had played mobsters and bad guys in films like “The Pelican Brief” and “Billy Bathgate,” and Scott had been a romantic lead in “Dying Young” and “Singles”— but were hardly household names when the two high school friends paired to direct a script that Tucci had written with his cousin Joseph Tropiano. Tucci also took the co-lead, alongside Tony Shalhoub, depicting a pair of Italian immigrant brothers whose struggling authentic Italian restaurant in New Jersey in the 1950s is offered a lifeline when their rival (Ian Holm) offers to get Louis Prima to dine at their place. It’s light, loosely plotted stuff on the surface, made in an unshowy but delicate way that unsurprisingly puts the performances first (Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver and Allison Janney fill out a perfect ensemble). But it doesn’t feel like big-screen sitcom either: as light as Tucci and Scott’s touch is, they make “Big Night” into a great film about the immigrant experience and about the assimilation into a larger culture, and even *spoiler* a rare great American movie about failure. Oh, and they’ll also make you ravenously hungry: it’s maybe the great foodie film. The two haven’t directed together again since, but both have new projects in the works: Scott’s helming an adaptation of Joan Didion’s “A Book Of Common Prayer,” and Tucci is directing a biopic of the painter Alberto Giacometti starring Geoffrey Rush.
Agnes Jaoui – “The Taste Of Others” (2000)
A number of French stars have turned to filmmaking over the years —Mathieu Amalric and Melanie Laurent among the more recent notable examples— but few did as well out of the gate with a debut than Agnes Jaoui. Known for for her work with Patrice Chéreau and Alain Resnais (winning a César for Supporting Actress for the latter’s “Same Old Song” in 1997, which also marked the third film she wrote for the director), Jaoui moved into directing with 2000’s “The Taste Of Others.” Cowritten again with her then-partner Jean-Pierre Bacri, it was both of a piece with the kind of Resnais/Ayckbourn comedies of manners they’d penned for him, and moving into slightly fresher territory. The film interweaves two stories, with factory owner Jean-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) hiring actress Clara (Anne Alvaro) to teach him English and falling in love with both her and her bohemian lifestyle, while his bodyguard, ex-policeman Franck (Gérard Lanvin) entering a faltering relationship with drug-dealing barmaid Manie (Jaoui herself). The film’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but it’s consistently funny, finely wrought, well performed, smart (but not pretentious) and moving. The film ended up with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, though dispiritingly, few of Jaoui’s subsequent films have gained much of an audience outside her homeland since.
Ben Affleck – “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)
If anyone is the recent poster boy for the move from acting to direction, it’s Affleck, who pulled himself out of a wilderness period to emerge as a seemingly fully-formed director (with a minor in Boston-set dramas) with 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone.” Based on the Dennis Lehane bestseller, the dark, psychologically and morally complex story revolves around a low-rent Bostonian girlfriend/boyfriend detective team (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) who are hired to investigate the disappearance of a little girl, and the conflict that arises between them and the police and media surrounding the case. The performances are stellar, from Ben’s brother Casey, to the sympathetic and restrained-as-ever Morgan Freeman, and a perfectly judged, Oscar-nominated turn from Amy Ryan as the girl’s junkie mom. But as good as the performances he’s elicited are, Affleck’s most impressive talent is in creating mood and tone: he establishes an atmosphere of murky moral ambiguities in which no relationship is simple and right and wrong are not so much blurred as laid on top of one another, as ambivalent and indivisible as two sides of a coin. Affleck has since gone on to other directing successes with “The Town” and Best Picture winner “Argo,” but his finest hour so far was his first behind the camera, and that bodes well for his next venture as director, next year’s “Live By Night,” which is also based on a Lehane novel.