Pop Culture

What they really want to do is direct

More than three decades ago, Clint Eastwood made his directing debut with “Play Misty For Me,” a stalker thriller that seemed inauspicious at the time, but now looks like the birth of a trend.

Although some actors had turned up on the directing side of the camera before Eastwood, and Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton proved extremely versatile during the silent era, few turned it into a career after talkies took over. Ida Lupino came close in the 1950s, Robert Montgomery did some interesting work in the 1940s, but aside from Orson Welles, not many could make acting-directing seem a natural combination.

Most actors tended to shy away after one tantalizing attempt: Albert Finney with the endearingly quirky “Charlie Bubbles,” Marlon Brando with his gorgeous, underrated Western-by-the-sea, “One-Eyed Jacks.” More recently, Tom Hanks, who directed the charming rock comedy, “That Thing You Do!,” seems to have joined their ranks.

Stronger than mostBut Eastwood is still going strong. His 24th film as a director, “Mystic River,” won Oscars in February for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. His 25th directing job, “Million Dollar Baby,” starring Eastwood as an aging trainer who works with a strong-willed boxer (Hilary Swank), has been named by the National Board of Review as one of the top 10 movies of 2004. With five Golden Globe nominations and a New York Film Critics' prize (best director) recently added to its honors, it seems headed directly for the Oscars.

Like so many actors who have gone this route since the 1970s, Eastwood won his Academy Award for directing. Eastwood took home the prize for “Unforgiven,” while Warren Beatty won for “Reds,” Kevin Costner for “Dances With Wolves,” Robert Redford for “Ordinary People,” Richard Attenborough for "Gandhi," and Mel Gibson for “Braveheart.” ( None has won an Oscar for acting — could there be an unwritten rule that a directing Oscar makes winning in any other category verboten?)

Under the old Hollywood studio system, this couldn’t have happened, though in the 1950s, as the studios started breaking up, a few actors steered their careers by producing their own pictures. Burt Lancaster was a notable success, co-producing the classic “Sweet Smell of Success” and even some films in which he didn’t appear (the Oscar-winning “Marty”). But like so many of his peers who tried directing, Lancaster backed off after one attempt (the forgotten “The Kentuckian”).

The 1960s brought Finney, Woody Allen, Cornel Wilde, John Cassavetes, Paul Newman and a few others, though nothing compares with today’s lineup of actor-directors. Actors first, directors second, their work tends to be exceptionally demanding of the actors they’re handling.

The next generationTodd Field followed up his own attention-getting performance as the put-upon pianist, Nick Nightingale, in “Eyes Wide Shut,” by stepping behind the cameras and encouraging Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei and Tom Wilkinson to give their toughest, clearest performances in “In the Bedroom.” They’re all playing deeply flawed people, driven by confusion and anger, and Field must take credit for not allowing any of them to become any kind of role model. In the end, this is what separates the film from such vigilante dramas as “Death Wish.”

Tim Blake Nelson, who bounces back and forth between acting (“The Good Girl”) and directing (“The Grey Zone”), started his directing career by drawing another inspired performance from Stahl in the haunting, little-seen 1997 film of Nelson’s play, “Eye of God.” Casting the untested Josh Hartnett in the Iago role in “O,” Nelson’s teen version of “Othello,” proved the legitimacy of his filmmaker’s intuition.

Sofia Coppola was stung by criticism of her performance in her father’s “Godfather III,” and now stays on the other side of the camera, directing Hartnett (“The Virgin Suicides”) and Bill Murray (“Lost in Transition”) — a performance that earned him the Oscar nomination he should have had for “Rushmore.” Sean Penn (“The Pledge”) and Todd Graff (“Camp”) also don’t star in the movies they direct.

Some actors seem comfortable directing themselves: Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott co-directed and co-starred in “Big Night,” Tim Robbins played the title role in his political satire “Bob Roberts,” Jon Favreau wrote, directed and starred in “Made,” while Ed Burns has directed and starred in four features, including “The Brothers McMullen” and “Sidewalks of New York.”

Still, they can seem stretched thin when they do double duty. Burns is sharper and more focused in “Saving Private Ryan” than in any of the films he directed. Scott makes a livelier impression playing a resourceful jerk in “Roger Dodger” than he does when he co-directs himself in a 19th century version of “Hamlet.”

Eastwood takes chances
Few actor-directors can touch what Welles or Chaplin did, or what Eastwood has done in half a dozen of the films in which he worked both sides of the camera. No matter what one thinks of such love-it-or-loathe-it movies as “A Perfect World” or “The Bridges of Madison County,” his precise direction of Eastwood, the actor, never calls attention to the double feat he’s accomplished.

Both “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Unforgiven” are revenge stories, but check out the skillful variations Eastwood plays on younger and older versions of a similar character. No wonder he sat on David Webb Peoples’ “Unforgiven” script for years, knowing he would grow into the role – and grow into the man who could direct it.

In retrospect, Eastwood looks more and more like the pioneer auteur who made it possible for Field, Nelson and Coppola, not to mention Gibson and Costner and Redford. He did this partly by sticking to a consistent style that proved commercial, and by staying on-budget.

But he also did it by taking big chances: with a three-hour biography that proved steadfastly uncommercial (“Bird”), by daring to impersonate John Huston in a still-controversial movie about the making of a famous movie (“White Hunter, Black Heart”), and by directing a bound-to-be-damned adaptation of a modern literary classic (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”).

Eastwood, 74, does not appear in “Mystic River,” for the good reason that there is no part for him. In “Million Dollar Baby,” he’s back to directing himself. The role of a seasoned veteran couldn’t be more appropriate.