“What I really want to do is direct…” (Dennis Hopper)
In 2013 Matthew McConaughey won a well deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for the movie, “Dallas Buyers Club”. What was surprising was not that he won the award, but that he could even act at all since he gave so many shitty and inept performances for decades in films. If any of you want to see what I mean, check out some of his turgid comedies (“Failure to Launch”, “The Wedding Planner”, etc.) or his cigar store wooden Indian performances in dramas such as “Amistad” or “Contact” for instance. He was originally falling into the Tab Hunter, Richard (Gerbil) Gere, and Charlie Hunnam school of “pretty boy” Bad Actors before he turned his career around. Since his Oscar win, he has given terrific performances in things as diverse as the series, “True Detective” (and for which he should have won the Emmy for Best Actor) and secondary roles in movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “White Boy Rick”. However, his prior crap work as an actor is still so strongly ingrained into many individuals’ minds that I still run into people that when I mention his name they immediately reply (in an almost Pavlov Dog reaction) that “He can’t act…” or just that “He Stinks!”
Now, Dear Reader, is this month’s post going to discuss the reasons for Matthew’s transformation into a fine actor? Nooooo! Is this month’s post going to discuss other actors not regarded highly becoming acclaimed actors later in their careers? Hell Nooooo! This post is going to discuss actors directing motion pictures instead! In fact it will discuss a rare sub-group of actor-directors or actors turned just directors. This sub-group I have nick-named as “One Shot Wonders”. These are individuals that either early on or later in their careers directed one great picture that was completely unexpected by the movie industry or the general public at large. However, unlike McConaughey’s acting career revival, they never directed another great picture ever again!
Now even though I used the above quote by Dennis Hopper, and even though Hopper did direct “Easy Rider” (1969), a big financial and critically successful movie, I do not include him in this group. This is because quite frankly, I think “Easy Rider” stinks (far worse than Matthew McConaughey’s acting career prior to “Dallas Buyers Club” ever was). Supposedly, Truman Capote, regarding “Easy Rider,” once said something to the affect that he truly loved the movie because it was the first time in years that he saw a movie that had a happy ending! Truman, I could not have put it better myself.
Nor do I include Kevin Costner in this sub-group even though he starred in and directed the Oscar winning movie, “Dances With Wolves” (1990) which was also critically acclaimed. This was because that bloated overrated epic was way too long [and was later re-released as a 4 hour version (Groan!)], the Sioux Indians were all over idealized (all that was missing was them eating kale), their Pawnee adversaries were all stereotypical bad guys, and all of the whites were so cartoonishly evil that all that was missing was for all of them twirling the corners of their mustaches (and if there were any white women, they would have probably been wearing mustaches and doing the same thing). Costner’s direction was also too bland and uninspired and after 3-4 hours of his acting consisting of looking soulful while his long flowing brown hair was blowing in the wind I was literally begging for some Pawnee to scalp him before I did.
However, once again, now that I’ve finished my mid-post rant, I’ll now proceed to list four actors who fit into this sub-group along with their picture:
1. Mark Rydell: “The Reivers” (1969)
As an actor, Rydell was not that well known although he started acting in soaps on TV in the late 50s and into the early 60s. He also did a few small roles in movies and on TV years after he became a full time director. He did do a number of popular movies such as “The Cowboys” (1972), “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), “The Rose” (1979), and his most successful, “On Golden Pond” (1981) where he got his only Oscar nomination for Best Director and Picture. However, “On Golden Pond” was not a great picture and is basically just a filmed play in the outdoors along with providing an overdue Hollywood “Thank You” Oscar to Henry Fonda (although he did deserve it for this role) since he died shortly after this movie was made. Rydell’s far better movie, and a truly great one was “The Reivers.”
“The Reivers” was based on William Faulkner’s last novel which won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize. The movie is a comedy/drama semi-idolized version of the early 20th Century South about a young boy’s (Mitch Vogel) coming-of-age through an unplanned road trip with two family rogues (Steve McQueen and Rupert Crosse). Rydell captures the humor of their adventures with charm and tenderness while incorporating more adult themes of southern racism and adult responsibility for one’s actions. The cast is uniformly terrific and the interplay between McQueen and Crosse (who was Oscar nominated) is a joy to behold. It is also helped by strong performances from veteran character actors Will Geer and Juano Hernandez, strong narration by Burgess Meredith as well as a fine early film score by the great John Williams. This movie, along with Rydell’s direction, never got the recognition that it deserved. Maybe it was because it was too old fashioned and stereotypical (the lovable hooker with a heart of gold, the wise old grandfather, the muted way it portrayed racism, etc.) for critics or the public to appreciate. I don’t care. Every time that I see it, it still touches the heart just like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the more recent (and better regarded) “Hugo” did.
2. Marlon Brando: “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961)
When Marlon Brando’s company bought the rights for this taunt Western tale of betrayal and revenge it ran into production problems from the start. Ultimately, after both Sam Peckinpah (who did an early version of the screenplay) was fired and Stanley Kubrick left either by his own accord or was fired, Brando stepped in and proceeded to direct the only movie he ever made. His original version was over 5 hours long. The movie started production in late 1958 but due to numerous delays from Brando’s difficulties as a first time director it was not released until 1961. The movie, originally budgeted at 1.8 million finished with a final price tag of 6 million dollars due to Brando’s constant re-shoots and delays which doomed any chance of it being a financial success. After shooting the film he ultimately walked away from it and let the studio edit it any way they wanted to make it a coherent film for release. They even had to shoot a new ending because the original ending was so unsatisfactory and, afterwards, it still got mixed reviews from critics at best. Even with all of these problems, it still is “A Masterpiece!”
The Oscar nominated color cinematography by the great Charles Lang and a wonderful film score by Hugo Friedhofer are outstanding. Brando’s direction of actors like Karl Malden as his sinister ex-partner, now a respected sheriff, who originally betrayed him; Slim Pickens, acting against type, as Malden’s slimy, sadistic deputy; Ben Johnson as a two-faced outlaw partner of Brando; and Pina Pellicer as Malden’s innocent stepdaughter who becomes Brando’s lover, give terrific performances. And Brando’s performance as the outlaw, Rio, is especially powerful. He is calm and at times quiet but, like a smoldering volcano, he can explode into violence at a moment’s notice. You can almost feel how dangerous he is even when he doesn’t say a word or hardly moves. “One-Eyed Jacks” has only grown better with age and, critical re-evaluation has not only praised it as a great Western, but as an all around great movie! In 2018 it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
3. Charles Laughton: “Night of the Hunter” (1955)
Besides being a great Oscar winning actor, Charles Laughton directed a number of successful stage plays and “Night of the Hunter was, unfortunately, his first, and only film that he ever directed. However, this story of a Southern Depression-era psychopathic/murdering bogus preacher, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), chasing after two orphan children carrying ten grand from a bank robbery was far more than just a suspense thriller. If anything, it was unusual in that it was uniquely unable to be typecast as a specific type of film. True, it was a suspense/horror film. It was also a portrait of Southern Depression America. It was also a view of religious fervor being completely distorted into something monsterous through the personification of Powell. It was also a movie where nature was viewed as a source of mystery and wonder. It was also, at times, presented visually in an almost dream-like state, a sort of fable or a faerie tale with incredible black and white cinematography by Stanley Cortez. However, the movie’s status as a classic was really due to Laughton’s spectacular direction.
Laughton directed the movie in a style known as German expressionism that was popular in silent films of the 1920s which had unusual camera angles and distortions. He also gladly welcomed input and contributions by his actors and it showed in their fine performances especially by Mitchum and Lilian Gish who both deserved, at the very least, Oscar nominations. He followed the fine screenplay by James Agee very well but was also perfectly willing to make necessary changes as needed to enhance the flow and mood of the story. His only real problem was that both critics and the general public did not like the film and it was such a failure that Laughton never did another film. However, it is a true masterpiece that has only gotten better with age.
4. Orson Welles: “Citizen Kane” (1941)
I know! I know! After all of the cracks that I have made in previous posts about Orson Welles being an overrated asshole director why did I list him here? Well, out of many past issues that I have had with him, maybe the biggest one is that at age 25 he made one truly great motion picture, and then never did anything even remotely close to great, or even good, ever again. Worse, other fans of this movie and Welles, have perpetuated something ever since that I have nick-named, The CULT of Orson Welles! This view consists of three laughable conceits:
(1) He did many other great under-appreciated masterpieces like “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Lady from Shanghai”, “Touch of Evil”, “The Trial”, “Chimes at Midnight”, etc. Anyone who thinks these films are anything beyond being just OK must also think his late 1970s commercials to sell schlock Paul Masson Wine (“We will sell no wine before it’s time…”) as the epitome of fine art (he was ultimately fired when he admitted on TV that he never drank the slop).
(2) That other great movies he just acted in (“Jane Eyre”, “The Third Man”, “The Long Hot Summer”, etc.) were actually due to his behind the scenes influence. Bullshit! He was just hired as an actor and nothing more. He acted in just about anything to get money to pay for his lifestyle, and to continue to finance his efforts in making films. If anything, he could be a disruptive influence because of his stubbornness and ego which probably limited his options as an actor.
(3) That his career suffered because the establishment (Hollywood, the U.S. Government, The Girl Scouts, Amway, Whatever!) were against him. Basically, the biggest reason his career slowly tanked was due to himself. Welles was known as a consummate teller of tall tales (in other words, a bald faced liar) that also perpetuated this myth as truth.
“Citizen Kane” was a veiled portrait of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s life and Welles and cinematographer Greg Toland (who should have won an Oscar) created visual stunning scenes of his life and ultimate downfall into lonely ruin. His acting along with those of all of the actors in the movie were wonderful. Unlike the three other movies that I have mentioned, “Citizen Kane” was critically acclaimed and was nominated for numerous Oscars although only winning a well deserved one for Best Original Screenplay which Welles co-wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz. However, like the other three films previously mentioned, it was not financially successful although it too has gained classic status. It has been listed either as the greatest movie ever made or one of the best ever made. Now, I cannot pick any one movie as the greatest of all time. However, I can easily say that “Citizen Kane” deserves to be classified as a masterpiece.
Just don’t buy any Paul Masson Wine anytime soon!