Staff Recs: Best Actors-Turned-Directors

Greta Gerwig and Sam Levy on the set of "Lady Bird." (Courtesy of A24)

Sometimes being an actor just isn’t fulfilling enough. Actors are often considered nothing more than pretty faces, so who can blame them for wanting to tackle something considered more virtuous? Not surprisingly, many Hollywood leading actors, from Robert Redford to Greta Gerwig, have satisfied their desires for cinematic meaning by turning to directing. With Bradley Cooper being the latest star to step behind the camera for “A Star Is Born,” here are our favorite thespians turned directors.

Greta Gerwig

Ryan Mikel, Arts Editor

From indie comedy queen to the fifth woman to ever be nominated for best director at the Academy Awards, Greta Gerwig is the ultimate virtuoso and my ultimate example of an actor-turned-director. While she only has one feature-length film under her belt,  “Lady Bird” which racked up five Oscar nominations and won a Golden Globe, Gerwig has proven herself to be a force in Hollywood. A multitasker at heart — she wrote the screenplays for “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” “Northern Comfort,” “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” while also starring in all five — Gerwig just needed a little funding from InterActiveCorp films to bring her quirky charisma to the role of director and her seasoned screenwriting skills to fruition. While we only have the 90-minute Californian magnum opus that is “Lady Bird” to ooh and ahh over for the time being, Gerwig’s modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” starring Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet, just started filming and is slated for a Christmas Day release in 2019. A year and two months can’t pass quickly enough.

Ben Affleck

Guru Ramanathan, Film & TV Editor

While his brother Casey is definitely the better actor, despite having directed only a few films under his vision, Ben Affleck has quickly cemented himself as one of the top directors working today. Following the critical and commercial failures of “Gigli” and “Surviving Christmas,” things were looking pretty dour for Affleck’s acting career in the mid-2000s. Then, out of nowhere came his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone” (starring Casey), an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name and a film that still stands as one of the best neo-noirs of the past decade. Set in Boston, “Gone Baby Gone” fully affirmed Affleck’s sensibilities as a fantastic director who can pull out stellar performances from his cast — he directed Amy Ryan to a Best Supporting Actress nomination — and an intelligent storyteller on a narrative and thematic level. While “Gone Baby Gone” starts off as a simple detective story, Affleck navigates a moral ambiguity within his characters and wrings out gut-wrenching tension so comfortably, you would think this was his 10th or 20th film.

His sophomore feature “The Town,” in which he also stars, only further established his love for Boston and his place as a director. Affleck expands his talent set, juggling high-octane action sequences and heartbreaking romance amid an intense gangster story while giving one of his best performances to date. This is also my personal favorite film of his to date, as it is able to flow in and out of multiple genres while remaining tonally consistent. It also contains some of the best performances for much of its cast, including Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall. Much like in “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck explores characters with complex moral compasses but manages to make the audience empathetic toward even the most brutal of criminals. Affleck then went on to direct 2013 Best Picture winner “Argo,” in which he finally left gangsters and Boston to tackle a period piece and a Middle East conflict. The intense but ultimately uplifting tale completed Affleck’s hat trick as a director, and the only downside to his run so far is that he has yet to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar.

While his latest film “Live By Night” was a surprising disappointment, the actor/director has already done more than enough to prove that his transition to directing was for the better of his career and Hollywood in general. While he has not announced a new directorial project yet, fans are eagerly waiting to see what he does next.

John Cassavetes

Daniella Nichinson, Arts Editor

Before he became the father of independent cinema, John Cassavetes spent the first decade of his career trying to become a star as a leading man. Cassavetes landed bit parts on hit shows of the time like “Omnibus” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” but struggled to break out into something more notable. It wasn’t until 1958, when he directed his first film “Shadows,” that he unearthed his desire to be a director and to be in command of the story. Though he continued to act throughout his career in films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Mikey and Nicky,” most of the work he did in front of the camera was limited to his own pictures. The small but intense canon of Cassavetes’s films grapples with the machinations of the human psyche. Fueled by impassioned emotion and frantic energy, his narratives focus on everyday people and their relationships. In “A Woman Under the Influence,” Cassavetes’s magnum opus, his wife, Gena Rowlands, portrays a woman whose sanity begins to unravel. It’s an honest portrait that doesn’t shy away from depicting the hardships and ugliness of life. If only one word could be used to describe Cassavetes’s films, it would be raw. My personal favorite of his works is “Opening Night,” a masterpiece that manages to capture the spontaneity and vitality of theater in a motion picture. From “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” to “Love Streams,” Cassavetes’s films demand a scrutinous attention and are often emotionally taxing viewings. But those qualities of intoxicating and violent feeling that saturate his films are what make Cassavetes, in my mind, an artist whose talent will never be matched.

Sofia Coppola

Nicole Rosenthal, Music Editor

From a very young age, actress-turned-director Sofia Coppola captured audiences of the silver screen. However, after a short-lived acting career (mostly in the context of her father’s films), Coppola turned to filmmaking full-time. Her defiantly feminine vision and delicate vignettes of the female experience make Coppola one of the most eye-catching and brilliant directors of our time. Blurring the lines between realism and fantasy without compromising the humanity of her characters, the Italian-American visionary paints delicate portraits of complex women through many eras. From the innocently ill-fated “Marie Antoinette” to the tortured Lisbon sisters of “The Virgin Suicides,” Coppola depicts femininity in all its forms — uncensored and unapologetically.

Jordan Peele

Ali Zimmerman, Deputy Arts Editor

When it comes to genre, there’s nothing Jordan Peele can’t do. He was originally known for his comedic acting and writing, making a name for himself with “Key and Peele.” He is the voice behind some of the most lovable characters in the cartoon world, including The Ghost of Duke Ellington in “Big Mouth” and Fanny in “Bob’s Burgers.” But Peele also showed off his prowess as a horror director last year with “Get Out.” In an almost unprecedented feat for someone making such a drastic genre-jump, “Get Out” was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Screenplay, Best Director and the coveted Best Picture. It takes a truly impressive lens to shift between comedy and horror, but Peele does so with ease and impressive skill in both. In any role, Peele delivers potent commentary on our social landscape, whether it makes the audience laugh out loud or sends a chill down their spines.

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