Tuesday 20 February 2018

Calling the shots

George Clooney joins a select band of actors who have excelled behind the camera

George Clooney. Photo: Getty Images
George Clooney. Photo: Getty Images

Later this month George Clooney's eagerly awaited conspiracy thriller The Ides of March is released here. Clooney wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film, playing a super-slick Democratic presidential candidate who seems too good to be true.

It's Clooney's fourth film as director since his debut with the well-received and deeply weird Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in 2002. He earned an Oscar nomination for his work on Good Night, and Good Luck (2006), a beautifully shot black-and-white film set during the paranoid days of the McCarthy witch-hunts.

He fared less well at the box office with Leatherheads, a 2008 comedy about the early days of professional football, but seems on altogether firmer ground with The Ides of March, a film that's already being compared with the classic conspiracy thrillers of the early 1970s.

Mr Clooney is no dummy, and in earning his spurs behind the camera he has joined a select band of stars who've made a transition that most actors dream of but few ever attain. Here are 10 actors who overcame the sneers of their colleagues to direct films that have stood the test of time.

Charles Laughton

Lugubrious-looking English character actor Charles Laughton made his name in Hollywood playing villains in period dramas, most famously in Mutiny on the Bounty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But in 1953 he unexpectedly turned director, and produced a masterpiece.

The Night of the Hunter was based on a novel by Davis Grubb and starred Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, a psychopathic ex-con who poses as a bible-thumping preacher in order to fool a young widow and find some hidden loot.

Laughton borrowed heavily from the German expressionists to create a stylised and dream-like film that was hugely entertaining and genuinely disturbing. But the film did poorly and Laughton never directed again.

Ida Lupino

English-born beauty Ida Lupino became an A-list Hollywood star in the late 1930s and co-starred with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson. But despite her success Lupino called herself "the poor man's Bette Davis", and grew tired of sitting around on set while "someone else seemed to be doing all the interesting work".

There were no female directors in Hollywood at that time but, undeterred, Lupino began making low-budget thrillers. Two of them, Outrage (1950) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953) are now considered genre classics, and Lupino's movies turned film noir on its head by making men rather than vampish women the irrational agents of destruction.

Richard Attenborough

Richard Attenborough exploded on to the screen playing Graham Greene's psychotic hoodlum Pinkie Brown in the 1947 crime thriller Brighton Rock. Thereafter he became one of the most popular and versatile British screen actors, but in his mid-40s he turned to directing.

He made his debut in 1969 with the well-received anti-war satire Oh What a Lovely War, but came into his own as a director in the 1980s, when his period biopic Gandhi won eight Oscars including Best Picture. He went on to direct and produce an acclaimed drama about apartheid in South Africa called Cry Freedom, and a biopic of Charlie Chaplin that made a star of Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Redford

Robert Redford is the model on which actors-turned-filmmakers like George Clooney have based their careers.

After becoming the world's biggest movie star in the early 1970s, Redford played his hand beautifully. After guiding the Watergate drama All the President's Men to the screen in 1976, Redford let acting take a back seat and made his directorial debut with the tense family saga Ordinary People. The film won him an Oscar for best director in 1980, and thereafter he acted sparingly to help fund more personal projects.

His spiritual, bucolic dramas The Milagro Beanfield War and A River Runs Through It were highly praised, and his brilliant 1950s thriller Quiz Show earned him another Oscar nomination.

Clint Eastwood

After rising to fame as the man with no name in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood could very easily have phoned it in for the rest of his days as a highly paid action hero. But he'd always been a film buff, and used his acting career as an apprenticeship in movie-making.

He founded his own production company, Malpaso, in 1967, and surprised many with the high quality of his first film as director, Play Misty for Me, in 1971. In the 1970s, he made a string of bleak but stylish westerns like High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales. He won his first Oscar for his sublime anti-western, Unforgiven, in 1992, and over the last decade he has won countless awards, including two Best Director Oscars, for a string of exceptional late films that includes Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers and Gran Torino.

Sofia Coppola

Born into Hollywood royalty, Sofia Coppola's acting career began when she was only a few months old, when she played the baby in the famous christening scene in her father's masterpiece, The Godfather. Following more cameos, she starred in 1990 in The Godfather III as Michael Corleone's daughter after Winona Ryder fell ill.

Sofia's performance was universally panned, and she has hardly acted since. But the experience didn't put her off filmmaking, and in 1998 she released a surprisingly assured short film called Lick the Star. She did a brilliant job of adapting Jeffrey Eugenides's novel The Virgin Suicides for the screen in 1999, and scored a major hit four years later with the comic drama Lost in Translation.

Ron Howard

Older readers will remember Ron Howard as the chubby-faced teenager Richie Cunningham in the hit 1970s TV comedy Happy Days. The young Howard also worked with George Lucas and John Wayne, but gave up acting in the early 1980s to concentrate on directing.

He had an early breakthrough with the modestly successful 1982 comedy Night Shift, and as his directing career developed it became clear he had an uncanny eye for box-office gold.

His hit films include Cocoon (1985), Parenthood (1989), Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005) The Da Vinci Code (2006), Angels & Demons and Frost/Nixon (2008). He won an Oscar for his work on A Beautiful Mind.

Sean Penn

In the 1980s Sean Penn was best known for punching paparazzi and being Madonna's boyfriend. His acting talent has always been obvious, but he surprised many in 1991 by writing and directing a terse drama called The Indian Runner about two brothers on opposite sides of the law.

In 1995 he coaxed a fine performance from Jack Nicholson as a father tormented by his child's death in a road accident in The Crossing Guard. Penn and Nicholson teamed up again in 2001 to make The Pledge, a very accomplished and stylish crime thriller about a retired cop who cannot forget his promise to a murder victim's mother. And Penn's 2007 film based on the story of Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild, was widely praised and nominated for numerous awards.

Mel Gibson

After graduating from Australian soap The Sullivans and the Mad Max films, Mel Gibson became one of Hollywood's biggest stars during the 1980s in films like Lethal Weapon and Air America.

He became associated with violent action films, but changed direction sharply in 1993 when he directed and starred in The Man Without a Face, an emotional drama about a disfigured music teacher with a tragic past.

He triumphed at the Oscars two years later, winning best director for his rousing historical drama, Braveheart. Since then, his directing career, like his life, has been mired in controversy. His 2004 film The Passion of the Christ was widely praised for its grisly realism, but accused of anti-Semitism by others. But there's no doubting the brilliance of Apocalypto, his 2006 drama about the end of the Mayan civilisation.

Ben Affleck

You could argue that Ben Affleck's entire career was saved by a switch to directing. He shot to fame in the late 1990s with Good Will Hunting, a film based on a script that he and his childhood friend Matt Damon had written.

A-list stardom followed, but a disastrous relationship with Jennifer Lopez, coupled with a long string of flops, had all but done for him by the mid-2000s.

Then, in 2007, he directed and co-wrote Gone Baby Gone, a dark crime thriller based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. Affleck handled the story brilliantly, and his 2010 Boston-based thriller The Town was, if anything, even more accomplished. He's currently working on a new film about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, and is very much a man reinvented.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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