Tuesday 19 March 2019

Pat Stacey: Awards season favours actors-turned-directors, but they're not always deserving

Bradley Cooper as Jackson and Lady Gaga as Ally in A Star Is Born
Bradley Cooper as Jackson and Lady Gaga as Ally in A Star Is Born

Pat Stacey

As actor Bradley Cooper finally wins an award for his directorial debut, Pat Stacey looks at the actors-turned-directors who were feted during awards season... and the ones who probably shouldn’t give up the day job

Poor old Bradley Cooper. Six months ago, he was the sure thing. The actor’s directorial debut A Star is Born was being hotly tipped for Academy Awards glory. There was excited talk of it winning best film, best director, and possibly best actor and actress for Cooper and co-star Lady Gaga.

The critics and the public adored the film. Hell, the man even wrote and sang his own songs in it; what could possibly go wrong? And yet, here we are, a little over a week away from the ceremony, and nobody is thinking like that anymore.

The jets have cooled. The wheels are looking wobbly. A Star is Born failed to make a significant dent at the Golden Globes, generally regarded as a solid predictor of the likely outcome on Oscar night. It has seven Oscar nominations, but now, most people believe The Favourite or Roma are the ones that will be fighting it out for the biggies on Feburary 25.

On the plus side, he did win one award: PETA awarded him the ‘Oscat’ “for his enlightened decision to cast his own canine companion in A Star is Born, rather than using one supplied by a notorious animal exhibitor”.

It looks like Cooper won’t, after all, be joining that super-elite club of movie stars whose directorial efforts — in a couple of cases their first stab at it — are rewarded with Oscar glory, usually at the expense of better, more seasoned filmmakers, who’ve made better, more deserving films.

Ordinary People
Ordinary People

The trend really began in 1981 with Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, which won best director and best film. Redford had frequently acted as his own producer over the years (most notably on All the President’s Men), but he’d never directed a film before.

Redford’s personal credentials are unimpeachable. The man is a living legend. He’s one of the last of the great movie stars. He’s a smart cookie and a decent, compassionate man whose Sundance Festival has done more to promote young, independent filmmakers than anyone else in Hollywood.

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull

Ordinary People is a very good film. But it’s not a great film. It’s an impeccably tasteful, middlebrow, middle-class soap opera about a seemingly perfect (on the outside), well-off suburban family falling apart. The film it beat that year for the two biggest awards of the night was Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

Let’s not beat about the bush: this was one of the most scandalous robberies in Oscar history. Raging Bull is a ferocious masterpiece, a tour de force of film-making. People still talk about it in awed tones today.

Nobody, on the other hand, really talks about Ordinary People anymore. Nobody really watches it either. Can you even remember the last time it turned up on television? Like Amadeus and Shakespeare in Love, it would make nobody’s list of the top 20 outstanding Oscar winners.

Ironically, the Robert Redford-directed film that genuinely did deserve to win some Oscars was Quiz Show. It was nominated for four that year (1995) and went home with none. Guess what bagged best director and best film?

Sally Field and Tom Hanks in 1993's Forrest Gump
Sally Field and Tom Hanks in 1993's Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump, a truly awful, horribly reactionary film. Incidentally, Pulp Fiction was also in the running.

The habit of garlanding actors who’d ventured behind camera continued the following year, when Warren Beatty won best director for Reds, about left-wing American journalist John Reed, who chronicled the 1917 Russian Revolution in his book Twelve Days That Shook the World.

Inconvenient truth: Braveheart is considered one of the most historically inaccurate films of all time
Inconvenient truth: Braveheart is considered one of the most historically inaccurate films of all time

Reds was a passion project for Beatty, a lifelong democrat, who’d been considering making it since the late 1960s, and an extraordinarily brave film to make in Ronald Reagan’s America.

You can’t really imagine any Hollywood star but Beatty — who’d previously shared a co-directing credit with Buck Henry on the 1978 romantic fantasy comedy Heaven Can Wait — daring to put their reputation on the line with a three-hour-plus epic about a communist journalist who isn’t exactly a staple on the American high-school history curriculum.

Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in 'Million Dollar Baby'.
Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in 'Million Dollar Baby'.

Impressive and ambitious as it is, though, Reds, like some of the Oscar winners mentioned above, has pretty much vanished from the conversation. It’s a film you’d watch once, without being inclined to revisit it. Whenever Beatty’s obituary is written, it’s likely to proclaim his starring/producing role in 1968’s seminal Bonnie and Clyde, which truly revolutionised American cinema, as the high point of his long career.

The Academy’s infatuation with actors who dabble in directing reached lunatic levels a decade after Reds with the mammoth Dances with Wolves, in which Kevin Costner directed himself as a Union Army officer, who eventually becomes a Sioux warrior. The film was nominated for 12 Oscars in 1992 and won seven, including best film and best director. Once again, Martin Scorsese, who didn’t even receive a best director nomination for the brilliant Goodfellas, was the victim of grand theft.

For all its size and sweep and glorious cinematography (the buffalo hunt scene is genuinely spectacular), Dances with Wolves is a curiously small movie. Two decades earlier, A Man Called Horse, starring Richard Harris, told a similar tale more authentically, and at half the length and a fraction of the budget of Costner’s bloated monster. Looked at a quarter of a century on, it’s the worst kind of “white saviour” drivel.

The Ides Of March is a classy drama that focuses on the backroom politics
The Ides Of March is a classy drama that focuses on the backroom politics

Its depiction of Native American life in the Old West (which many Native American activists criticised at the time) is absurdly politically correct, not to mention wildly historically inaccurate.

The Sioux, known to be one of the most fearsome and feared tribes, are presented as virtual pacifists. All they’re missing is a saintly halo around the head. The true history of the Native American people — who were far more complex and cultured than Hollywood movies ever gave them credit for, and whose society had a greater degree of democracy, equality and tolerance (gay warriors, for instance, were common and accepted) than that of their white oppressors — is more fascinating than anything in this film.

Dances with Wolves made a fortune, as did the film that cleaned up at the 1996 Oscars, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Its five statuettes included best film and best director for Gibson.

Braveheart is an entertaining and, at times, very stirring historical romp, though about as historically accurate as 1937’s Parnell, in which Clark Gable played Charles Stewart Parnell with lush, luxuriant hair of the kind CSP wouldn’t have recognised in the mirror. Braveheart got lucky; its only serious competition in the best film nominations that year was Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Personally, I’d have given the Oscar to that.

The most successful actor-turned-director of all is, of course, Clint Eastwood, who’s done the double of best director and best film twice, for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. What sets Eastwood apart from nearly all of the above is that he’s not a dabbler or a dilettante. He’s a real filmmaker — a full-timer, not a part-timer — with an extraordinary range.

His directorial debut was the excellent 1971 suspense thriller Play Misty for Me, in which he plays a DJ who’s terrorised by a one-night stand (Jessica Walter). It was an early example of him subverting the macho image he’d built up in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of spaghetti westerns.

He defied expectations again in 1973 with his third film as director, Breezy, a gentle May-to-December romance with William Holden and Kay Lenz, and was still doing it in 1995 when he took the sappy, derided novel The Bridges of Madison County and turned it into a genuinely moving romantic drama, starring him and Meryl Streep.

Eastwood has directed 37 films in all, a good number of which are, even without Oscar validation, stone-cold classics: The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bird, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling.

But not everyone can be Clint — or even George Clooney, whose impressive directorial efforts so far include Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, and The Ides of March. Like Eastwood, Clooney the director is always driven by the material, not by his own ego.

In a way, it might not be a bad thing if A Star is Born comes away from the Oscars empty-handed. There are plenty of talented young filmmakers out there struggling to get their projects off the ground, who can only dream about being handed the kind of budgets and first-class studio resources the likes of Cooper and other Hollywood stars can access when they suddenly decide their real talent lies behind the camera.

But as Hollywood has discovered to its financial cost, and cinema-goers have discovered to their pain, the majority of them couldn’t direct traffic. History is littered with ego-driven, movie star-directed stink bombs.

Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, which he took over when Stanley Kubrick walked? A mess. Johnny Depp’s The Brave, in which he played a Native American? So bad, apparently, he decided not to release it after it was ridiculed at Cannes. Eddie Murphy’s ego-drenched Harlem Nights, which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in? Abysmal. As for Vincent Gallo’s infamous The Brown Bunny — you don’t even want to go there. It’s just a pity HE did.

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