Actors behind the camera
“Actors are cattle” was Hitchcock’s provocative judgement in the famous series of talks that the filmmaker gave to François Truffaut (Jeffries).
Truly enough, during the heyday of Classical Hollywood, actors were under contract, like any other cog in the wheel of production of the studio system. The prevailing star system put an end to the “multitasking” norm of the beginning of the movie industry and, in this context, the instances of actors who turned directors (Charles Laughton, Robert Montgomery, Ida Lupino) were all the more remarkable.
However, the break-up of the studio system and the advent of independent cinema brought about a new order where a new generation of actors (Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman or Robert Redford among others) had more opportunities to try their luck behind the camera. Since the 1970s, the list of actors-turned-directors has increased dramatically and seems to have become a significant trend in recent years. The list keeps growing exponentially, moving from old-timers like Warren Beatty, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duval, Diane Keaton, Angelica Huston or Tommy Lee Jones, to include actors who are also known for their political commitment like Tim Robbins, George Clooney, Jodie Foster, and film stars like Tom Hanks, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Sean Penn, Michael Keaton, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Edward Norton, Ethan Hawke, Natalie Portman, Angelica Jolie, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt. Nor is the trend confined to the American film industry, as testified by the films of actors Peter Mullan, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Alan Rickman, Paddy Considine or Vanessa Redgrave in the UK, Sarah Polley or Don McKellar in Canada, Russell Crowe in Australia.
While there has been a renewed interest in actorial studies after studies on the star system and stars’ biographies (James Naremore, Jacqueline Nacache, Christian Viviani, Christophe Damour, among others), this phenomenon has yet to be investigated. This issue of Film Journal aims at exploring this largely unchartered territory.
What drives an actor behind the camera? Is it just another star’s fanciful whim or an unconscious desire to get even with directors – and prove Hitchcock’s assertion wrong? Do actors nurture the presumptuous belief that their experience will make them better equipped to stage direct other actors or do their films’ aesthetics give more leeway to actors’ performances? In the case of actors-turned-directors that are also in front of the camera, how can one film oneself? Does it testify to the fantasized ideal of immediacy which Jacqueline Nacache points out, obliterating signs of acting itself so as to equate playing and being? Or, on the contrary, is it a way to foreground the thespian quality of the actors, relating their actorial work to the prestigious stage (Al Pacino comes to mind)?
From Charles Laughton’s one-off masterpiece to the steady production of former actors who have become as well-known for their director’s works as for their acting career (John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Kenneth Branagh), actors’ films do certainly not constitute a genre of their own. Nonetheless, for all their variety, they seem to foreground some personal commitment, either in relation to an autobiographical experience or in an attempt to make a political or social statement. In this respect, one may wonder if actors’ films are not the perfect illustration of “auteur theory” that American film critic Andrew Sarris popularised from French film criticism, whereby a film is first and foremost the product of the director’s personal vision, a means of conveying his/her own worldview (Sarris, 1962).
The economic aspects of the matter may also be considered. Does the recent trend of actors-turned-directors convey a genuine emancipation from the profit-oriented, market-led constraints of a broadcasting environment that seems ever more prone to cash in on predictable formulaic franchises? Or is this rather the ultimate sign of the entertainment industry’s merchandising?
We invite submissions that will explore significant examples of films or collections of films by actors-turned-directors. The following list provides possible, albeit not exhaustive, topics for discussion:
- To what extent does this phenomenon contribute to renewing the debate around theories of film authorship after it has been discredited by structuralist and post-structuralist approaches?
- Is it possible to set up a typology – from the intimate and autobiographical or self-reflexive stance (Paul Newman directing his family, Sarah Polley etc.) to the spectacular overkill (Mel Gibson for ex)?
- How do production contexts and distribution strategies impact an actor’s decision to turn director? Do the opportunities offered by television (HBO, Netflix, etc.) and Hollywood or independent studios stimulate such career choices?
- How are the films received by the critics and the audience? Are they received with more condescension or more severity than other “ordinary” new-comers?
- How does it impact the collaborative nature of filmmaking?
- How do actors-turned-directors handle actor management? Are there notable specificities in this regard?
- How does it impact their future career? How does filming oneself affect an actor’s performance? Is an actor’s choice of roles or acting modes altered after an experience as film director? Does a director’s choice of film (and genre) relate to his/her acting career?
- How can age and gender play a role in their decision to turn directors?
- Is the phenomenon the same with TV series where showrunners and producers have usually more clout than directors?
Notification will be sent by mid-January. The deadline for completed articles is 1st September 2018.
Contributions should be sent together with a short biography of the author (max. 150 words) and an abstract (max. 200 words) and five keywords. For submissions, please consult and follow the norms for presentation indicated at Film Journal http://filmjournal.org/
 “Devenir soi-même, ne jouer que soi-même, étaient depuis les débuts, à tort ou à raison, les objectifs de tout acteur de cinéma.” Nacache, 118.