“But what I really want is to direct.” Such an iconic Hollywood quote. One that we have all come to accept as a truism of the industry. Every actor making movies is really just treading water as they lie in wait for the opportunity to step behind the camera and be the one in charge. But is that true? Are all actors really just directors-in-waiting? One way to determine the accuracy of the conventional wisdom at work here is to look at how many actors who finally got their shot at getting behind the camera came back to it again and again. Or, more precisely, how many actors who got the chance to live the of dream of directing a movie almost immediately made the conscious decision to never do it again?
Charles Laughton: Night of the Hunter
It is easy to castigate Charles Laughton for quitting after making a classic thriller in the southern gothic tradition, but perhaps he was just a firm believer in the showbiz dream of going out on top. I’m not a big fan of Robert Mitchum who is the Godfather of that acting school that avoids showing any emotion at all costs. (Progeny: Lance Fuller, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves.) Even I have to admit that Mitchum pulls off a roaring good job in “Night of the Hunter.” This is the only film that for which Charles Laughton receives full directing credit, but he got some experience a few years earlier when he demanded that the original director of the film “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” be replaced by co-star Burgess Meredith. Meredith handed over the directing reins to Laughton in the scenes in which he appeared on-screen.
Frank Sinatra: None but the Brave
I am even less a fan of Sinatra than I am of Mitchum. The only reason he won an Oscar for “From Here to Eternity” is because Montgomery Clift guided him through every beat of every scene; look it up if you don’t believe me. Sinatra tried his hand at directing, but gave up on it, I guess, after this one. Maybe he was trying to catch lightning in a bottle by going back to the military for his directorial debut/swansong. Maybe Sinatra thought he could garner a directing or Best Actor Oscar to go with his supporting statue. He forgot one essential element in None but the Brave: Montgomery Clift.
Marlon Brando: One-Eyed Jacks
Stanley Kubrick was fired as the director of this offbeat western and Marlon Brando took over. Let’s just say of “One-Eyed Jacks” that Marlon made what was not the first of his many mistakes in showing the legendary Kubrick the door and taking over the helming of this, let’s face it, rather misguided attempt at a western in the 1960s that probably would have been much better received had Brando directed it in the 1970s. Despite the fact “One-Eyed Jacks” was a hit, it was not the movie Brando envisioned since his first cut ran five hours. He could have Kill Billed it and maybe have produced a movie that would rival “Night of the Hunter” as the best one-shot directorial effort by an established movie star. The problem seems to stem from the fact that Brando thought he was David Lean, but hadn’t yet earned the right to waste magnificent sums of money waiting for the perfect wave like Lean. Still, one imagines that the final result might well have been “The Magnificent Ambersons” of one-shot star directors if Brando had paid more attention to how his previous movies were directed. Then again, what can anyone learn from Elia Kazan except how to rat on your friends?
James Cagney: Short Cut to Hell
I am actually rather embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know Jimmy Cagney had directed a movie until about a few years before I wrote this. The opening sequence of “Short Cut to Hell” is quite the eye-grabber. There are breast men and there are leg men; from the looks of the opening of this remake of “This Gun for Hire” it’s quite obvious that Cagney was a butt man. As a dancer-turned-actor, Cagney is a curiously sloppy director. “Short Cut to Hell” abounds with continuity errors. Perhaps Cagney was not really that interested in directing, but somehow got pressured into that role.
Jack Lemmon: Kotch
Yeah, I know, why would you want your legacy as a director to rest solely on a movie titled “Kotch” when you are an actor with the legendary status of Jack Lemmon who could have, one assumes, had his choice of choice directing gigs? It sounds like crotch and probably got confused by some moviegoers with “Klute” which came out the same year. If you know anything at all about classic movies, you probably won’t be surprised to find out that Jack Lemmon’s sole directorial effort starred Walter Matthau. That makes, what, 72 films they collaborated on? Something like that. Many other actors besides Kevin Spacey are probably very sad that Lemmon did not pursue directing as his freshman effort earned Matthau a Best Actor nomination to go with the film’s three other nods.
Peter Lorre: Der Verlorene
Cinema’s greatest creepy little guy got one shot at directing and in it he plays…a creepy little guy. Actually, he’s a psychopathic mad doctor and Lorre had to head back to postwar Germany to make a movie like “Der Verlorene.” Hollywood would never have funded or released such a film. As with most German directors–even uber-feminazi Leni Riefenstahl–Lorre has a terrific eye for framing movies and the influence of German Expressionism is expressed within this one-shot directorial effort by one of the movies’ most dependable character actors.
Lillian Gish: Remodeling Her Husband
Back when she was still very hot–both as an actress and a sex symbol–Lillian Gish rocked the male-dominated world of directing with this now-lost silent flick starring sister Dorothy.
Anthony Quinn: The Buccaneer
Quinn actually appeared in the earlier, superior, version of “The Buccaneer” directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. Quinn faced two problems in trying to ignite a dream he’d long held, apparently: he didn’t have Fredric March to play Jean LaFitte and he did have Charlton Heston to play Andrew Jackson.