...But what I really want to do is direct

Oscar And The Enduring Allure Of The Actor-turned-director

The Year Of The Actor

(and the actor-director)

Star Power: Why Scorsese can't catch a break on Oscar night

February 27, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

The 77th annual Academy Awards are about actors. Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles has aroused an outpouring of affection -- including host Chris Rock's proclamation that if Foxx doesn't win the comedian's going to steal a statue and give him one himself. Clint Eastwood has cemented his evolution from gun-toting enforcer to Grand Old Man by producing, directing and acting the boxing-ring sage in Million Dollar Baby. Johnny Depp has continued his march into the ranks of Hollywood legends with his performance in Finding Neverland. And a host of fresh performing talents have gotten their first Oscar nods, including the astonishing Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo for the great Hotel Rwanda.

It's a refreshing change from the years when the media concentrated on dueling moguls or bogus controversies. As the late critic Pauline Kael once wrote, actors are "the human material" of the movies. In a phrase that existed in the theater long before the movies were a flicker in Tom Edison's eye, they are the ones who "bring the script to life."

-- Michael Sragow

Star Power: Why Scorsese can't catch a break on Oscar night

Call it the Curse of Scorsese.

If producer-director-star Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby mows down the competition tonight at the 77th annual Academy Awards -- including Scorsese's The Aviator -- it won't be a surprise.

Actor-directors are murder on Scorsese at the Oscars: Two dozen years ago, Robert Redford's Ordinary People overcame the legendary director's Raging Bull. And in 1990, Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves eliminated Scorsese's GoodFellas.

If that record dismays Scorsese, he's not alone in the loser column when it comes to world-class directors competing with actors-turned-filmmakers: In 1982, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi wiped out Steven Spielberg's E.T. And in 1995, Mel Gibson' Braveheart trounced that contemporary classic Babe -- produced by George Miller, the director of Mad Max.

Conventional wisdom holds that since a plurality of academy voters are actors, they vote for members of their tribe. But the appeal of the actor-filmmaker transcends academy arithmetic. Whether they appear in their own movies or not, these guys cannily (and sometimes artfully) use their directing projects to play off or expand on their screen images. Like politicians, they sometimes win fans just by overcoming expectations.

Eastwood earned his acclaim when he revised his gunfighter persona mercilessly and movingly in Unforgiven; on the other hand, Million Dollar Baby is an overlong, flimsy tearjerker that lets Eastwood sanctify himself as a sensitive father figure. But whether for milestone movies or overrated, over-ambitious follies, Eastwood and his fellow hyphenates get the upper hand on their competitors as soon as they walk into a room. For sheer charm, star directors, even one as colorful and accomplished as Scorsese, can't match a movie star who's a director.

The first great actor-directors of the movies, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, "hark back to the 19th-century theatrical tradition where the star is animating the production at both ends -- onstage and behind it," says Steve Vineberg, professor of theater and film at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and author of High Comedy in American Movies. But Welles and Olivier came of age in a very different kind of theater -- artists such as Stanislavsky and Max Reinhardt had revolutionized the stage by making the director the key interpreter of a text, molder of an ensemble and visualizer of a production. Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and Olivier's Henry V (1945) are star turns with supporting characters cast to perfection, and they looked and moved like no other movies.

The power to direct

The Welles-Olivier tradition has continued with men like Warren Beatty (Reds, 1981) and Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, 1989) -- and women like Elaine May (The Heartbreak Kid, 1972) and Diane Keaton (Unstrung Heroes, 1995).

But Vineberg feels that actor-filmmakers like Eastwood and Costner "came into directing for different reasons -- because they got enough power and could make their own star vehicles."

Eastwood does get a valiant and probably award-winning performance out of Hilary Swank. But he doesn't do what many other actor-directors do, from Paul Newman to Christopher Guest -- push every actor to a peak level of performance. Toni Kalem, who played Angie Bonpensiero on The Sopranos, did that in her 2004 writing-directing debut, the Anne Tyler adaptation A Slipping-Down Life, most notably with her leads, Guy Pearce and Lili Taylor.

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