FILM / Lights, camera, satisfaction: Time was when Hitchcock called them cattle, but now actors call the shots. Kevin Jackson on the stars turned directors

F Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that there are no second acts in American lives, but any number of American actors seem dead set on proving him wrong by nipping around to the other side of the camera, donning natty baseball caps and starting fresh careers as directors. Over the last couple of weeks, the London Film Festival has screened directorial debuts from the likes of Robert de Niro (A Bronx Tale), Andy Garcia (Cachao) and Forest Whitaker (Strapped). Meanwhile, The Man without a Face, Mel Gibson's first stab at directing, opened at the weekend.

John Turturro, best known as the star of Barton Fink, is already at work on a follow-up to Mac, which took a prize at Cannes this year. Closer to home, our own Kenneth Branagh is calling the shots on a high-budget Frankenstein, in which he also plays the Faustian doctor to De Niro's creature. Add to this list recent directorial debuts - DDs, for short - by Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate), Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Emilio Estevez and even Liv Ullmann, and the practice of career-swapping starts to seem less like a freak than an industry requirement.

Why do these stars do it? Mel Gibson has put on a bluff, just-a-regular-guy show about the whole business, saying that his chief motive for directing was so as to be sure of having a new job for when his face crumbles with age - a quip, or confession, which makes the hideous prosthetics that cover half of his good-looking pan seem heavy with private symbolism. More generally, directing is the only vocation to rival acting as a provider of fame, wealth and attractive lovers, so the temptation to aim for a double helping is powerful. Though dismal on-screen results often make this hard to credit, it is almost impossibly hard to land a job directing in Hollywood, and your chances of breaking into the elite circle are much higher if you bring clout from some related field. Ever since the earliest days of the cinema, actors have been among the handful of players who could slide themselves into the top job - Chaplin and Keaton did it in the United States, Olivier did it here - and film history would be radically different if strict divisions of labour had been observed, and performers had been told to get away from the cameras and stick to worrying about their make-up.

Why, then, do we now find the move from actor to director so worthy of note? For a great many reasons, but partly because a diluted and debased version of the auteur theory put it about that the real artists on a set were the ones who held the megaphones (Gore Vidal likes making his little joke about that one, and claims he once saw the bathetic credit Un film de Franklin Schaffner). Directors became superstars, and actors had to work very hard to shake off rumours that they were, as Hitchcock so delicately put it, cattle.

If you look at the background of most of the American directors who have come to prominence in the last 20-odd years - Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Demme, Zemeckis, Lee and so on - you will find that most of them began their careers either in film school and television or as writers.

In fact, the routine advice to any young blood who wanted a shot at directing was to churn out screenplays, build a reputation to the point where studios were panting for their next script, and then refuse to hand the thing over unless given the job of directing it.

Unlike most gimmicks, this one actually worked for some people. Actors looked on enviously, and if their box-office standing was sufficiently high, would try to use that power in a similar fashion. (How else could an insecure star guarantee that he would be working with a director who loved him every bit as passionately and faithfully as he loved himself?) The products were seldom encouraging. Unlike most of the films by crossover writers, which tended to consolidate earlier hits, actors' movies frequently looked like indulgences, Hollywood's costly equivalent of vanity publishing.

Take the case of Jack Nicholson, who remains firmly in the A-list as a star but would barely scrape into the F-list as a director. He made his DD in 1971 with a largely forgotten counter-cultural oddity called Drive, He Said (the title comes from a poem by Robert Creeley), followed through with the whimsical Western Goin' South in 1978. Most recently, he pulled off the remarkable coup of directing a sequel to Chinatown - The Two Jakes (1990) - which, despite its obvious appeal to the millions who enjoyed Polanski's original, vanished from public sight like water in the Californian desert.

And even these three abortive efforts have managed to generate a minor cult following and one or two interesting reviews. It's hard to imagine that there is so much as one lonely Eddie Murphy fan out there who worships his idol fervently enough to find some merit in Murphy's own DD, Harlem Nights, or one Emilio Estevez nut who thinks that Men at Work is a real hoot.

Still, megalomania is one thing; creative control is another, and need not always be a bogus or pompous idea. In the same years when some stars had the fatal phrase 'Renaissance Man' thrumming in their ears, there were others who had strong reasons for directing and made a creditable job of it to boot.

Clint Eastwood, whose directorial work has done a good deal to establish the ground for the most recent crop of DDs, set up his production company Malpaso in 1967 and made his own DD in 1971 with Play Misty for Me. Among the emotions which sent him to the director's chair was frustration, a feeling which built up as he found himself being miscast in film after film - Where Eagles Dare, Paint Your Wagon, Kelly's Heroes . . .

As in the case of Woody Allen, audiences and studios alike have learnt to be comfortable with the idea of Eastwood swapping back and forth between jobs - rather more so than in the cases of other greying hunks. Robert Redford made quite a stir with Ordinary People but next to none with The Milagro Beanfield War. Paul Newman's Rachel, Rachel, Sometimes a Great Notion, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and Harry & Son earned some decent reviews but have swum out of the ken of the general public - which concludes, reasonably enough, that Newman's second career is the production of salad dressings.

By contrast, one or two young actors have made such a success of directing that they have put their earlier callings into the shade. True, most viewers will just about recall that Ron Howard was a child star before directing Splash, Parenthood and Backdraft; but few British cinemagoers, asked to put a credit to Rob Reiner's name, would say 'He was Archie Bunker's son- in-law in All in the Family,' rather than 'He directed Misery / Spinal Tap / When Harry Met Sally. . . ' (Henry Winkler will always be remembered as the Fonz, and anyone who has seen Cop and a Half will know how richly he deserves that fate.)

One of the major watersheds in the revival of the DD was Dances with Wolves, which may have reeked of self-love but proved to be anything but a vanity project in financial terms. Wolves showed actors that a DD could leave you festooned with Oscars, and it showed studios that a DD could leave you rolling on Krugerrands - a heady combination, and one whose afterglow will continue to burn for years to come, since (as the endless glut of sequels indicates) Hollywood clings to successful precedents with feverish tenacity.

This prospect need not be a gloomy one for cinemagoers: after all, Citizen Kane was a young actor's DD. But it does suggest that the best track into directing may finally have shifted away from writing. You want to be a director, young hopeful? Better trade in that word processor and set about earning yourself an Equity card.

(Photographs omitted)