For the best buddy movies, take a look behind the camera

As Mark Wahlberg and David O Russell score with their third collaboration, Leigh Singer celebrates top director/star combos
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For a group endeavour like film-making, a huge amount of attention is devoted to couples. Co-stars such as Astaire and Rogers or Bogart and Bacall have become the definition of on-screen chemistry. Behind the camera too, certain pairs are synonymous with each other. Imagine Steven Spielberg's films, from Jaws's ominous two-note tuba riff to soaring blockbuster themes, without the scores of John Williams, or Ingmar Bergman's coruscating close-ups without Sven Nykvist's luminous cinematography.

Yet, of all dynamic movie-making duos, arguably none is as intriguing as the actor-director double act. In this fascinating axis of upfront star-power and behind-the-scenes control, who really holds the power when A-listers collide? Is the star a surrogate for the film-maker? Or a puppet (or vice versa)? Does smoothness or turbulence keep them coming back for more?

Several of the more intriguing actor-director pairings around are currently either doing the rounds or busying their next joint effort. The Fighter is the third collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and director David O Russell, after the Gulf War treasure-hunt Three Kings and metaphysical comedy I Heart Huckabees.

Initially considered two highly unlikely collaborators – ex-boy-band bruiser and mercurial thinker – no director other than Russell has elicited such powerful work from Wahlberg (Martin Scorsese and The Departed aside). Nor so varied either, with the pair already re-teaming for video game adaptation Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

Then consider Tony Scott and Denzel Washington, whose recent runaway-train thriller Unstoppable is their fifth combined effort and probably their best since their first together, Crimson Tide. "We have a good shorthand now," says Washington. "I know what he's after and he knows how I like to work, and we leave each other alone."

The Scott-Washington "comfy slippers" approach may suit them both nicely, but basically each of their films together is a throwaway, mucho-macho action movie. Surely Washington's four films with Spike Lee, including Malcolm X, offered more challenges to audiences as well as to the actor himself? And if he can't really be bothered, why should we?

Similar gripes have begun to greet the relentless Tim Burton-Johnny Depp production line, though not enough to dissuade them from yet another fantasy retread, Dark Shadows, based on the cult 1960s TV series. Familiarity breeding contempt is potentially more a problem for the director, usually tied to a project for around two years, while the actor flirts with other film-makers before returning 'home' (seven of Burton's 11 features since 1990's Edward Scissorhands star Depp; Depp has shot 35 films in the period).

Better to be a George Clooney-Steven Soderbergh – rumoured to be combining forces again for the big screen Man From U.N.C.L.E. – but who both busy themselves with other collaborators between dual ventures. Or better yet, judging from the delight that greeted the announcement, Scorsese and De Niro finally reuniting after 16 years for – surprise, surprise – gangster drama The Irishman? Some couples are just meant to be together.

John Ford and John Wayne (14 films)

American – and arguably world – cinema's defining director-actor team, Ford and Wayne's professional relationship began when Pappy made a star of The Duke in 1939's Stagecoach and endured across 50 years, 14 films and a stormy friendship (Ford abhorred Wayne ducking war service). Yet together, against Monument Valley, their Westerns forged the archetypal depiction of American masculinity, from Stagecoach's jingoistic individualism to The Searchers' guilt-ridden disillusionment, questioning the very myth-making their films – and America itself – once espoused. They are perhaps unfashionable among modern audiences, but destined to be overlooked? As Wayne's Searchers anti-hero drawls, "That'll be the day."

Key film The Searchers (1956)

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (eight films)

Taxi Driver Travis Bickle, Raging Bull Jake LaMotta, The King of Comedy Rupert Pupkin... the De Niro-Scorsese rogues gallery of loose cannon, brutal and brutally insecure men, an examination of their mutual Italian-American, working-class heritage, epitomised the renaissance of 1970s and 1980s American movies. Supplemented by eager acolyte Leonardo DiCaprio as Scorsese's go-to lead for the past decade (though would anyone swap, say, Goodfellas for The Aviator?), the pair's professional separation only whets the appetite for their mooted Mafia thriller The Irishman. And surely even middling Scorsese-De Niro helps redeem the star's recent Meet The Fockers-esque track record.

Key film Taxi Driver (1976)

Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (16 films)

The Emperor and The Wolf is the title of a book about this legendary Japanese collaboration and no other actor-director combination – regal movie-mastery with a primal emotional force – did more to bring a foreign cinema to Western attention. Historical dramas (Rashomon), modern gangster sagas (Stray Dog) and, of course, the great samurai films (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), Mifune served Kurosawa with dazzling range in a body of work sadly cut short by personal grievance. Yet their transcendent legacy remains, leading Kurosawa to modestly, if harshly, declare, "I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him."

Key film Seven Samurai (1954)

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow (13 films)

It is impossible to imagine this former couple ever re-teaming given their personal circumstances, but for ten years and more than 13 films, Farrow was Allen's greatest muse. Sure, Diane Keaton got the early films and la-di-da screen persona, but Farrow's range across Bergman-esque drama (September), farcical comedy (Broadway Danny Rose) and everything in-between, as star or unselfish support, is astounding. This run produced its own masterpieces in Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters and Allen's heartbreaking valentine to movies themselves, The Purple Rose of Cairo, perhaps his most underrated work, starring his most under-appreciated – and, disgracefully, still never Oscar-nominated – leading lady.

Key film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp (seven films)

Starting out as a pair of outsiders with a mutual love of childlike outcasts and macabre fairytales, the Burton-Depp axis has long gone mainstream to diminishing artistic, if not financial, returns. Now (over-)familiar as the default choice for Gothic-lite blockbuster fantasy, their efforts increasingly appear to indulge Depp's pantomime leads (Willy Wonka, The Mad Hatter) and Burton's ornate art-direction at the expense of what made their partnership special in the first place: lovingly rendered, personal tales of genuinely edgy oddballs – Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood – and a winning blend of wide-eyed wonder and brooding, bruised heart.

Key film Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski (five films and one documentary)

Two larger-than-life lunatics who didn't just deserve but seemed to drive each other to ever more excessive, spectacular adventures in remote parts of the globe, Herzog and Kinski were made for each other. The behind-the-scenes tales of habitual, hair-raising feuds – near-death experiences, arguments at gunpoint – are as entertaining as the best of their epic South American-jungle movie collaborations, Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, two classics both touched with a sense of genuine insanity. Herzog playfully compiled (and milked) these on- and off-screen greatest hits in his fascinating documentary of their relationship, the aptly titled My Best Fiend.

Key film Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz (four films)

Spain's greatest living auteur is justly renowned for creating strong female roles, played by a phalanx of regular leading ladies (Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes). His latest, and certainly most internationally successful, muse is self-avowed fan Cruz. Almodovar freed her from eye-candy roles with a series of challenging women – pregnant nun (All About My Mother), haunted, desperate housewife (Volver), doomed movie starlet (Broken Embraces) – while still celebrating her voluptuous beauty. Cruz's response? Her best screen-work yet, providing the gritty emotional essence amid her director's stylistic flourishes, their mutual adoration promising more sensual cinematic discoveries to come.

Key film Volver (2006)

Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney (six films)

Both in the doldrums before their superb 1998 low-life crime saga Out of Sight (aka Tarantino for grown-ups), the suave movie star and intellectual cinephile effectively resurrected each other's film careers, embarking on a series of actor-director collaborations while helping facilitate other film-makers through their Section Eight company. There was always a feeling that Soderbergh's scrappy, restless experimenting might outpace Clooney's affinity for handsome, prestige pictures, but their more ambitious work together – thoughtful remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris, misguided retro wartime melodrama The Good German – displayed enough mutual risk-taking to counteract the slick, star-struck capers of the Ocean's Eleven trilogy.

Key film Out of Sight (1998)

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands (seven films)

Husband and wife, partners in crime, founder members of the US independent cinema movement, Cassavetes and Rowlands' screen work together exhibits the raw, ramshackle intensity of home movies. Perhaps blame spousal loyalty, but Rowlands has rarely had roles as complex or demanding as those written by her husband, notably the full-throttle mental breakdowns of A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. It's as indictment of the roles available to older women that 20-plus years since Cassavetes's death, Rowlands's formidable talents remain as underutilised as ever.

Key film A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe (five films)

Scott and Crowe rely on their fiery relationship to produce enough creative sparks to burn their movies onto the collective consciousness. That's fine for a visceral testosterone-fest like Gladiator; not so suitable for the flimsy whimsy of A Good Year. Subsequent heavyweight collaborations American Gangster and Body of Lies split Scott's attention on Crowe with A-list co-stars (Washington, DiCaprio), while Robin Hood was simply dull and humourless. But few would discount two such ferociously committed film-makers.

Key film Gladiator (2000)

'The Fighter' is out now; 'Unstoppable' is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 28 March