Just give that camera to me

CINEMA: It's not enough to be a successful actor these days. You have to direct as well. David Thomson examines the urge

John Wayne did it just once, having dreamed and planned The Alamo for 20 years. He said he'd gambled everything he owned on the venture - "all my money ... and my soul". It was a failure. Charles Laughton did it once, and the result was a more comprehensive disaster, yet these days The Night of the Hunter is often regarded as the best, and most revealing thing that tortured actor ever did. Cary Grant never did it; nor Cagney, nor Bogart, nor Gable, nor James Stewart, nor Gary Cooper. Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim took it for granted; they did it nearly all the time.

I am talking about the passing notion, or the unwavering compulsion, that persuades actors into directing movies, too. This is a rich season for that kind of daring. The remarkable and rising character actor, Kevin Spacey, has just made his directorial debut with Albino Alligator. Among the major films likely to open this autumn and winter, we have The Horse Whisperer, in which Robert Redford takes on Nicholas Evans's best-selling novel, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where Clint Eastwood explores the uncharacteristic material of the gay world of Savannah, Georgia. Among the smaller films we are likely to see there is Johnny Depp's debut The Brave, and Gary Oldman's striking first film, the autobigraphical Nil by Mouth.

Not all of those will get the same welcome. Nil by Mouth is a real film and an unexpected work from an actor who has lately seemed to be yielding to increasingly lurid but over-done pictures. It reveals a man (and an artist) we have not felt in Oldman since, say, Sid and Nancy or Alan Clarke's very scary TV film about football fans, The Firm. It's worth noting that Oldman doesn't act in the new film: he concentrated on the directing. On the other hand, Depp is not just in The Brave, he is its icon, apparently content to look at much footage of himself. Maybe he was overly impressed by the historic example of his co-star Marlon Brando, who once directed himself in a strange, pretentious but often fascinating western, One Eyed Jacks, an experience that so baffled and wearied Brando he gave up his own picture before it was finished and has never directed again.

That story illustrates one of the common moods in which actors may feel driven to direct. By 1958, Marlon Brando was recognised as not just the supreme actor of his generation, but as a pre-eminent star. He had done his classic, self-defining roles - A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront, The Wild One; and he made a series of films that displayed not much more than showy versatility - Julius Caesar, Desiree, Guys and Dolls, Teahouse of the August Moon. He had the pick of available projects; his power was akin to that of producers or even studios; and he had fallen as much out of love with Hollywood as in love with himself.

He scorned pictures and most picture people; he reckoned he was above them; he was lordly and capricious in his power to determine what got made. Of course, he was a great actor, with rare dramatic insights. But that is not always the same as being an assured, coherent dramatist. Brando had magical instincts, but he was not always very articulate about them, let alone capable of managing a project or leading a team. Great stars sometimes grow bored with their own expertise, and vain about how much more they could do - if only they could get rid of the idiots. (Dustin Hoffman, for instance, has never directed, yet some of his directors report the ordeal of begging for his agreement and his willingness to proceed).

Moreover, by the 1950s, stars had become increasingly authoritative on their own films. James Stewart never directed - maybe he knew his limitations; but as a major profit-sharer in the productions he was effectively a co- producer. In the same decade, Burt Lancaster directed a film (The Kentuckian) and formed his own, bold production company - it made Sweet Smell of Success, among others. Kirk Douglas did not direct until the 1970s, but he was a mounting ego on his own films, a hard man to talk out of his own convictions, and executive producer on Spartacus, a picture for which he deserves to be regarded as the auteur (even if Stanley Kubrick was the credited director).

Lancaster and Douglas were both better, or more determined, businessmen than Brando, and much more lucid talkers. But in 1958, the project that became One Eyed Jacks was brought to Brando by the producer Frank Rosenberg. As a rule, Brando dragged out his decisions on projects - it made him seem more powerful, and feel more intellectual. But this one he jumped at: Rosenberg reckoned it was because, by chance, the western story involved the relationship between two outlaws - Brando's part, and an older, betraying figure named "Dad". It happened that Brando was much weighed upon by resentment towards his own father.

Rosenberg proposed Stanley Kubrick as director, and Kubrick wanted Calder Willingham to do the script. Brando approved both men - and he had absolute power of approval. But as the script came in, Brando began to challenge it; he was unhappy in complex ways he couldn't fully express; he began to do some rewriting. Others were puzzled; they didn't understand what he was saying; they just felt the growing delay. Power was being exercised; a rather vague creative aspiration held sway, allied to indecisions. Brando wanted his old pal, Karl Malden, as Dad. Kubrick said no, Malden was not forceful enough - he preferred Spencer Tracy. In the end, Kubrick walked away and Brando said, very well, he would direct the thing himself. Malden played Dad. The shooting went on and on, and cost so much in terms of money and hope that Brando left the editing to others.

Let's be blunt: he didn't have the picture clearly in his head, as a story, a drama or a fixed schedule. He was trying to make it up as he went along, searching for its meaning - just like the most romantic conception of the artist. Decades earlier, Chaplin had made his films in that way, taking a couple of years sometimes, revising the script all the time, shooting miles of film that never appeared in the finished product. But that laborious, indulgent process worked, for several reasons: Chaplin was a goldmine - his films made so much money that no one complained at the delay; and he was a genius - he got it right eventually.

Chaplin's ego (plus his sentimentality) can seem grating at times. But contrast his career with those of some of the film's other great comedians - Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields - and one has to admit their failure to take charge of their own careers or comic art. Chaplin permitted no real collaboration, let alone external authority: he saw, or foresaw, his own pictures and took pains to guard that vision. He became a director because he would not trust his artistic sensibility, or his way of acting, to anyone else. Much the same thing could be said about Orson Welles, or Jacques Tati, or Woody Allen. Their way of directing was and is an extension of their acting style - or even their need to perform and attract attention.

But those seeking power or attention need a full agenda, otherwise they risk seeming feeble, empty-headed tyrants or narcissists (Allen doesn't always escape that, and some think his films without him as an actor - Radio Days, The Purple Rose of Cairo - are his best work). Brando's empire on One Eyed Jacks ends up as doodling. But Welles's complete identification with the character of Charles Foster Kane and the magic (or subterfuge) of film let him make a transforming, revelatory movie - thus, Citizen Kane stands as the beacon of what film can or could be, no matter the anti-climax of all the years since 1941. Any satisfactory comment on Kane has to consider what acting meant for Welles - not that he was necessarily a good actor so much as someone who could hardly help acting, and needed to deal with reality by acting. That's why Kane is so passionate, and why, I'll predict, that if ever film makes another great leap forward on the same scale, it will be because of an actor-director asserting him or herself in some audacious, terrifying way.

If you doubt that assertion, consider the case of DW Griffith, a man who approached the infant art and business of film as a would-be actor. For in those early days film was seldom more than the camera's meek recording of performances. Actors often determined what they would do, and their actions became the stories for films. But Griffith was rather dour and plain an actor. He didn't make the grade. Still, he needed work and someone said he could be the director, if he wished - it was not a hot job then. Griffith agreed, not cheerfully, and then began to discover the inner potential of the medium, and the enchantment in gazing upon women under stress. In the next 10 years or so, more than anyone else, this failed actor defined a new, enriched grammar of visual story-telling and acting on the screen.

To stress acting is a way of defending people and human values. In an age increasingly given over to special effects, where actors are expected to relate to empty spaces where light shows will be added later, it's easy to understand that actors want to hold on to small, intimate, human stories that rely on searching acting. And so the decision to direct yourself is a way of standing up for that cause.

By the 1950s, Charles Laughton (in some ways the Brando of the 1930s, though a deliberate exponent of ugliness) was in danger of self-parody. He had some very obvious, rather hammy roles in poor pictures - Henry VIII in Young Boss; Herod in Salome, Captain Kidd meeting Abbott and Costello. Half-amused, half-pained, he elected to direct one of the great films about the grotesque, The Night of the Hunter. He did not act in the film; instead, he gave the lead role to Robert Mitchum, thus uncovering a talent hitherto confined to, and rather masked by, noir attitudes. But would The Night of the Hunter be as good as it is if it didn't free the innocence and torment of a great actor reduced to eccentricity by a stupid industry? In other words, there are actors who long to cry out, "I am more than this".

Think how many of today's actors have yielded to this urge? Clint Eastwood found some relief from the monolothic but unsubtle heroes he had to play by beginning to direct. I'm not sure that he is yet a good or subtle director - and sometimes there is a feeling that he directs his projects to save time, money and the fuss of explanation. But surely it is that ambition that has helped us see more than the insolent, laconic guy with the serape and a cheroot. And if you want to explain yourself more fully to people, you need to tell them stories.

Anjelica Huston is maybe too good, too Magnani-like an actress for easy casting in an American cinema that dotes on chicks - young, wan, slender blondes. So she directed a very tough picture, Bastard Out of Carolina, more probing than anything she has been able to do as an actress recently. I hope she'll do more, while reminding us that the Hustons have always been actors and story-tellers. Didn't John Huston give us one of the great performances of the 1970s as Noah Cross in Chinatown? (And didn't that picture have another director who likes to act - Roman Polanski?)

Jack Nicholson tells anyone ready to listen that the thing he most wants to do is direct again (he has done Drive, He Said, Goin' South and The Two Jakes). I have hopes for The Horse Whisperer because I see some real progress in Redford's movement from Ordinary People through A River Runs Through It to Quiz Show, and I think Redford has nearly despaired of expressing himself as an actor. Warren Beatty's Reds is still neglected as an innovative treatment of history, and for its tacit admission of what makes Beatty tick. Then there's Mel Gibson and Braveheart.

Dennis Hopper is a director - I guess. Henry Jaglom cannot make a film without taking the lead part himself - call it art, call it therapy. Jaglom is one of the most intriguing independent film-makers in America - John Sayles and Spike Lee often take supporting parts in his films. Jodie Foster has a career as a director. De Niro has directed once (A Bronx Tale), and maybe once was enough for him. He does seem like an actor so shy about his own feelings that he needs to be provoked by others. A few years ago, Sean Penn said he was far more interested in directing now - on films like The Crossing Guard - but since then he has begun to work with fresh energy as an actor (U-Turn, She's So Lovely and The Game). Furthermore, Penn seems like the natural heir to the moody, loosely constructed but very actor-friendly films of John Cassavetes, a man who so loved actors that their craft became his subject, a metaphor for life.

But the most remarkable case of an actor turned director in America now, I think, is Al Pacino. Looking for Richard did not succeed in every detail; it did not leave everyone feeling compelled to see Pacino's complete Richard III. But how original and playful a picture it was, and how full of the consuming pleasure of being part of an acting company. Then there is The Local Stigmatic, a movie no more than an hour long, from a play by Heathcote Williams, paid for and owned by Pacino himself. He is not the nominal director, yet it is evident that he is totally responsible for the film, in which he plays a small-time English gangster (with accent). Pacino will show the film privately, but only if he introduces it personally and talks to the audience afterwards. The film may never be released. It is not exactly, or simply, good, I have to say. But it tells you as much about this great actor as his Michael Corleone, and it means the world to him.

The same crazy determination helped Robert Duvall to write, direct and produce his new film The Apostle - in which he also plays the lead. Of course, Duvall had or could muster the $5 million it cost - but the resolve and the need are more precious. Making a film is so horrendously unpleasant, and so exhausting. Many actors have the sense to keep to their trailers when they're not on; and many directors have no self left to go in front of the camera.

But there are examples of directors not normally actors stepping over the line. Why did Alfred Hitchcock insist on those walk-on spots? Was it a habit he couldn't drop, or a way of teasing actors? Then there are films where the directors were reaching so deep into themselves that they could hardly escape a small role. In Peeping Tom, Michael Powell chose to be the father who had initiated his son's obsession with voyeurism. And in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as Sheriff Garrett advances on his final confrontation with the Kid, he meets a white-haired coffin-maker, sour with the knowledge that it would all work out this way - a role filled by Sam Peckinpah, the film's director. In Belle de Jour, there is a dream in which, as Belle passes by, the dark, impassive figure of Bunuel is seen at a cafe table (he's with the film's producer).

Finally, I recall two films where a director's performance means more than if anyone else had had the part: in Day for Night, Francois Truffaut himself played the director, going deaf, driven out of his mind by the vagaries of life and the beauty of art, and the way the two do not always meet. In La Regle du Jeu, Jean Renoir stepped forward to inhabit the role of Octave, the man who brings people together, who makes the party work, but who cannot guard against his own fateful involvement in the action. To see La Regle du Jeu is to see Renoir directing, urging everyone on, in front of the camera.There is something very stirring in that show, for it helps us notice that in life itself there are some people who are just actors, and a few who play their own part while taking responsibility for the whole show.

'Nil by Mouth' (18) opens on 10 Oct.

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