Today marks the Blu-ray debut of Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant’s acclaimed 1997 drama that became the breakthrough film for writer/stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The pair, who had been friends since childhood, famously wrote the screenplay out of struggling-actor frustration, figuring that if they couldn’t find any good roles (or convince people to give them good roles), they’d write some of their own. The strategy paid off in spades; the film was a critical and financial smash, and the duo won that year’s Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Damon and Affleck weren’t the first frustrated actors who turned to the typewriter to take control of their careers; it’s a common strategy for young actors who can’t get a job, albeit not one that always works out quite as spectacularly. Young actors on the rise aren’t the only ones prone to take a shot at screenwriting, though — more established actors have frequently been known to try their hand at the gig as well, either to redefine themselves and redirect their careers, or to realize a personal, important project. And, let’s be honest, some have probably just done it to satiate their own massive egos. Whatever the case, there’s an abundance of movies written by actors out there; after the jump, we take a look at ten titles, and rank them in order of their artistic (and career-trajectory-influencing) success.
Eric Schaeffer is best known these days as a (richly deserving) target of Gawker and other websites, thanks to his autobiographical blog (and, later, Showtime reality series) “I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single.” But once upon a time, Schaeffer was a struggling young actor/writer/director; he teamed with another multi-hyphenate, Donal Lardner Ward, to make the low-budget 1993 indie film My Life’s In Turnaround, which was a festival success and got the duo a short-lived Fox sitcom called Too Something. Somehow, Schaeffer managed to use those those two credits to convince Columbia/TriStar to hand him a $3.5 million budget for If Lucy Fell, a 1996 romantic comedy that he wrote and directed, with Sarah Jessica Parker, Elle MacPherson, and Ben Stiller in the cast. Oh, and Schaeffer, who humbly wrote himself the leading role of the irresistible painter who nearly beds MacPherson (who calls him “a cute, smart, sexy, good-looking guy” — writing that line for someone else to say to you is a high watermark for narcissism, even in Hollywood) and ends up with Parker. Yes, everyone in If Lucy Fell is utterly in love with Eric Schaeffer; too bad that didn’t rub off on the critics (“Schaeffer… can neither write, direct nor act. His characters are sketchy and his storytelling arbitrary. He can’t sustain a narrative flow, his staging is clumsy and his few ideas are only partly articulated.” – Washington Post ) or ticket buyers.
This 2006 drama was actually Emilio Estevez’s fourth produced screenplay, following the dramas That Was Then…This is Now and Wisdom and the slapstick comedy Men at Work. But those films were basically harmless vanity pieces; Bobby was an attempt by Estevez (who also directed) to make a sprawling, Altman-style ensemble piece about an important historical event (the assassination of Bobby Kennedy). And it is a nightmare — an utter mess sunk by a too-busy narrative, too many characters, an overdose of historical montages, and soap opera dialogue. In centering a cast of two dozen or so recognizable faces around a political assassination, Estevez is clearly going for Nashville, but he comes up with Crash — particularly, he seems to be consciously replicating that film’s tin ear for dialogue and complete lack of thematic subtlety. Further, Estevez seems to have a big cast solely for the sake of having a big cast — if RFK’s going to get shot, do we really give a damn about the affair between the hotel manager and the switchboard girl? If this assassination was indeed a critical turning point in American history (and there’s little doubt that it was), then maybe we could spend a little more time with his assassin (who gets one line), and a little less time with the wacky drug dealer upstairs (played by Ashton Kucher, of course)? Estevez’s screenplay also includes a clichéd acid trip sequence and a conversation between Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen about how women love shoes. Yes, seriously. Bobby plays like a first draft screenplay that needed at least three more passes before getting tossed.
Your author was thirteen years old and nuts for anything with Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor when Harlem Nights came out in 1988, so I’ll admit to holding Murphy’s writing and directing debut in a little higher regard than it probably deserves. Murphy — then at the absolute height of his 1980s power and popularity — penned the screenplay as an opportunity to work with his heroes Pryor and Redd Foxx, but he probably should have considered farming the job out to someone other than a first-time screenwriter; his script is pretty weak sauce, a hodgepodge rewrite of The Sting with some broad comic bits and an overabundance of twelve-letter words. Are there some laughs? Sure, but nowhere near as many as their should be, considering the picture’s Comedy Hall of Fame cast; it made money, but was widely seen as a disappointment and, for the first time, as a sign that Murphy was not infallible. “People may go to see Eddie Murphy once, twice, three or even six times in disposable movies like Harlem Nights,” wrote a particularly prescient Roger Ebert, “but if he wants to realize his potential he needs to work with a better writer and director than himself.”
Character actor John Turturro’s labor of love (he wrote, directed, and ultimately self-distributed) is a real mixed bag — it sat on studio shelves for more than two years in spite of an all-star cast ( James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mary Louise-Parker, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, and Mandy Moore), presumably because the powers-that-be were afraid of its Pennies From Heaven-style musical numbers, in which Turturro’s hard-nosed Brooklyn types occasionally burst into song (usually singing along with original recordings). And they may well have had a point—the song-and-dance numbers are (by a mile) the least successful element of Romance & Cigarettes. They just plain don’t work, and the novelty wears off after the first one. It’s a neat idea, but it’s poorly executed — the musical interludes aren’t well photographed or well choreographed, and so they all sort of stop the show (in the wrong way). Elsewhere, though, there are some sharp, well-written scenes, played by a terrific cast (which also includes Bobby Canavale, Aida Turtrurro, Elaine Stritch, Eddie Izzard, and Amy Sedaris), and the relationships are believable and heart-felt. And this is one of Kate Winslet’s most surprising and memorable performances, which is saying something. Romance and Cigarettes isn’t a great film, but it’s an admirable one — you can’t help but respect Turturro for taking so many chances, even if they don’t really pay off.
It is easy to forget, in light of how cartoonish the series became, that the original 1976 Rocky was a quiet, heartfelt, and honestly good movie (a Best Picture winner, in fact) with a compelling backstory: star Sylvester Stallone was a Hollywood also-ran, toiling away in bit parts with a career headed to nowhere, when he wrote the gentle, affecting screenplay as a vehicle for himself (and refused big payday offers to sell it unless he was attached to star). It’s also easy to forget how great Stallone is in the film; so convincing was he as the slurry-voiced bruiser that people tended to think he was just playing himself (an assumption that apparently irked Stallone to such a degree that he took to wearing unnecessary eyeglasses and giving overly verbose interviews in the 1980s). But at the time of the film’s release, he was legitimately compared to DeNiro and Brando, and for good reason: it’s a terrific performance. He conveys palpable, powerful fear and hesitation in the scene where the Creed bout is proposed, and his speech, late in the film, about wanting to “go that distance” is a wonderful piece of acting and writing.
Young actor Jon Favreau, then known only for his supporting role in Rudy, wrote the screenplay to this buddy ensemble comedy in two weeks, writing roles specifically for his Los Angeles actor friends (including Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston). It was, not surprisingly, the story of a group of struggling young actor friends trying to get a break in Los Angeles. What it lacked in inventiveness it made up for in wit and timeliness; Favreau’s script, filled with Rat Pack-style dialogue and references to swing culture, ended up dovetailing perfectly with the brief mid-‘90s revival of that music and dance. Vaughn became a movie star; Favreau worked steadily as an actor before smoothly transitioning into directing.
Gene Wilder was a last minute-replacement for the role of the “Waco Kid” in director Mel Brooks’s Western spoof Blazing Saddles; Brooks called in Wilder (who had co-starred in his first film, The Producers) when Gig Young became too ill to play the role. While on the Saddles set, Wilder gave Brooks the hard sell for Young Frankenstein, a script he’d been working on (envisioning, of course, himself in the leading role). Brooks had heard Wilder’s idea before and wasn’t interested, but the actor finally sold him on the idea. The duo collaborated on the script, with Brooks directing and Wilder playing Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (“That’s Fronk-en-schteen!”). While the film was in production in early 1974, Blazing Saddles was released and was a surprise smash, so Brooks hurried through post-production and managed to get Young Frankenstein into theaters by Christmas of that year. It was another hit (grossing $86 million on a $2.8 million budget) and netted Brooks and Wilder not only ecstatic reviews, but an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. Sadly, it was their final collaboration; both men continued to write and direct spoof comedies, but neither ever returned to the heights of their two 1974 pictures.
This 1997 drama was a passion project for writer/director/star Robert Duvall, who wrote the script in the 1980s and spent the better part of a decade trying to convince a studio to make it. But Hollywood isn’t especially well known for its brave and nuanced films on religion, and unsurprisingly, no one would back the project; Duvall ultimately formed his own production company, put $5 million of his own money into it, and made the film himself. The result is an astonishingly rich, textured, and complicated look at a flawed man of God, a story told with exactly the kind of unfussy directness that has, for so long, defined the greatness of Duvall the actor. The project ended up being well worth Duvall’s gamble; it was a surprise sleeper hit (grossing just south of $20 million) and Duvall picked up a Best Actor nomination for the showcase role.
Producer Lindsay Doran selected Emma Thompson to pen the screenplay for an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel based on her early experience writing and performing on BBC sketch comedy shows — not on her fame as an actor. In fact, she was hired for the job clear back in 1991, shortly after completing her first major starring role in Dead Again; Thompson spent the next four years working on the screenplay in between her acting gigs in films like Howard’s End (for which she won an Oscar) and The Remains of the Day and In The Name of the Father (both of which netter her nominations). The film finally hit cinemas in 1995, with Thompson also playing the leading role Elinor Dashwood and Kate Winslet as her sister Marianne. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including two for Thompson — Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. She won the latter award, making her the only actor to date to win Academy Awards for both writing and acting.
The year before Good Will Hunting’s big win, another Miramax film picked up a writing Oscar for its actor-turned-screenwriter. Billy Bob Thornton was a semi-obscure character actor and occasional writer (his One False Move, written with Tom Epperson, was a critical success a few years earlier) who developed the character of Karl Childers while staring at himself in the mirror as he waited to do a day’s work on an HBO movie. He was so interested in the man staring back at him that he wrote a story for him — first as a short film, then a feature (which he also directed). This nuanced Southern Gothic drama, which is legitimately reminiscent of the small-town dramas of Tennessee Williams and William Inge, has a tremendous individual voice — Thornton has a remarkable ear for the Southern dialect even for one-scene characters with lines like “These are the people from that newspaper deal?” He writes in vernacular, but never makes the mistake of making his Southern characters dumb; even challenged Karl has an elegance and color to his speech, with statements like “I ought not worry your mama with comp’ny” and “He got me hired on with Bill Cox’s outfit,” and some of the dialogue (especially in the last scene between Karl and Vaughn) is marvelously poetic. Beyond the dialogue, Thornton’s script is filled with three-dimensional characters and utilizes a structure so subtle, you don’t realize how efficient it is; the events of the closing passages unfold with a precise, unforced inevitability (right down to the clean way he ends three consecutive scenes with three different characters saying the same line — “Karl?” — in slightly different ways). The unhappy experiences of his directorial follow-ups (the ill-fated adaptation of All the Pretty Horses and the little-seen Daddy and Them, which he also wrote) caused Thornton to focus solely on acting in the intervening years, which is unfortunate; however, he recently completed shooting Jayne Mansfield’s Car, his first film as a writer/director in a decade.