Our All-Time Favorite Actor/Director Movie Teams


Dark Shadows opens this week, whether we like it or not, but it does give us cause to pause for numerical consideration. No, we’re not talking about the amount of time since Tim Burton’s last film that was based on an original idea — that would be seven years, since Corpse Bride. Before that, you have to go clear back to 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, which was also (coincidentally enough) his first time working with Dark Shadows star Johnny Depp. Dark Shadows marks their eighth collaboration, which got us thinking about some of our favorite (and most productive, with a minimum of four pairings) actor/director teams. After the jump, we’ve compiled a dozen of the best from movie history; add your own in the comments, won’t you?

John Ford/John Wayne TOTAL FILMS: 21 HIGHLIGHTS: Stagecoach (1939), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance(1962)

The most frequent collaborators on our list were gruff filmmaker John “Pappy” Ford and tough guy star John “Duke” Wayne. They first worked together in Wayne’s breakthrough picture, Stagecoach (that movie-star entrance, above, is still a showstopper), and teamed twenty more times in the quarter-century that followed, for everything from the rustic Irish tale The Quiet Man to the 3 Men and a Baby forerunner 3 Godfathers to the Cavalry classic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to arguably the finest Western ever made (and most influential, in terms of where the genre went), the complex and brilliant The Searchers.

George Cukor/Katharine Hepburn TOTAL FILMS: 8 HIGHLIGHTS: Little Women (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam’s Rib (1950), Pat and Mike (1952)

The working relationship of George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn went even longer than Wayne and Ford’s, lasting all the way from 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement to the 1975 British TV movie Love Among the Ruins. Along the way, he directed her finest screwball comedy — one of the best of all time, in fact — The Philadelphia Story, two of her most enjoyable Spencer Tracy pairings, and the peerless 1933 adaptation of Little Women. Their rhythms just clicked — he talked fast and he moved fast, and when they got cooking, they were unbeatable.

Howard Hawks/Cary Grant TOTAL FILMS: 5 HIGHLIGHTS: Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940)

Hepburn had previously appeared with her Philadelphia Story co-star Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby for the versatile journeyman filmmaker Howard Hawks. Grant was Hawks’ go-to guy for funny flicks, their five films together including not only Baby but the peerless newspaper comedy His Girl Friday, the romantic comedy adventure Only Angels Have Wings, and the drag farce I Was A Male War Bride. (Hawks’ work with John Wayne — including Rio Bravo, Red River, and El Dorado — wasn’t half bad either.)

Alfred Hitchcock/ James Stewart TOTAL FILMS: 4 HIGHLIGHTS: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958)

Grant did four great pictures with Alfred Hitchcock — including Notorious and North by Northwest, two of Hitch’s best — but his collaboration with James Stewart was even sharper, since Stewart’s Everyman charm was such a clean fit with Hitchcock’s stories of regular folks in extraordinary situations. What’s more, their two best films, it has been argued, were probably Hitch’s most personal/autobiographical, with Stewart playing the all-seeing (and eventually manipulating) voyeur of Rear Window and the blonde-molding obsessive of Vertigo. And while Stewart did multiple works with directors like Frank Capra and Anthony Mann, no one seemed to mine that specific blend of darkness and vulnerability within the actor like Hitch.

John Huston/Humphrey Bogart TOTAL FILMS: 6 HIGHLIGHTS: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951)

Few actor/director combos had a simpatico a sensibility as “man’s man” filmmaker John Huston and ultimate tough guy Bogie; Huston’s breakthrough picture The Maltese Falcon set the private-eye template forevermore, and Huston directed Bogart in both his best performance (Sierra Madre) and the one he finally won an Oscar for (African Queen). Even their failures were fascinating; there are few misfires as thoroughly entertaining as the delightfully batshit Beat the Devil.

Akira Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune TOTAL FILMS: 16 HIGHLIGHTS: Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962)

Our second most productive pairing on the list is that of Japanese genius Akira Kurosawa and his favorite leading man, the handsome and charismatic Toshiro Mifune. They first worked together on the 1948 classic Drunken Angel, and would work together an astonishing 15 additional times between that film and 1965’s Red Beard. They’re mostly remembered for their samurai stories — including The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and their most immortal film, Seven Samurai — but they also tinkered in cop stories (Stray Dog), courtroom drama (Scandal), social drama (The Lower Depths, I Live In Fear), and a kidnapping thriller (High and Low).

Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon TOTAL FILMS: 7 HIGHLIGHTS: Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), The Fortune Cookie (1966)

In the 1960s, nobody did the likable everyman like Jack Lemmon, and nobody used him better than Austro-Hungarian master Billy Wilder, who cast him in a series of fabulous, sophisticated comedy/dramas. Their first collaboration was one of their best, the terrific screwball drag comedy Some Like It Hot, which found Lemmon wearing a dress and delivering the straight line that precedes one of the greatest closing gags in movie history. They chased it the following year with their best film, The Apartment, which won Wilder the triple crown of Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture Oscars; they made five more films over the next twenty years, including Wilder’s last, 1981’s Buddy Buddy.

Francois Truffaut/Jean-Pierre Léaud TOTAL FILMS: 7 HIGHLIGHTS: The 400 Blows (1959), Stolen Kisses (1968), Day for Night (1973)

Truffaut and Léaud had one of the most unique partnerships in all of moviedom, as Leaud played Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego Antoine Doinel in four feature films and one short subject over the course of 20 years. The actor was 14 years old when the director cast him in 1959’s The 400 Blows, so their work simultaneously captures Truffaut’s maturing as a filmmaker and Léaud’s maturing as a man. He also appeared in Truffaut’s Two English Girls and Day for Night (as a spoiled young actor, of course), while cultivating an equally impressive body of work with Truffaut’s (mostly) friend and contemporary, Jean-Luc Godard.

Frederico Fellini/Marcello Mastroianni TOTAL FILMS: 6 HIGHLIGHTS: La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), Ginger and Fred(1986)

The Truffaut/Léaud idea of leading man as director surrogate has seldom been more explicitly brought to life than in the example of Italian maestro Frederico Fellini and his favorite leading man Marcello Mastroianni, who first played the vaguely autobiographical figure of a free-wheeling journalist in La Dolce Vita . In their next collaboration, Mastroianni played a famed Italian filmmaker who was stalled on where to go with his new project (a situation that closely mirrored the director’s own frame of mind during the film’s production). Their later collaborations, in the 1980s, found both men older and (perhaps) wiser, but still beautifully synced.

Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro TOTAL FILMS: 8 HIGHLIGHTS: Mean Streets (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), GoodFellas (1990)

Though few modern actors and directors are as synonymous with each other as Scorsese and DeNiro, the actors has seldom ever served as the filmmaker’s surrogate; if anything, in his early and more personal pictures like Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Harvey Keitel played the more clearly autobiographical roles (while the Henry Hill character in Goodfellas was somewhat informed by the filmmaker’s childhood days spent watching the neighborhood wiseguys). DeNiro’s characters were the id run wild — the irresponsible Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, the abusive Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, the disturbed Rupert in King of Comedy, the deranged Travis in Taxi Driver and Max Cady in Cape Fear. That said, there is one DeNiro characterization that seems to have some Scorsese in it (aside from his bearded devil in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart): the driven, perfectionist artist — musician and not filmmaker, but still —in the ill-fated but fascinating New York, New York, which the pair made while Scorsese was in the depths of a period of exhaustion, overwork, and drug use.

Spike Lee/Denzel Washington TOTAL FILMS: 4 HIGHLIGHTS: Malcolm X (1992), Inside Man (2006)

The New York filmmaker and smooth leading man’s first collaboration, the underrated 1990 jazz romance Mo’ Better Blues, was something of a warm-up for the pair, who were already working on getting their passion project, 1992’s Malcolm X, off the ground. They’ve reconnected twice in the years since, for 1998’s basketball drama He Got Game and the 2006 heist picture Inside Man. These are among the hit-and-miss director’s best works, so here’s hoping there are more team-ups in the works; Washington, meanwhile, has formed a more productive — if less consistently high-quality — partnership with Tony Scott, who has directed the actor in five films (and counting).

Nicole Holofcener/Catherine Keener TOTAL FILMS: 4 HIGHLIGHTS: Walking and Talking (1996), Please Give (2010)

The consistent dearth of female directors in Hollywood means there’s a lot fewer women on this list than we’d like, but one of the most reliably enjoyable actor/director teams working today is Nicole Holofcener and her go-to leading lady, Catherine Keener, who has starred in all four of Holofcener’s films to date. (The fact that this exquisitely talented director has only made four movies since 1996 is cause for an entirely separate, far more pointed conversation.) Keener’s been working with Holofcener’s dialogue for so long that the words are like second nature to her — she just gets this filmmaker, who has in turn figured out how to harness the actor’s wry sensibility and acidic likability in a way that has eluded man a lesser director.

So those are some of our favorite actor/director teams — what are yours?