The Embarrassing Early Films of Oscar-Winning Directors


Argo, Ben Affleck’s third feature film, is looking more and more like a lock for the Best Picture prize at Sunday’s Oscars, and even if the man himself didn’t get a Best Director nomination, it’s still a remarkable culmination of one of the most fascinating second acts in Hollywood. The actor-turned-director seemed shockingly confident and assured in his first feature, 2007’s marvelous Gone Baby Gone, but as The Playlist reminded us this week, his first film (pre-Good Will Hunting, even) was a 1993 short inventively titled I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Ηung Ηer on a Μeathook & Νow I Have a Three-Picture Deal with Disney. It is, as is often the case with these things, not very good, and (to his credit) Affleck is the first one to admit it: “It’s horrible. It’s atrocious. I knew I wanted to be a director, and I did a couple of short films, and this is the only one that haunts me. I’m not proud of it. It looks like it was made by someone who has no prospects, no promise.” But Affleck can take comfort in the fact that he’s not the only filmmaker with a cinematic skeleton in his closet: we found eight auteurs who rose to the Best Director Oscar from rather humble cinematic beginnings.

Francis Ford Coppola

Oscar for: The Godfather, Part II (1974)

Early efforts: Tonight for Sure (1962), The Bellboy and the Playgirls (1962)

The story: Many a struggling young filmmaker has taken advantage of the quick money and relative anonymity of, um, adult entertainment early in their career. Wes Craven and Barry Sonnenfeld worked on porn sets to pay the bills, and future Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola’s first two directorial efforts, from 1962, were in the “nudie cutie” vein — softcore movies, from back when naked flesh on-screen was still a big deal. According to Jami Bernard’s invaluable book First Films, Coppola directed a short called “The Peeper” while still at UCLA film school; it concerned a bumbling peeping Tom trying to catch a glimpse of skin during a photo shoot. “The Peeper” was joined with another short by another young filmmaker and released as Tonight for Sure. He was then hired to add new, nudity-and-slapstick material to a 1958 German movie, which was re-titled The Bellboy and the Playgirls. But Coppola discovered he was too soft-hearted for the nudie racket: “There was a 3-D scene where we had to have five girls sitting at their dressers,” he recalled, “and they were hired and paid to do this. One of the girls came to me and said, ‘I’m only seventeen and my father is going to kill me.’ So I said, ‘Well, okay, leave your brassiere on.’ So there were these four girls, plus one who has a bra on, and I got fired because they were complaining they paid the girls five hundred dollars. So this has been one of the themes in my life. Maybe when I’m eighty I’ll break through the nudity barrier.”

Hints of things to come: The themes of voyeurism in “The Peeper” would return in one of Coppola’s finest films, 1974’s The Conversation. And Coppola’s 1996 film Jack would confirm what The Bellboy hinted: that his gifts are not in the realm of comedy.

Oliver Stone

Oscars for: Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Early effort: Seizure (1974)

The story: “I felt back then the same way I do now, that I always wanted to direct,” Oliver Stone told Jami Bernard. “The horror genre was easier to break in with.” Stone co-wrote his little-seen first effort, Seizure, with Edward Mann, and made it in Quebec in the early 1970s (big breaks for film investors in Canada’s tax code brought many a filmmaker across the border in that decade). It concerns a horror novelist (played by Dark Shadows star Jonathan Frid) whose creations — including a dwarf called “The Spider,” played by Fantasy Island’s Herve Villechize — come to life and terrorize the writer and his friends. The production did not go smoothly. “I had to smuggle the work print out of Canada and try to sell it here because we ran out of money,” Stone said. “We bootlegged it to the U.S.” But even Stone admitted it might not have been worth the effort: “It wasn’t great… You have to stretch to like it.”

Hints of things to come: An early obsession with the creative process and the archetypes of evil.

Steven Soderbergh

Oscar for: Traffic (2000)

Early effort: Yes: 9012 Live (1985)

The story: When Steven Soderbergh won the Palme d’Or in 1989 for sex, lies, and videotape, a major component of the press-friendly underdog story was the fact that this 26-year-old American had received the highest prize at Cannes for his debut film. Come to find out, that wasn’t exactly the case. A few years earlier, while working as a freelance editor, Soderbergh had edited and directed 9012 Live, a concert movie showcase for the goofy prog rock group Yes. But the filmmaker himself has never tried to hide the earlier credit, even providing a “director’s cut” and behind-the-scenes documentary for the film’s 2006 DVD release.

Hints of things to come: According to the AV Club, there “aren’t many signs of Soderbergh’s directorial stamp in the concert, but the documentary contains a lot of Soderbergh style, from the jumpy, elliptical editing to the fascination with how Yes and its management team behave in the drab surroundings of an arena dressing room.”

Ron Howard

Oscar for: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Early effort: Grand Theft Auto (1977)

The story: As with so many filmmakers who dominated the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Man Who Was Opie got his start as a director via the auspices of low-budget B-movie whiz Roger Corman. Howard, who was itching to parlay his Happy Days stardom into a filmmaking career, struck a deal with Corman: if Howard would star in the Corman-produced 1976 car-chase comedy Eat My Dust, Corman would give him the opportunity to direct one of his own the following year. He gave Howard 15 days and a budget of $602,000 to make Grand Theft Auto, and a bit of sage advice before the cameras rolled. As Howard recalled in the wonderful 2011 documentary Corman’s World, “[Roger] said to me, in kind of a fatherly way, ‘If you do a good job for me, on my terms, then you’ll never have to work for me again.’” He did, and he didn’t.

Hints of things to come: Reliably commercial instincts. The future box office champ and super-producer turned Corman’s 600 grand into a $15 million gross.

James Cameron

Oscar for: Titanic (1997)

Early effort: Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

The story: Cameron was another up-and-comer in the Corman factory, working as a production assistant on Rock and Roll High School and visual effects artist for the Star Wars knock-off Battle Beyond the Stars, when he was promoted from special effects director to the big chair for Corman’s sequel to the 1978 Jaws rip-off/send-up Piranha. Cameron got the gig when the original director was removed from the project by executive producer Ovidio G. Assontis, and Cameron would later claim he got the boot himself during the shoot. He told Kenneth Turan in 1991, “Technically, I have a credit as the director on that film. However, I was replaced after two-and-a-half weeks by the Italian producer. He just fired me and took over, which is what he wanted to do when he hired me… And then the producer wouldn’t take my name off the picture because [contractually] they couldn’t deliver it with an Italian name. So they left me on, no matter what I did… In actual fact, I did some directing on the film, but I don’t feel it was my first movie. So I don’t think I should have to take the lumps. I used it as a credit when it did me some good, which was to get Terminator. Subsequently, I dropped it. I think that makes sense.”

Hints of things to come: From The Abyss to Titanic, few directors have worked in the water as often as Cameron, so it sorta makes sense that his first (partial, at least) effort would concern killer mutant fish.

Jonathan Demme

Oscar for: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Early effort: Caged Heat (1974)

The story: The future Silence and Philadelphia director was yet another refugee from the Corman fold, where he earned his stripes with entries in one of the producer’s most durable genres: the women-in-prison movie. He’s credited with the script for The Hot Box (1972) and the story of Black Mama, White Mama (1973). His directorial debut was Caged Heat, advertised (in the distinctive Corman style) as “Women’s Prison U.S.A. – Rape Riot and Revenge! White Hot Desires Melting Cold Prison Steel!” Demme would toil in the exploitation market for a few more years before making his mark with unique indie efforts like Citizen’s Band and Melvin and Howard, but he never forgot his roots; like his fellow Corman graduate Francis Ford Coppola, he frequently put his old boss into his films, casting Corman as an FBI chief in Silence of the Lambs.

Hints of things to come: Just one, according to Bernard’s First Films: “There is an initial tracking shot down the corridor of jail cells that is the same stating as our first meeting with serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.”

William Friedkin

Oscar for: The French Connection (1971)

Early effort: Good Times (1967)

The story: No, not the TV show — the debut film from the future director of The French Connection and The Exorcist was a big-screen vehicle for the talents of Salvatore Phillip Bono and Cherilyn Sarkisian, aka Sonny and Cher. The film, released two years after their smash single (and Groundhog Day favorite) “I Got You, Babe,” was a slapdash skit comedy in which the pair spoofed Westerns, spy movies, mysteries, and other genres. Friedkin had done plenty of TV work before Good Times — some movies, some documentaries, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents — and quickly moved on to more distinguished fare. For her part, Cher doesn’t even talk about this, her first starring vehicle. In fact, when accepting her Best Actress Oscar for Moonstruck, she thanked Meryl Streep, her co-star in Silkwood, which she called “my first movie.” It was her fifth.

Hints of things to come: For a director who’s done black comedy (Killer Joe), action (To Live and Die in L.A.), horror (The Guardian), and drama (Blue Chips), Good Times shows a director who wasn’t afraid to try out any and all genres.

Woody Allen

Oscar for: Annie Hall (1977)

Early effort: What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)

The story: The Woodster, still a struggling writer and stand-up comic, had just written his first screenplay (What’s New, Pussycat) when American International Pictures hired him for a rather strange job: he was to take a Japanese James Bond clone called Key of Keys and replace the soundtrack entirely with new, comic dialogue. Allen and his friends worked up a new plot, replacing the original film’s search for a stolen microfilm with the quest for a perfect egg salad recipe; music was provided by the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Allen himself appeared in new scenes, ogling a bikinied Japanese model. While far sillier than even Allen’s other early, broadly comic films, it’s still a fun little throwaway — but presumably not the kind of thing that the serious filmmaker behind Interiors and Match Point held with much esteem.

Hints of things to come: Use of real-life female companions in his films (in this case, second wife Louise Lasser of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was one of the dubbing voices).