12 Famous Actors and the Films You Forgot They Directed


As you may have heard, Scarlett Johansson is going to make the leap from actress to feature filmmaker, helming an adaptation of Truman Capote’s first, posthumously published novel Summer Crossing. The path from one side of the camera to the other is a well-trod one, so here’s hoping that Ms. Johansson follows in the footsteps of distinguished actors-turned-directors like Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, and Clint Eastwood. But don’t forget, not all actors find the transition so easy; some try it once and never again, the job of director a strange and forgotten footnote on otherwise stellar careers.

Nicolas Cage THE FILM: Sonny THE PITCH: Everybody’s favorite over-actor directs everybody’s favorite under-actor (James Franco) in your basic soldier-trying-to-get-out-of-the-hustler-game drama. THE CRITICS SAY: The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called the film “aimless and awkward. Some moments have a creepy, sleazy intensity — in particular the scenes of Sonny at work, which unfold in an atmosphere of titillation and dread — but the whole thing is emotionally incoherent.”

Johnny Depp THE FILM: The Brave THE PITCH: Depp made his directorial debut with this adaptation of the grim novel by Gregory McDonald (Fletch); he also starred, alongside friend Marlon Brando (in his final film appearance) as a man who agrees to star in a snuff film so he can leave the money to his family. It was so poorly received that it has never been released in America. THE CRITICS SAY: In his A.V. Club “My Year of Flops” column, Nathan Rabin wrote, “The Brave ultimately plays like the world’s most depressing remake of Joe Versus The Volcano, with all the joy and whimsy replaced by gloom and grime. It’s a morbid, maudlin oddity that starts off slowly and never finds its footing. Having suffered through Depp’s well-meaning but dreary directorial debut, I can assure you that American audiences deprived of a legal means of checking out The Brave really aren’t missing much.”

Morgan Freeman THE FILM: Bopha! THE PITCH: Freeman used his post-Daisy bankability to helm a film adaptation of Percy Mtwa’s play about Apartheid-era South Africa — which was coming to an end right around the time of the film’s release. THE CRITICS SAY: The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called Bopha! “a strong directorial debut,” noting that it’s “a logistically big movie, but Mr. Freeman handles all its elements with seeming ease.”

Bill Murray THE FILM: Quick Change THE PITCH: Murray co-directed this criminally underrated caper comedy with screenwriter Howard Franklin. Its snappy pace, strong ensemble work, and copious laughs make him (or Franklin?) seem a natural, but it remains his only directorial effort. THE CRITICS SAY: “As directors,” Newsweek’s David Ansen wrote, “Murray and Franklin don’t have much visual flair, but they know how to scale the comedy to Murray’s own throwaway style (unlike the overproduced Scrooged). The movie has a comfy, lived-in feel; it doesn’t beat you over the head for laughs, or take its horrors-of-New York theme too seriously.”

Frank Sinatra THE FILM: None But the Brave THE PITCH: Ol’ Blue Eyes’s single directorial effort is this 1965 war film, which was poorly received at the time but has since been rediscovered and praised for its innovative look at WWII from both American and Japanese sides (a la Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). THE CRITICS SAY: “If the threat of Frank Sinatra as a film director is judged by his first try on None But the Brave, it is clear that there need be no apprehension among the members of the Screen Directors Guild,” crowed Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. “Mr. Sinatra, as producer and director, as well as actor of the secondary role of the booze-guzzling medical corpsman, displays distinction only in the latter job.”

Gary Oldman THE FILM: Nil by Mouth THE PITCH: Oldman wrote and directed this brutal and difficult 1997 drama, inspired by his own observations growing up in working-class London. (Strangely, two years later, Oldman’s friend Tim Roth would direct a dark family drama of his own called The War Zone — starring Nil by Mouth star Ray Winstone. It, too, is his only directorial credit.) THE CRITICS SAY: Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum called this “unrelentingly gloomy domestic drama” a “passionate first effort as writer-director from actor Gary Oldman.” But she did note that “in his pursuit of emotional immediacy at the expense of context, the filmmaker is like a man who starts a fire because his magnifying glass has turned light into heat; suddenly the place is burning up, but he’s been peering at such close range, he doesn’t know where he is in the big picture.”

Vin Diesel THE FILM: Strays THE PITCH: Strangely, Vin Diesel didn’t make a name for himself in Hollywood as the lunk-head lead of action pap; it was in this scrappy, low-budget 1997 indie, which Diesel wrote and directed as a vehicle for himself. That job accomplished (it led to his roles in Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room), he hasn’t returned to filmmaking since. THE CRITICS SAY: Variety’s Emanuel Levy didn’t see much of a future for Stray’s multi-hyphenate lead: “Marred by Diesel’s narcissistic central performance and amateurish thesping from the rest of the cast, pic may still warrant a limited theatrical release in major cities as a showcase for a filmmaker who directs with more dexterity than he writes or acts.”

Michael Keaton THE FILM: The Merry Gentleman THE PITCH: The onetime Batman’s disappearance from the spotlight in the mid-to-late ‘90s remains confounding, though he’s kept doing fine work as an actor (mostly in indies and supporting roles). In 2009, he tried his hand at directing, with this little-seen but well-regarded drama. THE CRITICS SAY: “It’s a very small film, undermined by a puttering rhythm and Pinter-worthy pauses in the second half and a resolution neither satisfyingly oblique nor conventionally pleasing,” warned Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune. But he added this much: “Even if this particular story has trouble coalescing, The Merry Gentleman serves as a calling card for Keaton’s next one. I hope there is a next one.”

Anthony Perkins THE FILM: Psycho III THE PITCH: If you think we get worked up today about sequels and remakes of classics, you can’t imagine the caterwauling that accompanied the release of Richard Franklin’s Psycho II in 1982. But the film did big box office, and Universal ordered up a third installment. Perkins — who’d by now given up ever escaping his career-long typecasting as Norman Bates — took the reins himself, with some success. THE CRITICS SAY: “I was surprised by what a good job he does,” wrote Roger Ebert of Perkins’ direction. “Any movie named Psycho III is going to be compared to the Hitchcock original, but Perkins isn’t an imitator. He has his own agenda. He has lived with Norman Bates all these years, and he has some ideas about him, and although the movie doesn’t apologize for Norman, it does pity him. For the first time, I was able to see that the true horror in the Psycho movies isn’t what Norman does – but the fact that he is compelled to do it.”

Richard Pryor THE FILM: Jo Jo Dancer: Your Life is Calling THE PITCH: After directing his 1983 concert film Richard Pryor… Here and Now, the groundbreaking stand-up and actor made his narrative filmmaking debut with 1986’s Jo Jo Dancer, a barely veiled auto-biopic that told the story of his childhood, rise to fame, battles with drugs, and the freebase-fueled frenzy that led to his near-suicide. THE CRITICS SAY: In a three-star review, Roger Ebert wrote, “Pryor has taken some major risks in this movie. He has played straight and honest with his story, but he also has shown that he has a real gift as a director; the narrative scenes in the movie have a conviction and an interest that grow and hold us. This isn’t a heartfelt amateur night, but a film by an artist whose art has become his life.”

Steven Seagal THE FILM: On Deadly Ground THE PITCH: Yes, this is how big Steven Seagal got in the mid-‘90s: he was not only able to get a studio to let him direct one of his own movies (reportedly in exchange for making a sequel to Under Siege), but to get Michael Caine to appear in a supporting role. You can only imagine what a thrill it must have been for a thespian like Caine to take direction from an auteur like Seagal. THE CRITICS SAY: The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called the film “awesomely incoherent, a mixture of poorly executed violence and Dances With Wolves-style astral musings. Nothing about it is first-rate except some of the scenery. And on the debit side, the editing, writing and occasional slow-motion flourishes are clumsy in the extreme.” Noting that the picture ends with Seagal giving a heartfelt environmentalist speech at Alaska’s state capital (a scene which, in Seagal’s preview cut, ran an agonizing 11 minutes), Maslin insisted, “You can’t preach about preserving the environment and make movies full of sludge.”

Rip Torn THE FILM: The Telephone THE PITCH: Torn hadn’t yet been rediscovered via his brilliant work on The Larry Sanders Show when he directed this strange 1987 film, a peculiar hybrid of psychological drama and wacky Whoopi Goldberg comedy (written, oddly enough, by noted satirist Terry Southern and singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson). The film’s contentious post-production got more attention than the picture itself, with Goldberg filing a $5 million lawsuit to block the film’s release, and Torn claiming the film’s problems were the result of her insistence that he hire her then-husband as one of his cameraman. THE CRITICS SAY: Of the barely released final product, the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Director Rip Torn means to take us from comedy to tragedy, but he is quickly derailed, for the film unwittingly places Goldberg under a microscope, revealing her strengths and weaknesses and pointing up the difficulties in making best use on the screen of so original and vivid a presence.”