For some of cinema’s greatest stars, it was not enough to merely act or direct or edit. Whether they were genius or control freaks, they found it necessary to wear many hats; to direct themselves in the movies they’d written, edited, and, in some cases, even scored. It’s an illustrious tradition, stretching from the silent ear to the present day.
Let’s take a look at six of the best films by some of the greatest actor-directors-etcs.
Title: City Lights (1931)
Plot: A largely silent film made at the very end of the era, City Lights is one of Charlie Chaplin’s last outings as the Little Tramp, always thwarted in love (and money) but always persevering. City Lights finds him mixed up with a drunken millionaire whom he saves from suicide, and who consequently showers the Tramp with his largesse when inebriated. However, once sober he has no memory of their friendship. This is problematic, because the Tramp has met — Chaplin is very sentimental, remember — a poor blind girl, a vendor of flowers. He has led to her believe he is rich, and could have her vision restored with a revolutionary eye surgery in England -- if only the Tramp can come through with the money. Slapstick hijinks ensue, tempered with a sense of the sadness.
Context: Charlie Chaplin’s illustrious film career can be divided into roughly four phases: his appearance in other directors’ exhaustingly hyperactive shorts (Chaplin hated them, thought they were vapid and nonsensical); his period of increasing creative control, when he directed himself in thoughtful, emotionally resonant shorts (well, as resonant as one gets with jokes predicated mostly on the hilarity of people falling down); his golden period of silent features written, directed, and starring himself (and frequently even scored by himself); and then his progress through the sound era, where his films were hated for political rather than aesthetic reasons.
It is from the golden period that we get classics like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), and City Lights, a film that strikes the perfect balance between Chaplin’s blend of comedy, pathos, and social engagement. In these films, for all their humor, one gets a sense of the desperation of poverty (because the Little Tramp is a tramp, after all) and desolation of spirit that one generally doesn’t find in the films of Chaplin’s rivals, Keaton and Lloyd (who are wonderful, but few people have shed a tear watching Steamboat Bill Jr., whereas I defy you not to cry over City Lights). City Lights, and its follow-up, Modern Times (1936), represent Chaplin at the pinnacle of his art.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.
Title: Story of a Cheat (1936)
Plot: Chaplinesque in its blend of sound and silent film conventions, The Story of a Cheat follows the adventures of an aging French con artist (Sacha Guitry), who has sat down to write his memoirs. With no spoken dialogue — everything is narrated by the Cheat — we follow his life’s darkly comic progress, from the death of his entire family (whose mushroom dessert turned out to be poisonous; the 12-year-old Cheat had been sent to bed without dinner) to flings with aristocrats and adventures in Monte Carlo to, maybe, a late-life moral awakening. But don’t bet on it, especially if the Cheat it dealing.
Context: Let’s ask a question that no French person would ask: Who was Sacha Guitry? Born in Tsarist Russia, Guitry made it big on the French stage during the 1910s and ‘20s. He was a seasoned (and widely beloved) veteran actor and playwright by the time he made his first feature film, Story of a Cheat. Now, Guitry was no cinéphile, but, having concluded that cinema was the wave of the future, he decided to conquer it on his own terms. The trailblazing Story of a Cheat was followed up by a series of further successes in the 1930s and then… well, then the Nazis invaded. Guitry continued to make films and plays -- of a sort that wouldn’t offend the Nazi censor -- and also found time to write a book celebrating French heroes like Joan of Arc and, unfortunately, Philippe Pétain, leader of the collaborationist Vichy regime. Arrested and interned after the war, neither his health nor his reputation fully recovered during his lifetime, and he died in 1957 with his glory days behind him.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: Husbands (1970)
Plot: Had it been directed today, Husbands would probably feel a lot more “bro-y,” and feature several scenes of gay panic “humor.” Luckily, John Cassavetes made it in 1970, at his creative peak, alongside regulars Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. The three play middle-aged friends (and, as the title suggests, husbands) who have just lost a fourth friend to a heart attack. Deeply unsettled, the three men abandon their wives to go on a spree, first in New York, then London (New York evidently not being far enough from their suburban homes). Filmed in the cinéma vérité style of which Cassavetes was a master, Husbands is a heartbreaking autopsy of the emptiness of American life.
Context: John Cassavetes acted in mainstream — sometimes very successful — Hollywood films, like The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, in order to finance the distinctly uncommercial independent films that he directed. Having spent years working on his first film, Shadows (released in 1957 and reworked in ’59, it is often considered the first American indie), it was to be another 10 years or so before the series of gritty, unpolished films of which he was a pioneer and which would make his reputation: Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1978), most drawing on the same coterie of actors: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes himself. It would be difficult to conceive of American independent cinema without Cassavetes’ contribution. So the next time you find yourself watching some Colombia University student’s black-and-white movie, with little plot and low production values, remember: John Cassavates made it possible.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Devils on the Doorstep (2000)
Plot: In this extremely dark comedy, set in China in the waning days of WWII, a group of villagers led by Ma Dasan (Jiang Wen, who also directed and co-wrote the film) are entrusted by Chinese partisans with the care of a Japanese soldier they’ve captured (Teruyuki Kagawa); the partisans will return for him when the time is right. The film charts the villagers’ evolving relationship with their charge, with the Japanese Army, and with the partisans who put them in this situation. As the tone darkens (it was always dark, but it contrives to get darker), we are presented with a horrifying picture of the decisions faced by ordinary people in time of war and an indelible picture of the physical and psychic damage inflicted on China in WWII.
Context: There is a long tradition of Chinese cinematic depictions of the war, much of it featuring heroic Red Army soldiers in battle against barely human Japanese monsters. Now, while the Japanese hardly come off well in Devils on the Doorstep, the film’s comic texture and its willingness to depict the humanity of a Japanese soldier and the frequently less than heroic conduct of its Chinese heroes deeply perturbed the Chinese Film Bureau (while also managing to piss off Japanese conservatives who still insist that accounts of Japanese war crimes are sinister Chinese/American propaganda).
When actor-director Jiang Wen sent his film off to Cannes without the Chinese government’s approval, they decided he had gone too far, and the Film Bureau banned him from working in China for seven years… maybe. That was the rumor which the Chinese government neither confirmed nor denied. Either way, although he acted in the meantime, Jiang wouldn’t direct another film until The Sun Also Rises (2007, that’s seven years). He has since gone on to direct some of the highest-grossing films in Chinese history, so he’s doing alright.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Zatoichi (2003)
Plot: We all know the cliché about blindness: When the eyes go, the other senses get stronger. This is the premise of the beloved Japanese film series following the exploits of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. Long associated with actor Shintaro Katsu, who played Zatoichi in 27 films (or merely 25, depending on what you consider to be “canon”) and a popular TV series, it took someone with the audacity of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano to revive Zatoichi in postmodern fashion in 2003.
Kitano plays the blind swordsman (now peroxide blonde, which apparently nobody in circa-1850 Japan finds particularly striking) with his typical deadpan humor. The plot is faithful to the Zatoichi formula: the blind swordsman shows up in town, people try to cheat him because he’s blind, he hacks them to pieces, their associates seek vengeance on him, there’s a woman (these are very sexist movies) who needs deliverance from injustice, etc. Kitano resurrects everything one loves about the classic Zatoichi films while making the character very much his own, with all the zany surrealism that that implies.
Context: Takeshi Kitano has spent years as the chameleon of the Japanese entertainment world, doing standup comedy, hosting talk and game shows, writing novels, painting, designing a video game, oh, and also pursuing a highly successful film career as actor-director-screenwriter-editor-producer in a wide variety of genres: gangster films first and foremost (Violent Cop, Sonatine, Outrage), absurdist comedies (Takeshis’, Glory to the Filmmaker!), and melancholy, understated films about people with problems (Kids Return, Fireworks). In a way, Zatoichi fits because it doesn’t fit: it is a new branch in the twisted, unlikely, but always fecund tree of Kitano’s genre-bending career.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Argo (2012)
Plot: The year is 1979, and student militants have stormed the US embassy in Iran, demanding the extradition of the Shah in exchange for the 60 embassy staff in their custody. But six of the embassy staff are missing; unbeknownst to the radicals, they have been sheltered in the home of the Canadian ambassador. With the crisis at the actual embassy dragging on indefinitely, the CIA directs “exfiltration specialist” Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck of all people; more on this shortly) to find a way to rescue the Canadian ambassador’s fugitives. Mendez, upon watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes (and this is really the only reason why anyone remembers the fifth Planet of the Apes entry), is inspired. Would it not be possible to disguise the six Americans as a Canadian film crew, in Iran to scout locations for a similar sci-fi epic/fiasco? So begins the CIA’s “Canadian Caper.”
Context: And so begins, surprisingly enough, the remarkable revival of Ben Affleck’s career. Having won himself a screenwriting Oscar (along with Matt Damon) for 1997’s Goodwill Hunting, Affleck did everything in his power to destroy his career. From his appearances in Michael Bay films to his tabloid fodder relationship with Jennifer Lopez and the abysmal 2003 movie that sparked it (Gigli, which provided Jay Leno with an entire year’s worth of “jokes”), Ben Affleck had squandered virtually all of the goodwill (stupid pun acknowledged, but not intended) that he had accumulated and embarked on a series of garbage movies.
And so, with not enough people screaming in his ear that this was a terrible idea, he decided to try his hand at directing. Evidently this was the move he needed to turn his career around. He ended up directing reasonably successful films like Gone Baby Gone (2007, starring brother Casey) and The Town (2010, with Affleck in the lead). By the time Argo came out, Hollywood was ready to forgive him and, with their fondness for movies about movies, shower him with Oscars. And since then? Well, now he’s Batman, apparently.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.