Tasha: This weekend sees the release of The World’s End, the third Edgar Wright feature film starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The three first met when Wright directed Pegg and Frost on the TV series Spaced, and while they’ve worked on projects separately since then, their big-screen collaborations, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, have defined their careers.
These kinds of running team-ups between directors and actors are fairly common. Sometimes they’re a natural outgrowth of a comedy troupe, with one group member graduating to directing and continuing to work with old partners: Broken Lizard comedy vet Jay Chandrasekhar has helmed several Broken Lizard films (Beerfest, Super Troopers, etc.), and Terry Gilliam directed one Monty Python movie, then started directing original films that still regularly featured Python members. In other cases, an idiosyncratic director finds sympatico actors and brings them back for project after project, like Alfred Hitchcock directing four films starring Jimmy Stewart and four starring Cary Grant, or Woody Allen returning again and again to onscreen and offscreen partners Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton.
The Wright/Pegg/Frost model is a little more complicated, since Wright and Pegg co-scripted all three of their films together, and Pegg and Frost have operated as a duo independent of Wright. But every regular actor/director team-up has its own idiosyncrasies, and this seems like a good opportunity to discuss them. What are your favorite running director/actor partnerships?
Noel: Because there are so many possible answers to that question, I’m going to steer away from the most famous pairings (Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese leap immediately to mind) and name three that mean a lot to me. While watching a documentary about Muhammad Ali last week, I was reminded of how brilliant Denzel Washington is as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. (It’s such an accurate imitation, but invested with Washington’s own energy and charisma.) I started thinking about the other Lee/Washington collaborations—Mo’ Better Blues, He Got Game, and Inside Man—and decided that what I like most about these two together is that they seem to have different agendas: Lee has sociopolitical points he wants to make, while Washington wants to be a movie star. Lee lends depth to Washington, while Washington adds a layer of polish to Lee’s work.
Nicole Holofcener has yet to make a feature film without Catherine Keener, and I hope she never does. (Their Enough Said is one of my most anticipated films of the fall.) Keener falls right into step with the rhythms of Holofcener’s dialogue, getting the humor and honesty of self-conscious, well-meaning, middle-class women. And though Roger Livesey only made three films with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, those three—The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, and A Matter Of Life And Death—are among my favorite movies of all time, with Livesey representing a strain of British forbearance and wit that helped lift his countrymen’s spirits during World War II.
Nathan? How about you? Wayne and Ford? Herzog and Kinski? Dugan and Sandler?
Nathan: As a rule, I’m less enamored of director/star combinations than of directors with memorable repertory companies. There will always be a soft spot in my heart for the ugly mugs and disreputable characters who populate the films of Robert Altman and Preston Sturges, or to name filmmakers of a more recent vintage, Judd Apatow and the Coen brothers. I love the way using the same character actors over and over again creates a sense of continuity between films and helps flesh out a beautifully wrought universe.
As another rule, I tend to gravitate toward comedy, so here are three of my favorite teams: From Rushmore onward, Wes Anderson has beautifully exploited the intense melancholy at the core of Bill Murray’s smartass persona. I like to think that after triumphing together with Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis thought, “my work here is done,” and handed the actor over to Anderson, who has been making brilliant use of him ever since. I feel like the natural ebullience and charm of Greta Gerwig has added an exhilarating new dimension to the films of Noah Baumbach. Her sunniness has penetrated the sour, bracing darkness of the writer-director’s previously grim explorations of the complexity of human nature, and added an element of playfulness and joy. And last but not least, it’s hard to beat Jack Lemmon under the direction of Billy Wilder. Lemmon’s all-American affability and peerless gifts as a physical comedian beautifully undercut Wilder’s free-ranging misanthropy and cynicism; they balanced each other out and played to each other’s strengths, even though Lemmon tended to star in some of the great filmmaker’s lesser later efforts.
Tasha: Heh. I like the way you let that Dugan/Sandler dig roll off your back without comment, Nathan. And the Wilder/Lemmon pairing is a great one I hadn’t thought of. But I’m surprised to see you citing running comedy team-ups that work well and not mentioning Christopher Guest and his regular acting troupe, including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, among others.
There are a couple of aspects to the way Guest works with his regulars, both of which benefit him and his audiences equally. He has a very particular working method: He and Levy outline a plot and specific scenes, but let the actors improvise their dialogue and gags. That involves a lot of trust in the actors, which makes it particularly natural that he’d want to keep working with people who’ve proven they’ll make the most of his method—it makes for a more comfortable work environment for him, and a better end result for the viewers. It also makes his films feel like family reunions, or like coming back to the same improv theater over and over: Part of the fun is just in seeing what kind of characters John Michael Higgins or Parker Posey or Ed Begley, Jr. will take on this time.
Most of these actors are pretty idiosyncratic performers, though. British director Mike Leigh uses a working method much like Guest’s, and similarly keeps returning to a regular stable of actors, but while I often love his films, I don’t associate them nearly so much with specific faces, because his actors are more likely to disappear into their characters. Whereas, let’s face it, while Willard or Lynch or Balaban are often the best thing about any film they appear in, they’re always recognizable as themselves, and they tend to repeatedly take on similar roles. This isn’t a problem for Guest as long as he keeps making loosely plotted, gag-and-character-driven comedies, or for Leigh if he keeps making personal, insular domestic dramas, but if they ever want to entirely swap genres, they may have to swap stables, too. Similarly, John Ford kept making Westerns, so casting John Wayne wasn’t an issue; Werner Herzog kept making films about wild men driven to the point of insanity by their ambitious fixations, so Klaus Kinski was a natural. But do you think the director/actor bond is ever limiting? Are there cases of director/actor partners holding each other back?
Noel: Wait, is now the time to bring up Dennis Dugan and Adam Sandler, in a non-jokey way? Because I think Sandler has shown that he can do a lot more as an actor and comedian when someone really pushes him, as Paul Thomas Anderson did with Punch-Drunk Love and Judd Apatow did with Funny People. (He’s also pretty good when he works with Peter Segal, of all people.) Sandler’s usual crowd of cronies and yes-men seem to encourage him to be lazy, under the cover of “giving the people what they want.”
Along those same lines, as much as I’ve enjoyed Apatow’s movies and the ones made by the group of actors, comics, writers, and directors in his immediate circle, I think it’s time for all of these guys and gals to take a long break from each other. Over the past five years, it’s gotten harder and harder to tell Hollywood comedies apart, because they all share the same two dozen people, all doing variations on the same characters they always play, in loosely improvised scenes that lack focus and direction. Liberate Paul Rudd! Set Leslie Mann free! Let Martin Starr be a star!
And so forth.
Nathan: I hear you loud and clear on wanting to liberate Adam Sandler from the cronies and hangers-on who make the average Happy Madison production a trial of the damned. And while I love Judd Apaow, I agree that it’s nice to see what his acolytes do without him, like David Gordon Green teaming with Paul Rudd on the terrific Prince Avalanche, or Seth Rogen co-directing the Apatow gang with Evan Goldberg in This Is The End.
I would similarly like to separate Tim Burton from Johnny Depp—legally, if necessary. That is not a statement I could imagine myself making 23 years ago, when Burton was my favorite filmmaker (to be fair, I was 14) and they teamed up for one of my all-time favorite movies, Edward Scissorhands. They re-teamed for another of my favorite movies, Ed Wood, in 1994, but since then, the two have encouraged each other’s descent into showy self-parody.
Burton has devolved into one of the most drearily predictable filmmakers around, and one of the most drearily predictable elements of his increasingly mediocre films is a hammy, tic-laden lead performance by Johnny Depp. Granted, I liked Sweeney Todd a great deal, but Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory did nothing for me, and I am so put off this particular team that I didn’t even bother to see Dark Shadows. Burton and Depp, I have loved the both of you, separately and together, but now I fear the time has come for you to part ways, for your own benefit and everyone else’s. Ah, but I hate to be so negative. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about teams that work?
Tasha: We can get back to positivity in a moment. First, I want to sign onto your petition for a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp restraining order, Nathan, and I want to add Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s wife since 2001) to the mix. I loved her so much in her early period dramas like Howards End, A Room With A View, Lady Jane, and Where Angels Fear To Tread, but watching her play the same dotty, goth-y, toothlessly spooky role over and over in Burton movies has entirely stolen the joy I used to have at seeing her name in a credits roll.
At best, director/actor partnerships let both parties play to their strengths, develop strong working relationships, and boost each other’s careers. At worst, they can seem cripplingly unimaginative, and that’s how I feel about the Burton/Depp/Carter films: It’s as though Burton doesn’t even think about casting anymore, he just plugs those two into whatever he’s doing. And for a filmmaker who used to be defined by his imagination, that’s both toxic and depressing. I enjoyed Sweeney Todd a good deal more than I thought I was going to, but even before I saw the film, I’d seen a host of critiques saying Carter’s singing voice was weak and thready, and that Depp didn’t have to stretch an inch as an actor to play the part. Both accusations are spot-on; Depp and Carter aren’t awful in the film, but there are so many people who would have brought more to those roles. I wish Burton would start pushing himself to think about casting again.
Similarly, the kerfuffle over Depp starring as a Native American in facepaint in The Lone Ranger seemed entirely avoidable; him being cast as the alternately serious and mugging comedy character in yet another Gore Verbinski film seemed more like a rote checkoff, and a failure of casting imagination, than a thought-through, justifiable choice. And the performance itself feels so much like a minor variation on his Pirates Of The Caribbean performances that it makes the whole film feel like a shticky POTC knockoff, in spite of the differences in the setting and world. I hate to say it, but I sometimes get that “failure of imagination” feeling about Joss Whedon’s ensemble, too. Part of the reason I loved The Avengers was because he mostly stepped away from his cycling cast of friends; part of the reason Much Ado About Nothing fell flat for me was because of all the familiar faces sporting familiar expressions as they went through familiar paces.
“I would similarly like to separate Tim Burton from Johnny Depp—legally, if necessary.”
Really, what I always want to see in a director/actor team-up is the flexibility of Akira Kurosawa and Toshirô Mifune. The latter had his many, many roles as a grumpy, crude samurai or a thuggish gangster in Kurosawa movies, but he also followed Kurosawa across periods and genres, playing a rich but struggling businessman in High And Low, a syphilitic doctor in The Quiet Duel, an obsessive young detective in Stray Dog, and much more. Mifune had his limits—there was always a hint of the thug about him—but he was also more than a collection of tics, and Kurosawa knew how to give him room to play to his strengths without making him play the same role over and over.
Noel: Well, I think there’s something to be said for writers and directors working variations on a theme with their partnership. I think here of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott (and screenwriter Burt Kennedy), making one movie after another about hard-bitten, noble loners with tragic pasts. Boetticher’s films are all about paring away everything that’s extraneous to the story, and by repeating the basic details of the main character’s life from film to film, that becomes one less thing audiences have to wonder about. Who’s that guy? He’s Randolph Scott, playing the Randolph Scott part.
Still, I agree with you, Tasha, that it’s exciting when directors show enough imagination to look into the same face over and over and come up with something new for them to do. You know who was surprisingly versatile while working with the same director repeatedly? Humphrey Bogart, with John Huston. Because of his distinctive voice and face, people tend to think of Bogart as playing “himself” from movie to movie, but the slick Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is nothing like the sweaty Fred Dobbs in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, or the alcoholic grump Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, or the smart-assed super-criminal Billy Dannreuther in Beat The Devil. Bogart found a real friend and collaborator in Huston: someone who saw him as more rounded and capable than just about any other director around.
Nathan: Good point, Noel, though I suspect that part of that is attributable to the eclecticism that characterizes Huston’s career. I’m also intrigued by directors who work extensively with their real-world partner, like Woody Allen, who used the women in his life very differently.
In the 1970s, Diane Keaton was fundamentally the anti-Woody, the free-spirited, quirky, and audacious yin to his neurotic, uptight yang. She was Allen’s antithesis and perfect complement. Whereas in movies like Alice, Allen casts Farrow as his surrogate, the stand-in who’s a different gender than the director, but otherwise shares his tics, mannerisms, and well-documented quirks. The cinematic marriage of Jean-Luc Godard and girlfriend/muse Anna Karina is another good example of a total partnership that extended far beyond the boundaries of film. The downside to this kind of combustible relationship is that when the romantic bond ends in real life, it frequently ends onscreen as well—though Keaton reunited with Allen after an extended hiatus for Manhattan Murder Mystery after Farrow dropped out of both the film and Allen’s life. Now if only there was some way we could tear the cinematic marriage of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp apart! Would it be improper to start a Kickstarter for that specific purpose?
Tasha: Probably, but sign me up for $20 just in case. Though now you have me thinking about director/actor romantic pairings, and wondering how the Resident Evil movies would change if director Paul W.S. Anderson and star Milla Jovovich ever divorced. Their relationship hasn’t inspired any timeless cinema, but it does seem like one of the more interesting working/romantic partnerships out there, and at least they seem to be having a lot of fun together, to judge from her ever-enthusiastic Twitter feed. For that matter, Joel Coen and Frances McDormand have been married since 1984, and their collaboration has produced some indelible films, particularly Fargo, but also many more, including The Man Who Wasn’t There and Blood Simple. Their movies are a reminder that casting your wife in all your films—or for that matter, accepting roles in all your husband’s films—doesn’t have to be a rote, unimaginative, or unproductive choice.
“At best, director/actor partnerships let both parties play to their strengths, develop strong working relationships, and boost each other’s careers.”
Thinking about all these intimate personal relationships and the effects they have on the end-result films makes me wish more directors made documentaries about their longtime partners, like Werner Herzog did with 1999’s My Best Fiend, about his productive but difficult partnership with his seemingly insane periodic leading man, Klaus Kinski. It takes a man of Herzog’s legendary calm frankness to make a movie this intimate and telling about a collaborator, which inevitably becomes a portrait of himself and his own work as well. It’s also telling that he didn’t make it until years after Kinski’s death. But it still suggests a promising model for directors: If you run out of topics, explore the person you’ve spent thousands of hours with, through stressful conditions and while watching them attempt to bare their souls. I’d sit down for docs by most of the directors we’ve touched on above, if they dug deep into their partners’ lives.
Noel: Can we start with a doc about Scorsese and De Niro? I know I said I wanted to stay away from that partnership, but we can’t not talk about them, given that just about every modern director with a go-to actor says, “He’s the De Niro to my Scorsese.” Before Scorsese is done making movies, I’d love to see him make a film starring both De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, who at this point has been in just about as many Scorsese films. (I count eight De Niro and five DiCaprio. And four Harvey Keitel. Scorsese needs to work with Keitel more.) The most reductive way to explain a recurring director/actor relationship is to say the latter is the former’s alter ego, but what’s been remarkable about the way Scorsese has used De Niro and DiCaprio is that there’s an otherness about their characters, at least by comparison to the man on the other side of the camera. They’re physically stronger than Scorsese, with the leading-man looks he lacks, but their characters are also often psychologically damaged and/or dangerous, in ways that work against how handsome they are. There are undoubtedly aspects of Scorsese present in the way he sees De Niro and DiCaprio—in particular, in the sullen musician the former plays in New York, New York and the obsessive-compulsive genius the latter plays in The Aviator—but I think Scorsese’s more fascinated by the ways they aren’t like him.
And that may be the key to a great director/actor relationship: that fascination with someone different. It’s why Gena Rowlands did her best work with John Cassavetes (to name another husband/wife pair), and Antonio Banderas with Pedro Almodóvar, and Shelly Duvall with Robert Altman. It’s all well and good for François Truffaut to cast Jean-Pierre Léaud as a version of himself in four feature films and a short—and I love those movies, don’t get me wrong—but I prefer Anna Karina in that amazing run of films Jean-Luc Godard made in the early 1960s, representing Godard’s visions of womanhood and movie-stardom, and thus expressing a lot of what he was trying to say just through her presence. The most callous directors think of actors as mere tools, but even at that, there’s a right tool for some jobs. I like the directors who know how best to use those tools, not the ones who’ll take their favorite screwdriver and use it to hammer nails.