A List: Best Movies by Actors Turned Directors

By J. Don Birnam

November 12, 2015

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Who is the Babe Ruth of movies? Is there anyone in the film world that has excelled both as an actor and a director? If you have any thoughts, let me know on Twitter.

Angelina Jolie's By the Sea is the big-name opener this weekend, but early word-of-mouth is that it will not fare much better than the disappointing life-saga Unbroken. Kudos to Angelina, in any event, for following her passion to be a director, particularly given the well-documented challenges that women face in doing so.

In honor of Angelina's latest attempt, I looked back at some of the best movies by actors turned directors. The list, as you know, is plentiful, from Redford to Eastwood to Gibson and Affleck. Trivia: all four of these gentlemen have won Oscars for Best Director, but never taken home a statuette for Best Actor. Indeed, no individual has ever won an Oscar for directing and acting, so right now there is no official Bambino in movie-land (Ruth was, by contrast, both a batting champion and an ERA-leader when he played).

Winnowing this list down was no easy, task, so I have resorted to my tried and true method: arbitrary rules. The main rule I will employ to knock out pesky (and great) entries is simple: if they are known for their dual roles as an actor and director of their own movies, then they are out. Sorry, Woody Allen. Anyway, we've already dedicated a whole column to Woody, and no one doubts his greatness. This probably also knocks out Orson Wells and Ernst Lubitsch (who starred in most of the silent movies he directed).


I'm also going to take points away from individuals who were known mostly as an actor but ventured into directing sporadically. Did you know that Ben Stiller directed movies? Exactly. Other famed directors, Elia Kazan comes to mind, began their careers as stage actors or bit-part players. But name a movie in which Elia Kazan was an actor. Exactly. And while Richard Attenborough did win an Oscar for directing Gandhi, he does not have a robust directorial career outside that. What I’m looking for here is individuals who had real roles in both chairs, but began as actors.

Some dishonorable mentions first. You won't find Stallone on my list, as I’m not a big fan of his directorial turns in all the Rocky sequels, nor do I think one lauded movie, Dances With Wolves, deserves Costner a spot on the list, even though it's the 25th anniversary of its release this week. Mel Gibson gets closer, with daring epics Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto showing directorial risk-taking, but, again, I’m personally not enamored with any of those three.

On the other side of the ledge, we must mention, of course, this year's Best Director contender Thomas McCarthy, who has wowed us with his appearance in The Wire, but also in a long list of movies from Syriana to Michael Clayton to 2012. Yet, his directorial credits are award-worthy, from the indie cult-classic The Station Agent, to the beautifully nuanced The Visitor, and now as writer and director for the Best Picture front-runner, Spotlight.

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