Quest for Failure

All great directors are, in some sense, actors. But when actors decide to become directors--watch out.

We will soon see the results of what happened when Kevin Costner marched straight into the wilderness without a compass to direct Dances With Wolves. Jack Nicholson is said to have been so disgusted with his own performance that he madly reworked most of The Two Jakes. Eddie Murphy is still reeling from the effects of his first rodeo ride, directing himself in the critically-slammed box office disappointment Harlem Nights. After throwing his weight around on Scrooged, Bill Murray took the logical next step by directing himself in Quick Change, on which he at least had the brains to bring in a co-director.

Emilio Estevez is following up his directorial debut, the over-the-top big budget student film Wisdom, with Men at Work, and since he's chosen once again not only to direct but to write and star in his film as well, one can only wonder. And the army of big-name stars who say they want to direct grows larger by the day: Jodie Foster, Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger...

Why? The movie star's path to the director's chair is already strewn with the gassed corpses of such greats as Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Jack Lemmon, and many others. You'd think history alone would put the fear of God in these hopefuls. What's more, you'd expect them to realize that the sheer mental mechanics of shifting from one state of mind (acting) to another (directing) opens up an amazing number of ways to fail.

Robert Redford is convincing proof that good movie stars can be good directors if they just stay out of the films they direct. (He deserved his Oscar for Ordinary People if for no other reason than he got out of the way of a strong story and elicited strong performances from a well-chosen cast.) But staying out of one's own picture isn't that easy: the only way most actors get a shot at directing in the first place is by starring in their own films. Studio heads know all too well that there's a downside to letting an actor loose with $20 million or more to direct a film, and that if the actor stars as well as directs the chances of getting a good movie go down even further; but execs also know that the box office draw of the actor's name is the only insurance they have, so they insist on it anyway. Redford managed to circumvent this Catch-22 by doing two smart things. First, he built up experience, as Warren Beatty did, by forming a production company to handle his own pictures, starting with All the President's Men. Then, he quit acting for three years and laid low, while he searched for the right project. Most actors don't have this luxury.

Just about everybody else, from Eddie Murphy to Clint Eastwood, is basically stuck having to be the face out front. Some make clever compromises. Bill Murray's decision to co-direct his picture follows a lead established by Warren Beatty, who split the directing chores with Buck Henry on Heaven Can Wait--to very positive effect. Emilio Estevez made Robert Wise his executive producer and mentor on Wisdom, though that didn't help much. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed (but did not star in) an episode for HBO's "Tales From the Crypt," and Mel Gibson has spoken of doing the same, in hopes, perhaps, of getting in a little practice before taking the opportunity for major embarrassment.

So, why is it that actors want to become directors?

First, there is a deep psychological imperative at work: for an actor, to direct is to become autonomous--a natural human wish. (Of course, only an actor could think that a director is autonomous.) Louise Brooks once called movie stardom the closest thing to slavery that exists in our century. It's perhaps inescapable that no human being is designed to be just an actor. As Gore Vidal put it, several years before Ronald Reagan's election: "Movie actors are a special breed.. .1 wouldn't want a professional screen actor to be President of the United States, no matter how nice or bright he is, because he's spent his entire life being moved about like a piece of furniture. He's used to being used. That's why all the male actors, almost without exception, become alcoholics. Traditionally, it's not in the male nature-- this is a sexist remark--to be totally passive. The actor feels unmanly. He gets drunk. The women take up needlepoint, and survive. A major female movie star will have created ten miles of tapestry by the time her career is over. I couldn't imagine an actor as president. I could imagine a director. After all, he's a hustler, a liar, a cheat--plainly presidential." Vidal's frame of reference is the golden age of the studio--but his observation still applies. Today, actors either try to direct or (the saner alternative] open a restaurant.

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