Friday, October 28, 2011

8 People Who Should Have Become Directors

Film buffs love to talk about people who didn’t direct enough (top of the list: Charles Laughton and Jean Vigo, of course) or people who should never have directed (I’m not naming names, but take your pick, and make sure your pick includes Eric Schaeffer).

But rarely do we talk about people who should have directed and never did. And yet every once in a while I’ll come across someone who was so instrumental to the success of other filmmakers and clearly so brilliant, that I’ll think, “Why on Earth didn’t this guy/gal ever direct a film themselves?”

Sometimes the answer is simple: They never wanted to. Sometimes, you’ll find that they did get to direct one film along the way: For example the legendary stunt director Vic Armstrong did in fact make one forgotten Dolph Lundgren movie; Eric Schwab, a longtime Second Unit Director for Brian De Palma and the one person who comes away from The Devil’s Candy with his reputation intact, did get to make one totally forgotten crime thriller; Tonino Guerra, the great Italian screenwriter for Antonioni, Rosi, and the Tavianis, did direct a documentary, in collaboration with Andrei Tarkovsky (!).

For those reasons, I’ve kept those folks and a few others off this list. And really, it’s meant to be a discussion-starter more than anything else. So here are my choices for 8 people – critics, motion picture professionals, etc. – who should have become directors at one point or another.

Polly Platt
The late Platt was ostensibly a costume and production designer, but she obviously had a huge influence on the magnificent films she collaborated on with her once-husband Peter Bogdanovich (Targets, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc, Paper Moon), who was never quite the same director after he left her. Her later work as a producer (Say Anything, Broadcast News, Bottle Rocket, etc.) confirmed her talent, taste, and abilities. Did she ever want to direct? I don’t know. But she should have.

Irving Thalberg
In Thalberg’s case, directing was probably too beneath him. This was, after all, the man who practically defined the uber-powerful producer in classic Hollywood, even though he rarely ever took a credit on the films he produced. Just take a gander: The Crowd, Anna Christie, Greed (which he butchered, alas), Red Dust, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera…really, it just goes on. He did reportedly direct parts of Von Stroheim’s ill-fated Queen Christina…but really, who didn’t?

Andre Bazin
Simply based on the sheer number of critics-become-directors he inspired (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, etc. etc.), Andre Bazin would at the very least given us something to talk about, had he had a chance behind the camera. But alas, he died in 1958, at the age of 40 – before he got to see the cinematic revolution that his protégés enacted in his name.

He got into filmmaking the old fashioned way. He eeeaarrned it.
John Houseman
Full disclosure: Though I abstractly understand that he was for many years a legendary producer and collaborator with some of my favorite filmmakers, when I think “John Houseman,” I still think of the perpetually irritated, upper-crust grandfather he played on Silver Spoons. But we must never forget how important he was to the history of film and theater -- absolutely instrumental in the careers of two of America’s greatest filmmakers, Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray, and a producer of major films by Vincente Minnelli, Fritz Lang, and Max Ophuls. He was behind so many great artistic moments, and rarely took proper credit for them. He does have one directing credit for television, but I think most of the work there was done by Nick Ray, his assistant at the time. So maybe he too just wasn’t that interested in directing for film. But something still tells me he would have been pretty darn good at it.

Franco Arcalli
Arcalli died at the untimely age of 49, so we don’t know where his career might have taken him. He was, of course, Bernardo Bertolucci’s editor on The Conformist – famously suggesting the film’s stylized flashback structure to the director – and later became his trusted confidante and writer (he co-wrote 1900 and Last Tango, and also served as an assistant director on the latter). He also had editing credits for Antonioni and a number of the stranger Italian films of the 60s and 70s, including Django, Kill! Death Laid an Egg, and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Perhaps he was more an enabler than anything else, but I’d have loved to see what films might have come out of that twisted mind of his.

Eleanor Perry
I’ve written at length elsewhere about Eleanor Perry’s contributions to the films she made (which include The Swimmer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Last Summer) with her husband Frank back in the day. And her novel Blue Pages, a vaguely fictionalized account of a woman trying to make it in a male-dominated Hollywood after a messy divorce with her director-husband, is a heartbreaking account of what trying to get ahead in the movie business took out of her. Her short, glorious career as a screenwriter and erstwhile producer is a testament to her artistry and vision.

Jerry Ziesmer
First of all, Ziesmer’s memoir, Ready When You Are, Mr. Coppola, Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Crowe, is probably the best book about filmmaking I’ve ever read. So, you know, check it out. Most movie buffs today who know of Ziesmer probably know him as the lucky guy who got to be the First Assistant Director on the fantasia of narcissistic collapse that was the production of Apocalypse Now. To be fair, Ziesmer himself doesn’t seem to have ever wanted a directing job, and Assistant Director, despite the title, is not necessarily a job track to directing. But for all his organizational and human management skills, Ziesmer clearly has the soul of an artist: His book, while superbly informative, is also surprisingly touching. It would have been interesting to see what he might have cooked up.

John Cleese
Again, Cleese seems like the kind of guy who’d instantly be given a shot at helming if he wanted it; one assumes that he might have at least handled those duties on one of the Monty Python films if he had a burning desire to direct. I include him here mainly because as a writer-star of such dominant sensibility he essentially is the auteur of so many of his films and TV shows – including A Fish Called Wanda, which was officially directed by my beloved Charles Crichton and may have been unofficially directed by Cleese himself, which just goes to prove my point.

1 comment:

  1. Posted by Jerry Ziesmer

    Thank you so much for including me in your "Eight People Who Should Have Been Directors". I'm very honored.
    Thank you.
    Jerry Ziesmer