Though film is an inherently collaborative medium, requiring careful cooperation of dozens of individuals, there are two roles that get singled out as being most responsible for the final product. Representing the technical marvels behind the camera and the beauty in front of it, directors and actors are Hollywood’s lifeblood, providing a face for the art that took the efforts of countless unseen.
Sometimes, a director/actor tandem proves so gripping or successful, that a personal and professional bond is forged, and the two continue to work together; sometimes it’s a brief burst, while other times it’s a career-long relationship, but often the familiarity working teams have with one another results in a film of elevated artistic achievement.
Dave Fontana – Alfred Hitchcock & Jimmy Stewart
Hitchcock’s Rope is most celebrated for its unique filming style, in which the entirety of the film is shot in 10-minute segments. Collectively, it tells the story of two highbrow intellectuals who decide to murder someone they consider to be inferior; in addition to this heinous act, they throw a party in the very same room where his corpse is now held.
Stewart‘s character Rupert in the film is easily the most well-rounded of the cast. Though Rupert
Alex Lines – Sam Peckinpah & Warren Oates
Arlin Golden – Federico Fellini & Giulietta Masina
Fellini regularly subjected his leading lady, Giulietta Masina, to all manner of indignities in his films; she’s been insulted for her looks and smarts, bought and sold, abandoned, traumatized, nearly drowned, publicly embarrassed, prostituted, robbed, and cheated upon. In her roles she is constantly giving her love and devotion to men who clearly don’t deserve it.
Like a proto-von Trier, through the suffering and misery of women Fellini revealed the brutal, animalistic tendencies of male nature, and the martyrdom they consequently force upon women. The only difference here is that von Trier‘s relationship with, say Björk or Charlotte Gainsbourg, was never anything other than professional, while when Fellini directed Masina in La Strada, their first cinematic collaboration with him at the helm (Fellini wrote Without Pity in which Masina had a role), they had already been married for over a decade.
Giulietta played muse to Fellini‘s most inspired neorealist films, before he fully embraced the style that came to be described only as “Felliniesque”. In La Strada, she puts on one of the most affecting performances ever committed to celluloid, in a role often compared to those of Charlie Chaplin, but which I’d argue surpasses him.
They then made the little-seen (as in I haven’t seen) Il Bidone, before making Nights of Cabiria, the original film about a hooker with a heart of gold, for which Masina won Best Actress at Cannes. She also starred in Fellini‘s first color film, Juliet of the Spirits, as well as the late-period work Ginger & Fred, in which she paired with Fellini‘s masculine muse, Marcello Mastroianni.
Though he really put his poor wife through the ringer in terms of both her roles and her treatment on set (according to assistant Dominique Delouche, Fellini would be particularly demanding of Masina to avoid the appearance of preferential treatment), the great love he must have felt for her is just as palpable. In all of her roles, Masina has a beaming smile and euphoric energy, both of which are put on full display by her husband’s insatiable desire to watch her dance.
In every one of these films Fellini has his wife snapping and doing her signature high kicks, presented in a way that appears to mix a lack of self-awareness with total self-confidence. In a Roman Catholic way, I believe that these films are actually penance for the director, exaggerating his inadequacies as a husband while painting his wife as a saintly figure, fated to spend her days with men too selfish to ever fully appreciate her.
Jay Ledbetter: Paul Thomas Anderson & Philip Seymour Hoffman
Tom Gianakopoulos – John Cassavetes & Gena Rowlands
John Cassavetes was an actor’s director, which is to say: he was an actor who, when he wasn’t acting in other director’s projects, would direct and write and finance his own movies. If you are unfamiliar with his directorial work, you might recognize him in his various film roles: as one of the rough and ready soldiers in The Dirty Dozen, or the morally compromised father in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
Those who are familiar with the films he directed know that they dealt with difficult subject matters, attempting to say something about the human experience, about what it meant to fall in and out of love, and to be forgiven (or not) for our shortcomings.
I am hard-pressed to think of a Cassavetes movie that contains a happy ending, yet his movies still resonate decades after they were originally released. It is no coincidence that the strongest among them are those that star Gena Rowlands, his wife of 35 years: A Woman Under The Influence, Minnie and Moskowitz, Opening Night and Gloria. A Woman Under The Influence earned Academy nominations for both Rowlands and Cassavetes in their respective categories, something which the director himself would downplay.
Cassavetes‘ relationship with Rowlands was a complex but passionate one, and the couple was very open about when they disagreed, which seemed to be often. Both husband and wife were not afraid to go against the grain of what audiences expected of a movie, and were known to take risks with their films in an attempt to portray the emotional truth of a story.
It had not occurred to me until the writing of this truncated piece why it is that I respond so strongly to Cassavetes’ films, even the ones that do not seem to work for me: their stories reach in, lift me up and shake me by the shoulders. Depending upon my state of mind, they might even give me a smack or two across the face, just to make sure I’m paying attention. Then with another cuff of tough love, they send me on my way, buoyed by a renewed sense of understanding of my life and all its glorious inconsistencies.
As the films which resulted from these collaborations demonstrate, repeated experiences working together can allow for more open, honest and raw performances, as the actor and director develop a shorthand of trust with one another.
Knowing that they are the hands of a skilled director likely makes an actor more confident that their work will be used appropriately and to strong effect, creating a sort of symbiotic closed loop, where the talents of both parties help to continually enhance the other’s (Tim Burton and Johnny Depp likely being the exception that proves the rule).
Though many notable tandems have come and gone, there is no doubt that actors and directors will continue forging meaning bonds throughout the future, and in doing so, help to spur the art of film forward.
What’s your favorite actor/director collaborations?
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