What They Really Want Is to Direct

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY ROBERT RISKO

Acting — that must be fun. You get your chance to inhabit a wide range of humanity, from serial killers to detectives who track serial killers. You get your name above the title and your face in Mount Rushmore dimensions on movie screens and billboards. Not to mention the cool accessories: the babes or boy toys, the avid attention the press pays to your every fistfight and drug bust. Acting: it's movie-world glamour!

But if it's movie power you're after, then you really want to direct. For sheer Hollywood eclat, "Tom Hanks in..." can't match "A Film by Tom Hanks." You suddenly bloom from mere interpreter to full creator — artistic boss. You radiate the chicest of French perfumes: Auteur. People take you seriously; critics take you too seriously. No longer just a pretty face, you are now a beautiful mind.


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Directing is tough. It requires the tenacity of a marathoner, the strategy of a chess master, the people skills of a kindergarten teacher. That no one person possesses all these attributes hasn't stopped people from trying. Especially people like actors.

In swelling numbers, actors are moving to the director's chair. This season has "films by" George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher) and Nicolas Cage (Sonny). "Directing wasn't something I was eyeballing," says Clooney, who stepped in mostly because he wanted to see Charlie Kaufman's script made into a film. Now, he says, "I'm into it. I like it."

So are plenty of Clooney's colleagues. Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Jodie Foster, Kevin Spacey, John Malkovich and Ethan Hawke have stood behind the camera. Ron Howard liked it so much he stayed there, winning a Best Director Oscar last year for A Beautiful Mind. If the trend continues, "actor-director" may become as common a hyphenate as "singer-songwriter."

Some actors who pick up the megaphone get an immediate Academy reward. Robert Redford (Ordinary People) and Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves) won Best Director Oscars their first time out, and both triumphed in years when Martin Scorsese, widely acclaimed as the most potent picturemaker around, had strong contenders (Raging Bull and GoodFellas). This year Scorsese is likely to be nominated for Gangs of New York. Does he have nightmares of another first timer — Washington or Clooney — tiptoeing up Oscar's steps?

For Washington, who took time off from working on Antwone to pick up his Oscar for Best Actor in Training Day, one of the hardest things was to stare at a handsome face — his. "I usually don't watch my own films," he says. "But this time I screened Training Day and John Q over and over, until I got used to looking at myself." He also consulted other actor-directors. "Warren Beatty said it was a good thing that I also appeared in the picture because it was something I was used to. It was a way in."

But is it? "Actors need to be living in the scene, inside their character," says Directors Guild president Martha Coolidge, who has worked on big screen (Valley Girl) and small (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge). "It can be difficult for them to have an overview of the film, because it's the opposite of what they need to be doing. Directing can be a big shock to a lot of actors. It's a lot more like going to war than it is a glamorous job."

But it's not an impossible job. "Frankly," Coolidge says, "most jobs on the set can be done by other people. You can hire a cameraman to set up the angles if you don't know how; a production designer can design the look of the picture if you don't have any feeling for visuals; your writer does the script; someone else does costumes. The one job that nobody else does on the set is talk to the actors." So get an actor-director for that; he already knows the language.

Some actors are itching for the job. Says Campbell Scott, who co-directed the 1996 Big Night with another actor, Stanley Tucci: "On the set, you often think, 'What part of the machinery am I today?' It gets difficult to be satisfied. It's like playing sports. After a while, you want to coach the team."

For most actors, it's a long climb from player to coach. In the silent era, pioneer director D.W. Griffith had entered movies as an actor; Charlie Chaplin directed all his own features. But from the start of the Academy Awards in 1928 through the '70s, only two actors turned directors won even an Oscar nomination for directing: Orson Welles for Citizen Kane and Laurence Olivier for Hamlet. And they were so mammoth, so legendary, that few actors dared imitate them. The auteur corps was replenished by craftsmen who made their names as writers, cameramen and editors and by directors imported from the stage and TV, but not by actors.

Finally, in the '60s, when the studio system was collapsing, a few imposing actors — Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes, Paul Newman — seized the reins. In the '70s, Woody Allen (who would be the first actor to win a Director Oscar, for Annie Hall) and Clint Eastwood (who would win a directing Oscar for Unforgiven) became full-time hyphenates. Studios realized that letting a star direct could keep him happy and busy. At times it paid off in grosses and statuettes.

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