What They Really Want Is to Direct


    (2 of 2)

    Directing can enrich a career, as it did for Danny DeVito, who has kept busy on both sides since the success of his first two directorial efforts, Throw Momma from the Train and The War of the Roses. DeVito enjoys doing both at once: "For me, it's about losing control as an actor — being able to be free — while keeping control as the director. It's schizophrenic, but it's really good."

    For the novice actor-director, it can be a thrilling, daunting rite of passage. Says Matt Dillon, who directed his first feature, City of Ghosts, last year: "There's a lot of stuff you have to fight for. Constantly. Especially budget and schedule constraints. Postproduction was a whole new ballgame. A lot of opinions came up in the editing room." He sounds like a contestant on Fear Factor but adds, "Directing is a great job. You just have to have a cool head and trust your instincts."

    To look at the new Washington, Cage and Clooney films is to see the actors' personalities reflected and refracted in their directorial work. Antwone Fisher, at heart an interview between a Navy psychiatrist (Washington) and a troubled, gifted young seaman (Derek Luke) in search of a father figure, has the thoughtfulness, the heroic withholding of rage that Washington the actor has lent to so many of his characters. The movie (from a true story, written by the real Antwone Fisher) takes its power from the authenticity of its emotions. The director is typically modest about his effort. He says, "I like what Tom Hanks said about directing: 'It's not the stupidest thing I've ever done.'"

    If Washington's film recalls many worthy Hollywood tracts, Cage's Sonny is in the mold of Cassavetes' gritty, improvised psychodramas. Sonny Phillips (James Franco) is a male prostitute come home to New Orleans after a two-year Army hitch. He wants to put the sex business aside, but he's good at it, and it's the only trade he knows. No surprise here, in the story or the actors' doggedly Method manners. Sonny's main interest is Cage the director returning to the tone of the indie films that gave Cage the actor his wild-man start — in films that he stopped making when he became a movie star.

    We know Clooney as a fellow who likes to deliver the tallest tales with a straight face and a subtle wink. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind purports to be about the CIA exploits of game-show producer Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell). But as the director says, "This is a guy who's blurring reality with fantasy. And his reality is game shows." So Clooney plays games with the viewer's head. At the beginning, Chuck joins a guided tour in the Rockefeller Center lobby, runs off to apply for a job there and in a wink is leading a tour of his own — all in the same shot. Later he walks from the present into the past, from fact to outlandish fiction, in this confession of a most unreliable mind. Clooney, notorious for his practical jokes, here constructs his most elaborate jape yet.

    Clooney began by pitching the film, originally budgeted at $38 million, to Miramax Films' Harvey Weinstein. "The first thing I said to Harvey was that the budget comes in under $30 million." He also called on some of his Ocean's Eleven acting pals to guest-star in his shell game: Julia Roberts as a femme fatale, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as losing contestants on The Dating Game. The director also played Barris' mysterious (i.e., imaginary) CIA contact, spitting out some choice Kaufman dialogue and giving the film even more star heft.

    Confessions has a pretty high exasperation quotient — partly built in (a practical joke is also an endurance test) and partly from its being at the tired end of a line of movies about weird or failed show-biz types (Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman, Bob Crane). But Clooney turns out to have a flair, puckish and audacious, for his new job. Learning from working with Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers and from watching the '70s thrillers of Alan J. Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View), Clooney figured out how to turn images and performances into menace and sizzle. He's already a real director. If he ever tires of his name above the title, he could build a cottage industry as the cinema's handsomest auteur.

    All he needs is the commitment. And that's something bred into an actor-director. When Matt Dillon went looking for pointers before his directorial debut, he got a pep talk from director John Milius: "He told me there are two people who come onto a set believing they can make the greatest movie ever — the director and the actor." And who better to make that lovely hallucination come true than the actor-director?

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. Next Page