TailSlate has been a fan of Greta Gerwig for a very long time, both as an actress and a writer. Now her directorial debut film, Lady Bird is in theaters. So TailSlate decided to take a look at what we consider our top ten directorial debut films from people who were actors before sitting in that big chair behind the cameras. Here they are, in no particular order.
In 2007, Ben Affleck went behind the camera to direct the film adaptation of Gone Baby Gone. His films immediately prior to his directorial debut had been hit and miss, but he nailed this one. Starring Amy Ryan, Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris and John Ashton, this noir thriller scored with critics and at the box office. Ms Ryan was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress.
Clint Eastwood had a big year in 1971. He starred in the first Dirty Harry movie, in The Beguiled and in his directorial debut, Play Misty For Me. The story of a radio DJ working at a station in Carmel who meets one of his listeners. “Evelyn” (Jessica Walter in her first big movie role) is obsessed with “Dave Garver” (Eastwood) and what starts off as a nice relationship goes very wrong.
1984 found Rob Reiner in his post-“All in the Family” period and he took on the task of directing This is Spinal Tap. With a script he co-wrote with his fellow stars, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, this was one of the best early entries in the mockumentary genre. Christopher Guest would go on to do more of these mockumentaries, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. This is Spinal Tap was modeled on serious documentaries about rock and roll and is a lot of fun to watch.
When your first effort in the director’s chair wins Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and wins two other Oscars, it belongs on this list. We’re referring to 1980’s Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford. Having an incredible cast that included Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, M. Emmett Walsh and Timothy Hutton definitely helped. Based on a novel by Judith Guest, this movie tells the story of a family that is shattered by the death of one son and the attempted suicide of the other son.
Robert De Niro had two acting Oscars on his mantle at home when he took on the task of adapting Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play A Bronx Tale to the big screen. As Sly Stallone had done with his script for Rocky, Palminteri refused to sell the rights to his play unless he was guaranteed the role of “Sonny” and to be the screenwriter on the project. De Niro met both of those conditions and they made a handshake deal. A Bronx Tale was nominated to be on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten U.S. Gangster Films list.
1969’s Easy Rider was Dennis Hopper’s first outing behind the camera. Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Hopper starred in this counterculture picture about bikers heading from California to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, the proceeds from a drug deal hidden in one of the motorcycles. In a 2009 interview, Peter Fonda confirmed the rumors that he had smoked real marijuana in scenes filmed for the movie.
Kevin Costner is another actor whose first turn behind the camera resulted in a movie that was awarded the Best Picture Oscar. Dances With Wolves is the story of a Union soldier who is sent to the westernmost outpost at his own request, after being decorated for bravery in the Civil War. He finds the post deserted and decides to restore it himself. He befriends some of the Lakota Indians who live nearby. Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Blake, Dances With Wolves won seven Academy Awards.
Playing the ruthless dispatcher on the television series “Taxi” made Danny DeVito a star and led to feature film work. Then in 1987 he went behind the camera to direct himself, Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner and Anne Ramsey in Throw Momma From the Train. A black comedy about two men who strike a deal where they will each kill the woman that is driving the other crazy, it did well at the box office.
Two actors combined to direct the next entry on this list, 1996’s Big Night. Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci collaborated on this tale of two brothers trying to make a go of a restaurant on the Jersey Shore in the 1950s. Their uncle wants them to return to Rome to work with him in his restaurant, but they prefer to remain in America. They plan an event around the promised appearance of singer Louis Prima in their restaurant, which they expect to make them a success. Big Night is rated 96% fresh on Rottentomatoes.
When most people think of Mel Gibson as a movie director, the films that come to mind are Braveheart,. Passion of the Christ and his most recent effort, Hacksaw Ridge. But his first time out as a director was 1993’s The Man Without a Face. Gibson stars in the title role, portraying a former teacher who was horribly disfigured in an automobile accident. Now a recluse, he meets a young man who needs someone to tutor him in preparation for an entrance exam to a military academy. This is yet another directorial debut involving the adaptation of a novel to the big screen. There are some differences between the novel and the final version of the film.
Caddyshack, directed by Harold Ramis and My Favorite Year, helmed by Richard Benjamin, earned Honorable Mention but didn’t quite crack our Top Ten. Will Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird wind up on this list at the next update? Only time will tell.