It seems inevitable that an actor will at some point end up behind the camera as a director. The latest actor to take their talents behind the camera is Dave Franco, star of such films as 21 Jump Street, Neighbors, and Nerve. Franco’s debut, the horror/thriller The Rental, debuts on video-on-demand this Friday and it is an impressive debut. Some actors-turned-directors start off with a dud, others start with a bang. This list focuses on the later. Here are my picks for the best directorial debuts from actors-turned-directors.
5 – A BRONX TALE (Robert De Niro, 1995)
- By the time 1995 rolled around, Robert De Niro had become one of cinema’s most renowned and assured actors. The two-time Oscar winner had worked with some of cinema’s finest directors and starred in some of the greatest movies ever made. So were we at all surprised when he stepped behind the camera and the film was great? Based on Chazz Palminteri’s play (Palminteri also wrote the screenplay), A Bronx Tale is a look at a working class father (De Niro) who becomes worried when a local gangster (Palminteri) befriends his son in the Bronx in the 1960’s. This is a movie about growing up and parenting and De Niro fills the film with deeply emotional sequences and top notch performances. Though only directing one other film in his career (2006’s The Good Shepard), De Niro’s effort on A Bronx Tale makes me wish he would get behind the camera again.
4 – A STAR IS BORN (Bradley Cooper, 2018)
- It was a pretty bold choice for Bradley Cooper to make his directorial debut the third remake of a Hollywood classic that had been around since the 1930’s. But this bold decision is what made his debut film, A Star is Born, so great. Cooper, who also starred, co-wrote, and co-produced the film, made the 2018 version of A Star is Born his own, modernizing the tale, yet still making it emotional and captivating with great music and performances, much the like versions before it. Cooper doubles down and gives the best performance of his career and made Lady Gaga a bonafide movie star. A Star is Born is the only film Cooper has made so far, but I cannot wait to see what he does next behind the camera.
3 – ORDINARY PEOPLE (Robert Redford, 1980)
- Robert Redford was one of the biggest actors in the 1970’s, starring in award-winning films and being one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. Redford used his caché to go behind the camera and the result was nothing short of impressive. Ordinary People is a somber, heartbreaking look at a family dealing with the death of one of their own. Led by tremendous performances from Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, and Oscar winners Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People went on to win Best Picture at the 1980 Academy Awards along with Redford winning Best Director. Not bad for a first time filmmaker.
2 – GET OUT (Jordan Peele, 2017)
- Jordan Peele’s directorial debut was a lightning rod to the cinematic world. Known mostly as a comedy guy, especially from his time as co-creator of the sketch comedy show Key & Peele, Peele’s debut is an eerie satire about Black life in White America, as a Black man (a star-making turn from Daniel Kaluuya) visits his white girlfriend’s (an underrated Allison Williams) family for the weekend. There are scenes that will have you laughing and scenes that will shock you and Peele balances the tones like a true pro. What’s best about Get Out is the layers to the film. Every time I watch it I notice something new that makes me want to rewatch again. Get Out is one of the best movies of the 2010’s and introduced us to one of the most exciting new directors of the 21st century.
1 – NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Charles Laughton, 1955)
- Night of the Hunter marks the only official directing credit on actor Charles Laughton’s directing resumé (he was uncredited as the completion director on 1949’s The Man on the Eiffel Tower). And yet with just one film, Laughton left his mark on the cinematic world in a big way. Night of the Hunter is an extraordinary film. A tightly composed, endlessly intense, chilling, beautiful looking thriller that you would have thought was made by a veteran. What’s most impressive is the performance Laughton gets from the film’s star Robert Mitchum. His terrifying, menacing, demonic performance is one of the best I have ever seen in a movie. Hearing his “Love vs Hate” speech is masterful dialog reading and inspired Spike Lee in his masterpiece Do the Right Thing. After over 60 years, Night of the Hunter holds up as well as any film made today and is the best debut film from an actor-turned-director.
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