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The Top 10 Films by Writer-Director-Actors

By Martin Keady · July 8, 2015

It is the holy trinity of cinema: to write, direct and star in a film.  However, such are the difficulties involved in combining the three roles that only a few film-makers have ever attempted it and even fewer have succeeded.  (Among the most notable failures is Quentin Tarantino, who, for all his genius as a writer and director, was always the worst actor in his own movies.) 

Here are the Top 10 Films by Writer-Director-Actors.

 

10. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

(Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Co-written by Coppola and John Milius, and featuring Coppola in a cameo role)

Cameo roles by directors in their own movies are not uncommon.  Alfred Hitchcock, of course, was the master, famously appearing briefly in all his films, most notably Lifeboat, where his photograph was shown in a newspaper found aboard the eponymous vessel. 

Among the best cameo performances by directors in their own films are those of Roman Polanski in Chinatown, as the nasty, knife-wielding villain who slits open Jack Nicholson’s nose, and Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver, as one of Robert De Niro’s “fares” who spies on his wife and launches into what is perhaps the most misogynistic diatribe ever caught on camera.

However, because Polanski and Scorsese did not write those films but only directed them, the award for best cameo performance by a writer-director in one of their own films goes to Francis Ford Coppola for his brief but unforgettable appearance as a TV news director in Apocalypse Now.  It is entirely in keeping with the insanity of the film (which, of course, was trying to capture the insanity of the Vietnam war) that Coppola’s director screams at the soldiers who are astonished to see him beside them: “Don’t look at the camera.  Keep on fighting!”  And for added verisimilitude, the cameraman shown working alongside him was his own cameraman, the great Vittorio Storaro, who did so much to bring the beauty and majesty of Apocalypse Now to life.

 

9. YENTL (1983)

(Directed by Barbra Streisand, Co-written by Streisand and Jack Rosenthal, based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and starring Streisand)

If there are very few male writer-director-actors in the history of cinema, there are virtually no female WDAs.  There have been great women writer-directors from Ida Lupino to Kathryn Bigelow, but the most prominent female writer-director-actor (and not just for her proboscis) is Barbra Streisand.

Thanks in no small part to the relentless spoofing she has received in South Park, Streisand is often regarded now simply as a figure of fun, but in reality she is one of the most successful and interesting female Hollywood film-makers.  First, as an actress, she became an utterly unconventional (i.e. not conventionally beautiful) leading lady in movies such as Funny Girl and What’s Up Doc?  Then, unlike so many leading ladies, she took control of the whole film-making process by becoming a writer, director and producer, a colossally demanding undertaking that culminated in her work on Yentl.

Yentl, which was based on a tale by Isaac Bashevis Singer that he later adapted into a play with Leah Napolin, is an almost Shakespearean sex-swap story. A young Jewish girl (played by Streisand) living in early 20th century eastern Europe dreams of studying the Talmud and becoming a Rabbi, even though, as a woman, she is forbidden from doing so.  Eventually, she adopts the name and identity of her deceased brother and enters a “yeshiva” (or religious school).  Soon, she attracts the attention of other students and their wives and girlfriends, one of whom inevitably falls in love with her.

The real strength of Yentl is that it subverts Streisand’s image as a very masculine (i.e. ugly)-looking woman and plays with it, as she gains both male and female admirers. Those unconventional looks, which have never really been replicated in cinema by any other actress since Streisand (only Jennifer Aniston comes close, and she is a supermodel in comparison with Streisand), are exactly what allow her to pass as a man in the male-dominated worlds of the “yeshiva” and, arguably, Hollywood itself.

 

8. OPENING NIGHT (1977)

(Written and Directed by John Cassavetes, and co-starring Cassavetes)

John Cassavetes was the original king of independent American cinema, the star of The Dirty Dozen (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor) who longed to make unshowy, unsentimental films about “little people”, and succeeded triumphantly in classics such as A Woman Under The Influence (1974) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).

Unfortunately for fans of WDAs, Cassavetes always saw a distinction between his acting (in such big-budget fare as The Dirty Dozen) and his writing-directing (in his own low-budget movies).  Consequently, he rarely appeared in his own films, preferring to train the spotlight on his own personal “repertory” of extraordinarily talented character actors, including his wife, Gena Rowlands, and his male proxies, who included Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk.

Opening Night, the story of a stage actress (played by Rowlands) who faces all kinds of obstacles before the opening of a play, including the accidental death of a fan for which she blames herself, is far from being the best Cassavetes movie.  However, it is probably the best Cassavetes movie in which he himself appeared, particularly because he plays a self-confessed “supporting actor”, Maurice Aarons, who longs to play the lead (and win the leading lady) but knows he will always be cast in smaller roles.  As he tells Rowlands’ character: “I have a small part. It’s unsympathetic. The audience doesn’t like me.”  Of course, the irony is that, as films such as The Dirty Dozen showed, the audience often loved Cassavetes the actor, and he should probably have cast himself as the leading man alongside Rowlands in at least one of his movies. 

 

7. REDS (1981)

(Directed by Warren Beatty, Co-written by Beatty and Trevor Griffiths, based on the book Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed, and starring Beatty as Reed)

As an utterly conventional Hollywood leading man, Warren Beatty would appear on the surface to have little in common with “funny-looking girl” Barbra Streisand, but, as with Streisand and her unusual looks, Beatty’s good looks and reputation as an inveterate womaniser often worked against him when he sought to be recognised as a “serious” film-maker.  All that changed, however, with, Reds, his adaptation of the seminal history of the Russian revolution, Ten Days That Shook The World, by John Reed, which he wrote, directed and starred in as Reed.

Apart from Dr Zhivago, Reds is the only major mainstream Hollywood movie about the Russian revolution, and like Dr Zhivago it is also a love story, depicting the complicated love triangle between Reed, the wealthy socialite Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton) and the great playwright Eugene O’Neill (played by Jack Nicholson).  And Beatty is utterly convincing as both an idealistic journalist and a romantic hero—as both a man of letters and a lover.

The scale of Beatty’s achievement as a writer-director-actor is reflected in the fact that with Reds he became only the third man in movie history to be simultaneously nominated for the Best Director, Best Writer and Best Actor Oscars.  (Sadly for him, he failed to win in any of the three categories.)  Unsurprisingly, the only other two nominees for “the triple crown” top this list of WDAs.

 

6. DO THE RIGHT THING

(1989, Written and Directed by Spike Lee, and starring Lee)

Spike Lee is the great black WDA and more than a quarter-century after it was made Do The Right Thing remains his greatest achievement.  Indeed, in the wake of the police killings in Ferguson and elsewhere over the last year, it is arguably more relevant and resonant than ever.

After his debut, She’s Gotta Have It, Lee was hailed as “the black Woody Allen”, as much for the spectacles he sported and his relatively small frame as for his persona, which, as a sexually confident young black man full of braggadocio, was the polar opposite of Woody’s weak and weedy nerds.  But after Do The Right Thing, it was absolutely clear that Lee was directly politically engaged in a way that Woody never had been and never could be.

Do The Right Thing is one of the great New York movies, largely because it depicts the reality of New York in the summertime when it effectively becomes a sub-tropical city.  It is in that stifling, even lethal heat, that the events of the film are played out, as the rising tension between the mainly black residents of the Bed-Stuy district and the white owners of a pizzeria eventually spills over into a brutal race riot that claims the life of at least one young black man.

The only downside of Do The Right Thing is that it was so good (and Lee himself was so good, in his three roles as writer, director and actor) that he has never come close to matching it, let alone topping it.  For all the merits of Malcolm X, Clockers and even The Summer of Sam, Do The Right Thing is indisputably Lee’s finest film and also the finest film by any African-American WDA.

 

5. THE GENERAL (1926)

(Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, Written by Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, based on The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger, and starring Buster Keaton)

So many of the great WDAs (including two on this list) worked during the silent era, when it was undoubtedly easier to write, direct and star in movies than it was afterwards, as the arrival of sound added a new layer of complexity to the production and particularly the post-production of films.

Buster Keaton—aka Old Stoneface (the greatest deadpanner of ‘em all)—wrote, directed and starred in many fine movies in his heyday, the early 20s, but the best of a brilliant bunch is The General, in which he plays a railroad engineer who dreams of enlisting in the Confederate Army during the American civil war. Unfortunately, he is rejected because he is considered to be too important in his existing role, running the railways. Of course, Keaton refuses to accept rejection and “The Great Locomotive Chase” ensues, as he first steals a train to follow his beloved north when she is kidnapped, then, having rescued her, has to flee back south to warn the Confederate army of an impending Union attack.

The General is a testament to Keaton’s three-fold ability as a writer, director and actor. As a writer, he brilliantly adapts his source material into what remains probably the greatest “chase” movie ever made (because the chase is carried out on trains); as a director, or at least co-director, he oversaw the most elaborate and expensive action sequence ever filmed up to that point, as a Union train is derailed when it tries to cross a burning bridge; and as an actor, he remains suitably stony-faced throughout, even when he finally wins his spurs as a soldier and wins the heart of his beloved. 

 

4. THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)

(Written and Directed by Charlie Chaplin, and starring Chaplin)

Charlie Chaplin is the other great silent-era WDA on this list, and even if The Great Director was a “talkie” (a sound movie), it still employed many of the visual story-telling techniques of the silent era. And just as any number of Keaton movies could have been chosen to illustrate his abilities as a writer, director and actor, so Chaplin devotees could put the case for City Lights and Modern Times, among others. However, it is The Great Dictator that just edges out Chaplin’s other masterpieces to merit inclusion on this list, partly because it is an acting tour de force, with Chaplin playing both the eponymous dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (a barely-disguised Adolph Hitler), and the Jewish barber, Schulz, who is his unlikely doppelganger.

The Great Dictator was a huge success, both commercially and in pursuit of Chaplin’s other avowed aim, which was to alert the world (and in particular isolationist America) to the growing threat that Hitler’s Germany posed.  The terrible irony, however, is that a quarter of a century after its release, Chaplin confessed in his autobiography that he would never have made such a broad satire in the first place if he had known the horrific truth about the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.  In effect, the ultimate comic was admitting that there are some subjects that are just too serious to be satirised.

 

3. LA RÈGLE DU JEU (or THE RULES OF THE GAME) (1939)

(Directed by Jean Renoir, Co-written by Renoir and Carl Koch, and starring Renoir)

Renoir is regarded by many as the greatest director of all, but he rarely acted in his films: among his few appearances are those in Partie de campagne (or A Day in the Country) (1936) and La Bête Humaine (or The Human Beast) (1938).  However, his performance in La Règle du jeu is not only one of the finest by any director in one of their own movies but the performance on which the whole masterpiece hinges.

Renoir plays Octave, the supposed best friend of the hero of the story, the aviator André, who is in love with an Austrian woman, Christine.  However, in André’s absence on a long-distance flight, Christine has married another man.  Then, through a complicated series of events that take place during a weekend at a country house, Octave ends up declaring to Christine that he loves her, thereby betraying André. Worse still, through a disastrous series of misunderstandings, André is shot dead by another man who thinks he is actually Octave, who he fears is about to run off with his own wife.

La Règle du jeu is famously the French film that heralded the end of French independence even before France fell to the Nazis in 1940.  Renoir sought to display a society whose complacency would ultimately prove fatal; one whose obsession with its own petty self-delusions and self-importance blinded it to the existential threat looming on the horizon.  And that is why his self-casting as Octave is so important.

As David Thomson writes in his entry on Renoir in his encyclopaedic Biographical Dictionary of Film, by playing Octave, the well-meaning man who is ultimately complicit in another man’s death, Renoir wanted to show that in such a delusional society no-one was exempt from criticism.  Renoir famously said, “Everyone has their reasons”, but he might also have added, “Everyone bears their share of the blame”, including himself. 

 

2. ANNIE HALL (1977)

(Directed by Woody Allen, Co-written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, and Starring Woody Allen)

Woody Allen is the ultimate WDA. In fact, the unpalatable truth is that he was a WDA for too long, acting (even playing the supposed “romantic lead”) into his seventies even though his supposed “allure” had long since faded.  It was only when he finally realised that he could no longer play the leading man in his own movies that he achieved his final great flowering, with late-period masterpieces such as Midnight in Paris (in which Owen Wilson effectively played the “Woody” character).

However, in many earlier films Woody established the WDA template, effectively creating his own mini-studio system in New York (far away from LA, which he loathed), in which he could write, direct and star in at least one movie a year.  The results, during a spectacular run of form that lasted for several decades, were staggering, including such amazing films as Manhattan, Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry.

But the ultimate Woody WDA movie is, of course, Annie Hall, for which he was Oscar-nominated as a writer, director and actor.  Even in Woody’s oeuvre (and he is one of the few film-makers who genuinely has an oeuvre), Annie Hall is first among equals, signalling the end of the “early, funny” movies and the transition to “the mature, hilarious” masterpieces.

Perhaps that is because, for all Woody’s denials (he often claimed that many of the film’s details derived from the life of his writing partner, Marshall Brickman, and not his own), Annie Hall is the most obviously autobiographical film he ever made.  Originally called “Anhedonia” (after the medical condition that defines the inability to be happy), it tells the story of a New York Jewish comic who falls for a beautiful gentile woman (played by his own romantic partner at the time, Diane Keaton, whose real surname is actually Hall), but it does so by employing seemingly every cinematic technique invented up to that point – direct-to-camera address, montage, animation – and a few more that Woody himself invented for good measure.  And it remains the ultimate “rom-com”, precisely because it is utterly unromantic in its depiction of love.

 

1. CITIZEN KANE (1941)

(Directed by Orson Welles, Co-written by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Starring Orson Welles)

Citizen Kane still tops most cinematic “best of” lists, and this is no different.  If Woody Allen is the ultimate WDA, then Citizen Kane is the ultimate WDA movie, almost single-handedly legitimising the French auteur theory, which decreed that movies were ultimately the product of one creator or “author”.  If any film is deserving of that accolade, it is Citizen Kane.

Such is the brilliance of Welles’s writing and directing in Kane that it is easy to overlook his acting, and yet his performance as “Charles Foster Kane” unifies the whole film even as it splinters in a million different directions.  Welles plays the young, romantic Kane; the old, disillusioned Kane; even the warmongering Kane. The only surprise, given the scope of Welles’s performance (and his ego), is that he did not play Kane as a child.  (Doubtless he considered it, at least for a moment.)

Rather like Woody Allen with Annie Hall, Welles always denied that Kane was in any way autobiographical, and yet it was, and it was also tragically prophetic.  In depicting a man who was almost too big for the world (even though he controlled most of it), Kane’s real subject and inspiration was not so much Randolph Hearst (the reclusive media mogul) as Welles himself.  The conqueror of many different media (stage, radio and film) before he was even thirty, Welles was the artistic Alexander the Great, who wept, like Alexander himself, when there were no new worlds to conquer.

 

POST-SCRIPT: ARE THERE ANY REAL WDAS?

As this list shows, even the greatest writer-director-actors needed help.  Such is the enormous strain involved in writing, directing and acting in a film that most of them either co-wrote or co-directed their movies.  However, their on-screen performances were always theirs and theirs alone.  And to somehow conjure up characters as immortal as those of Charles Foster Kane, Alvy Singer and Octave (the ungentle gentleman) while they were also overseeing the writing and directing of entire films is perhaps the most lasting tribute to these remarkable and multi-talented movie-makers.