We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
The old joke is that all actors want to direct. Though it’s maybe not true of all, I still had plenty to choose from in making this list. The directors on this list all started life as actors, some still are, but I’d argue that they’re better known as directors. This month, two well known actresses have tried their hand at direction, Drew Barrymore with Whip It (which was a great movie, I have no idea why it did so badly) and Natalie Portman doing a segment of New York I Love You. Who knows, maybe one (or both) has a second career around the corner.
7. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Directed by John Cassavetes
Recap: A portrait of family in crisis when a woman (Gena Rowlands) goes mad and her husband (Peter Falk) tries to understand it.
Reason: Cassavetes is probably best known as the husband of the titular Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby. Despite a long career as a character actor, he’s probably best known now as the father of modern independent filmmaking. Woman stars his wife and frequent collaborator Falk as a bickering couple who’s marriage degenerates despite their continued love for one another as she goes mad. Though at times it feels dated, the immediacy of his work and the performances he elicits from his actors are amazing. This film would be higher on my list if I had a more personal connection to it.
6. Mystic River (2003)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Recap: In a tight-knit Boston community, a girl goes missing. Her father, Jimmy (Sean Penn), begins an investigation into her death that eventually puts him at odds with childhood friends Dave (Tim Robbins) and Sean (Kevin Bacon).
Reason: Eastwood is the recipient of two Best Picture Oscars (for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven). Still for my money, this is his best film. Though supposedly a mystery, the real story’s about these three men … Jimmy, Dave, and Sean and who they are. How their character, upbringing and the events of their lives have informed who they have become. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins are two of the best actors of their generation and these are possibly their strongest performances. Though ostensibly about the men, Laura Linney’s Lady Macbeth-esque supporting role almost steals the film. Eastwood refuses to stoop and give easy answers. The man’s actually directed 30 feature films in his career and it shows. His work over the last couple decades has been uniformly strong. But I’d still say this is his masterpiece.
5. Tootsie (1982)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Recap: Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) can’t get a job as an actor. So he uses some movie magic and makes himself an actress. As Dorothy Michaels she becomes a huge sensation on a soap. But his life gets very complicated when he develops a crush on his costar Julie (Jessica Lange).
Reason: One of the most popular films of the ’80s, Tootsie‘s not only a very funny comedy but also a good drama. Men in drag is nothing new, look at Some Like it Hot and any Warner Brothers cartoon where Bugs Bunny wears a dress. Though Pollack’s not afraid to milk the concept for laughs, he never stoops to making Michael a buffoon. Dorothy is not a joke, she’s his alter ego, a character he has created and feels strongly about. It also helps that the film has a super supporting cast that includes Teri Garr and Bill Murray in his prime. But the best part is the finale, when Michael chooses to reveal himself during a live taping of the soap, it’s just gold.
4. A League of their Own (1992)
Directed by Penny Marshall
Recap: Dottie (Geena Davis) and her sister Kit (Lori Petty) join the first professional women’s baseball league during World War II. There, they struggle to with and against one another under the eye of a drunken coach (Tom Hanks).
Reason: Marshall was best known as Laverne from Laverne and Shirley before films like Big made her one of the most financially successful female directors ever. But this film about a group of women who play for the love of the sport is my favorite. A dream team cast that included Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, League is a love story to the women who played baseball while the men were at war. It’s not just nostalgia, the story about a good player who’s husband is at war and her sister who wants to be a star athlete works. Few sports movies are about or for women, that’s a shame. More than a few women got choked up by this movie (admit it!).
3. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Directed by Woody Allen
Recap: Cecilia (Mia Farrow) escapes her dreary life and unhappy marriage by going to the movies. One day, her favorite character Tom (Jeff Daniels) comes out of the screen to be with her. When actor Gil (Daniels again) finds out a doppelganger of himself is wandering around New York, he heads out to New York and woos Cecilia in an effort to convince her to get Tom to go back into the film.
Reason: Allen may seem like an iffy choice for this list, he’s more of a Director/Actor than an actor who directs. But because he normally plays leads, both in his own films and those of other filmmakers, I felt he deserved inclusion. It’s a whimsical premise from Allen who’s known for comedies, but seldom roots them in such a fantastical world. Though I’d seen several of his films before this, The Purple Rose is the first with which I really connected. Cecilia isn’t just falling in love with a character, it’s really about her love affair with the movies. Tom is just the embodiment. Even at the end, when he’s left and she’s alone, she has her real true love with her when she’s in a cinema watching a film. I can’t think of a happier sad ending.
2. Splash (1984)
Directed by Ron Howard
Recap: Allen Bauer (Tom Hanks) falls in love with a mermaid named Madison (Darryl Hannah). When the world learns she’s a mermaid, he has to rescue her or allow her to be dissected in a lab.
Reason: Howard’s another director with Oscars under his belt, and yet I pick Splash. Hanks and Hannah are joined by Eugene Levy and John Candy. The ’80s were really a heyday for fantasy films, I’d have a hard time imagining this film coming out now. Howard allows his film to be funny, sweet, magical and grounded in reality. To make a great fantasy film, you have to ground it in a set of rules and keep those rules consistent, but once you’ve established the boundaries of your world, anything goes within it. I wish that Howard and Hanks would take a step back from huge action films like Angels and Demons and just make something really fun and unique again.
1. The Princess Bride (1987)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Recap: When Buttercup (Robin Wright) agrees to marry the wicked Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), she is pursued and captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) who turns out to actually be Westley, her true love presumed dead at sea! And then there’s a lot of sword fighting and avenging and also rhyming.
Reason: As the Grandfather (Peter Falk) explains to his grandson (Fred Savage), the movie has pirates, sword fights, poison, and rodents of unusual size, what more could you ask for? (OK, I paraphrased that.) Well, how about excellent performances by theater vets Wallace Shawn and Mandy Patinkin as well as wrestler Andre the Giant (RIP). The Princess Bride has an unusual tone, perfectly balanced between the sacred and profane. It’s irreverent and silly, but never forgets that it’s really a tale of True Love. I like to think it sprung fully formed from a projector somewhere, but Rob Reiner can waste his time (and ours) with North and Bucket List and he’s still in the plus column. That’s what happens when you make one of the greatest films to ever exist anywhere in the universe.
There’s the Top 7, now what should be in the Top 10?