The Art of the Crossover: Directors in Front of the Camera

Yesterday I posted an article that brought a good amount of traffic my way, talking about actors crossing over to music and musicians crossing over to acting. I really enjoyed working on it, and I know I left some people out. There were two HUGE crossover artists that no one seemed to mention; it’s fine, they will be headlining part two of that post. While watching “Quiz Show” the other day, I really loved how Robert Redford used a handful of directors in small roles in the film. He used Griffin Dunne, Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson in really small yet somewhat vital roles in the film. I enjoy that film very much and I love the irony of Robert Redford the esteemed actor directing a film (where he has no role) and using three directors that normally aren’t in front of the camera (minus Griffin Dunne since he started as an actor). So I’ve been working on this new crossover since last night, trying to come up with a list of concrete crossovers where a director steps in front of the camera. I have really never seen anything about directors’ crossing over and becoming pretty decent character actors. We all see lists of actors turned directors which are fairly easy lists to make. A sad note that I would like to make known – I ruled out Albert Brooks, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks because (no, not because they are Jewish) they were already established as stand-up comics and performers prior to their turns are magnificent filmmakers. I also ruled out Oliver Stone and Alfred Hitchcock because the essentially have nothing more than a quick cameo (minus Stone’s appearance as the announcer for the Miami Sharks in “Any Given Sunday”).

Harold Ramis

Harold Ramis will always have a special spot in my heart as his characters Egon Spengler from “Ghostbusters” and Russell from “Stripes” (which Ramis also wrote both the screenplays) – but before he was our loveable nerd he was the screenwriter for “Animal House” and the writer/director of “Caddyshack” where he met his future creative partner Bill Murray. Ramis then went on to direct “National Lampoons Vacation”, “Groundhog Day”, “Multiplicity”, “Analyze This”, “Analyze That”, “The Ice Harvest” and *coughs* “Year One” (hey, they all can’t be winners).

What Ramis is most widely known for is his acting roles as I said before, Egon Spengler and Russell. Ramis actually is a very good actor – his comedic timing is impeccable. They way he can play off of his co-stars like Bill Murray or especially John Candy in “Stripes” is so excellent – he adds more humor and life to the film just by being the nerdy “straight” guy.

Will they ever make a “Ghostbusters 3” you ask, I really hope not.

Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack has directed some of the finest films that I have ever seen: “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, “Jeremiah Johnson”, “Tootise” and “Out of Africa”. Where Pollack doesn’t get his due credit is as an actor. He was wonderful in his real first acting role as Dustin Hoffman’s agent in “Tootise” but he took a ten year break before resuming acting.

His follow up to his small (but very funny) role in “Tootsie” was as Dick Mellon in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire “The Player”. How perfect is that? Pollack then branched out and started acting in other filmmakers films including Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives”, Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”, as Warren Feldman doctor who was in prison for killing his wife in an episode of “The Sopranos” and what I believe is his finest performance as Marty Bach in “Michael Clayton”.

I truly feel that Pollack gave the best performance in “Michael Clayton” and deserved a nomination for best supporting actor. Yes Tom Wilkinson was good – but I’m sorry, not nearly as good as Sydney Pollack. His role as Victor Ziegler in “Eyes Wide Shut” is just so creepy and the character has this rage that explodes from him in a couple of key scenes. I have a hard time choosing if I like him more as Sydney Pollack the director, or Sydney Pollack the actor.

Quentin Tarantino

Yeah, I know this one is obvious, but it can’t really be ignored. Is Tarantino a great actor? Not at all. Is he a good actor? Ehhhh… Is he decent? Alright, I can abide by that. The character that Tarantino plays either in his own films or in his friends films are always as eccentric and bizarre as Tarantino is in real life.

I don’t really think the characters he chooses to play add much to the movie, but they defiantly don’t take anything away from it. I think his best performance is that of Jimmie Dimmick in “Pulp Fiction”. The character of Jimmie is funny and witty and it doesn’t seem like Tarantino tries too hard.

The character of Mr. Brown feels a little forced to me, like Tarantino is sitting there trying to act cool in front of Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen – it just doesn’t work that well for me. Same goes for Warren in “Death Proof” – acting cool in front of Kurt Russell.

That being said, my new life goal is go to Cannes to see the premier of the next Tarantino film – the guy is a fucking genus.

Martin Scorsese

Oh do I love Martin Scorsese. He is such a remarkable talent – I could go on forever about how much I love him and his films. We all know who Scorsese is and what he has directed.

Scorsese has had key roles in two of his earlier film. In “Mean Streets” it is Scorsese’s hand that kills one of the central characters in brutally climactic ending (I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen “Mean Streets”). As I touched upon it before, Scorsese has a brief but meaty role in Robert Redford’s “The Quiz Show”. He plays Martin Rittenhome the CEO of Geritol the sponsor of the NBC quiz shows. His character is fast paced and no bullshit. He pulls a lot of strings with NBC and pulls them well.

Scorsese also voiced Sykes the puffer fish from the semi enjoyable “Shark Tale”. The role that Scorsese talks about playing the most is that of Vincent Van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams”. It’s so amazing to watch because you are watching one remarkable filmmaker direct another. It’s a real treat. Scorsese has a handful of cameos in his films, my favorite is that of the TV Director in “The King of Comedy”. His opening voiceovers for “The Color of Money” and “Mean Streets” are wonderful, he has this voice that is so fueled by emotion that we can’t help but listen and try and digest the fast paced introductions.

Now this is what I’ve been waiting the entire post to talk about: his role as DeNiro’s deranged taxi cab passenger in “Taxi Driver”. I feel that his character is so vital, so important to the film. It’s just another prime example to Travis Bickle of how fucked up the world has become, how it’s changed so much from what he knew it to be.

The most important factor in the scene is that it humanizes Bickle, it shows us that this is a world of filth and that Bickle is almost normal compared to his passenger talking about how his wife is “fucking a nigger” and repeating to DeNiro “Have you ever seen what a 44 magnum can do to a woman’s face. Have you ever seen what a 44 magnum can do to a woman’s pussy? Now that – that you should see.” Wow.

The character that Scorsese plays is the only character in the film that frightens Travis Bickle. That is very important. We see Bickle not afraid or anyone or anything except for the small episode with Scorsese in the back seat of his cab. Scorsese will often say that it wasn’t planned for him to play the role, that the actor who was originally supposed to play it was sick that day so Scorsese filled in for him. Thank God for that.

Alright tootsie pops…did I leave anyone out that you think I should have included? Let me know what you think.


Author: Frank Mengarelli

Everybody relax, Frank's here. After going to film school at Columbia College Chicago, Frank decided to underachieve with his vast knowledge of film into a career in civil service. Frank had a brief stint as a film blogger, and then he met the heterosexual love of his life, Nick Clement. The two instantly bonded over their love from everything to Terence Malick to THE EXPENDABLES films. Some of Frank's favorite filmmakers are Terence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sylvester Stallone, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee. Some of his favorite films are THE TREE OF LIFE, STAR WARS (all of them), BAD LIEUTENANT, THE THING and ALL THAT JAZZ. Frank spends his free time with his dog Roger, collecting any Star Wars collectible he can find and trying to finish his pretentious, first person narrative novel(la), LARGE MEN IN SMALL CARS..

8 thoughts on “The Art of the Crossover: Directors in Front of the Camera”

    1. I haven’t seen “The Grand” but I have seen parts of “Julien Donkey Boy” where he plays the father of the main character and he is pretty haunting. But I can’t stand the film, nor the director.

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