Monday, May 4, 2009

Weekly Top Ten Part 1: The Ten Best Actor/Director Colloborations

It seems like every week, I find an excuse to do two of these Weekly Top Tens, that are somehow related. I just enjoy compiling them too much. This week, I focus on director/actor colloborations. Today's is the ten best in history, and later this week (probably tomorrow), I will do the top ten wishful thinking colloborations - that is the 10 current directors and actors I would love to see work together that have not at this point. In case my write-ups today don't make it clear, the poster I included for each is what I think the pairings best films was.

10. Spike Lee/Denzel Washington (Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game, Inside Man).
Spike Lee is a talented director and every movie he makes is a cause for celebration, even if it ends up being a movie like Miracle at St. Anna or She Hate Me. Denzel Washington is never less than interesting on screen, and is frequently brilliant. But when they team up, they seem to push each other farther then they often go by themselves. Although I certainly wouldn’t call Mo’ Better Blues a great film, it certainly is an interesting one, and helped to establish Washington as a leading man. Their next pairing was their best – Malcolm X – a film that neither would have been made as good without the other. In He Got Game, Denzel dared to be a little more unsympathetic and stubborn, and yet grounded Lee’s film. The bank robbery thriller was elevated because of Washington’s commanding performance, and because Lee infused it with his own unique viewpoint. Apart they are both great. Together, they are amazing.

9. Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island).
Okay, so I haven’t seen Shutter Island yet, but I think that with each passing film, these two have simply gotten stronger. DiCaprio was solid, if not spectacular, in Gangs of New York, but in The Aviator, he did an amazing job at convincing us he WAS Howard Hughes. In The Departed, DiCaprio was like a trapped, wounded animal struggling to break free. In Scorsese, DiCaprio has found a director who is willing to push him to be as good as he can be. In DiCaprio, Scorsese has found someone who allows him to tap into a new generation of men. I hope we see quite a few more out of these two.

8. Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie, Avanti, The Front Page, Buddy Buddy).
Billy Wilder is perhaps the best comic director in history, and in Jack Lemmon he found the perfect star. Lemmon wasn’t afraid to look like an idiot dressing in drag for Some Like It Hot, but was also able to dial it down for a more realistic/cynical performance the next year in The Apartment. He went over the top – wonderfully – in Irma La Douce, and helped to balance out his frequent collaborator Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page and Buddy Buddy. In Avanti, he kept a subpar film interesting. These two just seemed to be on the same wavelength in every film they did together – I don’t think either ever found a better collaborator.

7. David Fincher/Brad Pitt (Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
In just three films, Fincher and Pitt have created a lasting body of work. In Seven, Fincher allowed Pitt to disrobe his pretty boy image for a grittier screen persona, and Pitt delivered a performance that was truly memorable, and helped put Fincher on the map. In Fight Club, they collaborated to make Tyler Durden one of the most memorable, lasting characters of the 1990s. And last year, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Pitt delivered a subtle, soft performance, that set the tone for Fincher’s entire movie beautifully. They have never made the same film twice, but they have always made great films together.

6. Alfred Hitchcock/James Stewart (Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo).
You could have put a number of actors together with Hitchcock, but to me, James Stewart will always be the quintessential Hitchcock hero. He was the type of star Hitchcock loved to use – the audience already loved him when he came on screen, so Hitchcock didn’t need to do too much “set-up” to get the audience to go along. This worked quite well in Rope and The Man Who Knew Too Much, where Stewart is essentially playing a “good” guy. But it’s in Rear Window and Vertigo where the two really shine. Hitchcock twisted Stewart’s image in those two films, making him a voyeuristic peeping tom in one, and essentially a necrophiliac in Vertigo. If the roles had have been played by someone else, the audience might resist going along for the ride – but because it was Stewart they did. For his part, Stewart was never better than he was in those two movies – he dove head long into them. I just wish they had worked together more often.

5. John Ford/John Wayne (Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles, The Horse Soldiers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, How the West Was Won, Donovan’s Reef).
The 14 films listed above don’t even mention some of Ford’s early work where Wayne worked in the background as a bit player. But you can pretty much track the progression of the Western simply by watching the films these two did together. From 1939’s Stagecoach, where it was all romance and fun, to the “calavry trilogy” of Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, which were about isolation and sacrifice, to The Searchers, where the whole genre turned dark, to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which offered a more realistic view, these two made some of best the genre had to offer over the years. That doesn’t even mention their war films, action films and of course their drama – The Quiet Man. Quite simply, these two just knew each other so well, that whatever they tried to do, they succeeded at.

4. Akira Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune (Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, Scandal, Rashomon, The Idiot, Seven Samurai, I Live in Fear, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, Red Beard).
Akira Kurosawa is one of the few directors to work in a language other than English who truly broke through to Western audiences. A large part of the reason he did, was because Toshiro Mifune acting was so strong. Through 16 films together, they pretty much covered all the bases. They did Japanese noir in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, a complex rumination on the nature of truth in Rashomon, adapted Tolstoy in The Idiot, Shakespeare in Throne of Blood (and to a certain extent The Bad Sleep Well), Gorky in The Lower Depths, did several samurai films, like Seven Samurai and the dual films Yojimbo and Sanjuro, and finally drama in Red Beard. No matter where Kurosawa decided to go, no matter what genre he worked in, Mifune was like a rock, grounding all his films in a realism rarely seen. Together, they made some of the greatest films ever seen.

3. Ingmar Bergman/Liv Ullman (Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face, The Serpent’s Egg, Autumn Sonata, Saraband).
Sometimes, a director simply finds his muse in an actress. Such is the case with Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman – who was once his lover, and the mother of one of his children. Even after that ended, they continued to make great movies together. In their first film, Persona, Ullman was a mute actress, who finds her other half in a talkative nurse. In Hour of the Wolf, she was the wife of a painter who goes crazy. In Shame, she wanders through a desolate landscape. Then things kept getting darker. Her best performance was in Scenes from a Marriage, where she plays the wife of intellectual, who sees her marriage go from bliss to torment, and then back again almost, and Ullman keeps the whole thing real. In Autumn Sonara, she reconnects with her mother (Ingrid Bergman). Even in the last film of Bergman’s career, Saraband, Ullman was still there, going to dark places for Bergman. He was a director who had many great collaborations with actors – but none moreso than this one.

2. Elia Kazan/Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata, On the Waterfront).
Kazan and Brando may have only made three films together, but in those three films they forever changed the face of screen acting. Brando may not have been the first “method” actor, but it brought it to an entirely new level in his films with Kazan that made him a star. When the studio didn’t really want him in A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan convinced them to go with him, and the result is one of the best performances of all time. In Viva Zapata, even though Brando is playing a Mexican, you believe him in every scene. In On the Waterfront, he raised it to an entirely new level, making the down and out boxer Terry Malloy, and turning him into a tragic hero. In Kazan, Brando found a director willing to let him do what he wanted. In Brando, Kazan found an actor capable of delivering the raw emotion he so desperately wanted to have. Like most of the others on this list, they would never have a better collaborator.

1. Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, GoodFellas, Cape Fear, Casino).
Was there ever any doubt that these two would be my number 1 pairing? Through 8 films together, DeNiro and Scorsese have constantly elevated each other’s game. Five of the films are masterpieces, one a great film just a shade behind, one a gripping thriller, and one a flawed but ambitious musical. If you’ve been following along with my films of Martin Scorsese series, you already know that I think that DeNiro has been brilliant in every Scorsese film – anchoring films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of comedy, and making their complex “heroes” come to life. But DeNiro is great in all of these films, and he pushed Scorsese to be great as well. There has never been, and probably never will be, a more fruitful director/actor relationship in history.

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