The stars don't always align when actors make the leap to directing. We look back at some of the best, worst and most memorable transitions.
23 Dec 2014 - 4:39 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:31 AM
When Russell Crowe stepped behind the camera for The Water Diviner, he joined a long line of famous actors who felt compelled to direct a movie. Whether it’s out of a creative need, or just the desire to see what it’s like to boss a cast around, stars tend to discover that making a film is not the same as headlining in a film, and while some turn it into a parallel career, others are simply one and done. Starting at the worrisome and working up to the truly memorable, here are the debut features from 13 stars who had to be the one who yelled “cut!”

Eddie Murphy

(Harlem Nights, 1989)

The eighties was almost the decade where the comic could do no wrong, but this period action-comedy, set in 1930s Harlem and featuring gangsters, gunmen and call-girls, was a dismal conclusion. The idea of presenting a lineage of influential African-American comics – Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx co-star with Murphy – was a worthy one, but the film itself is tepid and uninspired, lacking in laughter and a sense of the world that these supposedly quick-witted and streetwise players are trying to escape from.

David Thewlis

(Cheeky, 2003)

Thewlis has had a fine career, working for everyone from Mike Leigh to Ridley Scott and chipping in to the Harry Potter franchise, but his directorial debut suffers from a common problem actors calling the shots have: an uneven tone. This story of a despondent widower, played by Thewlis, losing touch with his son as he finds himself entered on a garish game show is alternately silly, sappy and strange. It feels disconnected from the torrid intelligence Thewlis has an actor.

Kevin Costner

(Dances With Wolves, 1990)

Photographed with an eye for the epic by Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, Kevin Costner won Best Picture and Best Director at the 63rd Academy Awards for this often sentimental western, where he plays a disaffected U.S. soldier who becomes isolated on the American frontier and eventually becomes part of a Sioux tribe. The film hasn’t aged well, and it’s a prime example of the white messiah genre, were an entire ethnic group becomes the background to the ascendancy of a great white man.

Warren Beatty

(Heaven Can Wait, 1978)

A renowned Hollywood control freak forever butting heads with studios and directors, Warren Beatty appeared fated to take up the reins of filmmaking. His first film, co-directed with Buck Henry, was a bizarre romantic comedy with a crushing body count that comes to signify the value of the movie star above all else: Beatty’s character, taken too soon by an over-eager angel, keeps getting placed in different bodies back on Earth. Julie Christie is given little to do as a love interest, and perhaps the best that can be said is that it prepared Beatty for Reds.

George Clooney

(Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, 2002)

George Clooney has been an industrious director, but never an outstanding one. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which he has a supporting role as a government spook, has the pedigree of a madcap Charlie Kaufman screenplay, which explores the unsubstantiated claims by American game show impresario Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) that he was a CIA hitman on the side. The humour is dry, the narrative turns inside out, and Julia Roberts proves she can do a great femme fatale, but the result is lightweight and hollow.

Confessions of a Dangrous Mind review


Angelina Jolie

(In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011)

For her debut as director, Angelina Jolie thankfully gave no ground to convention: set in Bosnia, and with Bosnian dialogue subtitled into English, during the brutal war just over 20 years ago, In the Land of Blood and Honey illustrates how conflict legitimises nightmarish violence, particularly against women. A Muslim woman, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), and a Bosnian Serb man, Danijel (Goran Kostic), with romantic history are reunited when she’s interred at a military base he commands, and while the pair give fine performances, Jolie can’t quite turn suffering into resonant drama, or escape the demands of expository dialogue.


Russell Crowe

(The Water Diviner, 2014)

For reasons of financing and marketing power, Russell Crowe stars in his first film as director, playing the grieving father who travels to Turkey in the wake of World War I to find out what happened to his three sons lost during the bloody and ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. Crowe’s control of his own performance, along with the compassionate consideration given to former wartime enemies, is one of the best qualities this pleasing widescreen drama has.

The Water Diviner review and trailer


Drew Barrymore

(Whip It, 2009)

A Hollywood fixture before she was old enough to go to school, Drew Barrymore made up for several decades of shortcomings in terms of roles for women by assembling a handful of promising ones in this action-comedy about a young Texan waitress, Bliss (Ellen Page), who finds purposeful independence in joining a roller derby team crewed by the likes of Kristen Wiig and Barrymore. There are both sports and coming-of-age clichés (dad comes through at the end!), but it’s made such obvious good spirit that the familiarity becomes warming.

Whip It review and trailer


Robert Redford

(Ordinary People, 1980)

Often derided as the film that denied Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull a Best Picture Academy Award, the movie’s focus on the fractures that divide families and the struggle for understanding inside a supposedly loving environment now appears an emblematic influence on the domestic drama where parent and offspring collide. Several generations of American (and Australian) dinner table conflict stem from Redford’s film, which stars a young Timothy Hutton as a teenage boy with survivor’s guilt after the drowning of his older brother, and Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as his divided parents.


Clint Eastwood

(Play Misty For Me, 1971)

Boasting the finest director’s CV from this list, Clint Eastwood had barely graduated from spaghetti westerns when he made this small and surprisingly primal thriller. Finding ways to question his own broad visage, so that intimations of weakness appear, Eastwood plays Dave, a successful radio DJ who casually sleeps with a fan, Evelyn (Jessica Walter), who soon becomes dangerously attached to him, descending into self-harm and knife-wielding violence. Eastwood’s sparse visual command was apparent from his first film, though perhaps not Jersey Boys.


Sean Penn

(The Indian Runner, 1991)

A powerhouse actor, Sean Penn’s attraction to filmmaking has seemingly fallen away, with his last film as director being 2007’s Into the Wild, but at the height of his tabloid bad boy fame, he debuted with this striking feature set in small town 1970s America. Brothers Joe (David Morse), a conflicted police officer, and Frank (Viggo Mortensen), a Vietnam veteran with a short fuse, come into conflict when the latter comes home from jail. Sandy Dennis and Charles Bronson – what a pairing – play their ageing parents, and the film has an uneasy grace, inspired by vintage Springsteen and John Cassavetes, and genuine poetry.

Ben Affleck 

(Gone Baby Gone, 2007)

Ben Affleck’s directorial career has become increasingly prominent, culminating in Argo’s box-office and awards season success in 2012, but his first film, doggedly made when his acting career was in a trough, remains the best. Morally complex instead of reassuring in its outcomes, this Boston noir stars Affleck’s brother Casey and Michelle Monaghan as Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, low-key private investigators and a couple who investigate a missing child case where the suspects begin with an errant mother (an unforgettable Amy Ryan). Heavy tension and sudden violence are in close proximity throughout, and the ramifications are impossible to ignore.

Gone Baby Gone review


Charles Laughton 

(The Night of the Hunter, 1955)

Born in the final year of the 19th century, the English actor Charles Laughton had a distinguished career on screen and stage, with film credits that included the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, Spartacus and Advise & Consent, but his lasting achievement is his sole film as director. A failure on release, but acclaimed in retrospect, The Night of the Hunter is a masterpiece, a dark fairytale of children on the run from an intrinsically American figure: a serial killer posing as a reverend and a man terrified of sexual intimacy. Laughton draws a vivid, unexpected performance from Robert Mitchum, which turns his laconic masculinity into something dangerously perverse, and the imagery throughout is beguiling.