Roman Polanski's recent supporting role in Brett Ratner's Rush Hour 3 raised more questions than the film itself ever could. What could that dynamic have been like? How could one of the world's greatest directors have taken orders from one of the world's worst? We know from previous films (The Fearless Vampire Killers, Zemsta, etc.) that Polanski has a yen for acting, even if his skills in this arena run toward broad, rather than subtle. Likewise Kevin Smith working for Len Wiseman in Live Free or Die Hard. Would Smith have made suggestions on how to make the movie nerdier? It got me thinking about the many directors who have performed for their colleagues, and the very interesting dynamics they created. The following are the seven best and/or most interesting combos. I've only included people who are primarily known as directors, as opposed to actor-directors, like Jackie Chan, George Clooney, Denzel Washington, etc.. I've also left out glorified cameos (Steven Spielberg in The Blues Brothers) and jokey appearances (Samuel Fuller in Pierrot le Fou). Finally, I've excluded Quentin Tarantino, whose lack of thespian skills is unquestioned. (Though I would have loved to have been on the set of Spike Lee's Girl 6 the day those two crossed paths...)
1. Orson Welles in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949)
This is the most obvious one; the Big Guy's presence as Harry Lime has led generations of moviegoers to believe that Welles actually directed this movie. Certainly his fingerprints are on it. He spoke often about building up to the first appearance of a character by having other characters talk about him long before we actually see him. Welles managed to do this with his Rochester in Jane Eyre (1944), and even more memorably here. We know all about Harry Lime before those lights unexpectedly splash on his face and he lets slip an amused smile. Reportedly, the famous "cuckoo clock" speech was his own. However, Reed undoubtedly directed; the overall suspense and structure of the film has more in common with Reed's The Fallen Idol than with anything Welles made.
2. John Huston in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974)
The maverick director had a terrific screen presence with his large, ambling frame, cavernous face and sonorous voice, and acted in many films, mostly his own, and notably in cult films like Winter Kills (1979) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Happily, the news recently broke that rights issues surrounding Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind have been resolved, and so the world may get to see Huston's lead performance in that film as well. In Chinatown, Huston gives a flat-out great performance as the insidious industrialist who gets away with more than murder and justifies it with a hearty laugh. Jack Nicholson may have got his nose cut, but Huston emerges untouched.