Top 5 – Actor/Director Collaborators

There are a significant number of directors out there who like to work with the same actors, they just click. That’s why today Ronni Blackford joins me as we pick our favourite Actor and Director collaborators. There had to be a minimum of three different films they had worked on together, and not from the same franchise. This was such an incredibly hard list to narrow down as I came up with around 20 initial ideas. I would like to throw out honourable mentions to Christopher Nolan & Michael Caine, Steve McQueen & Michael Fassbender, David Fincher & Brad Pitt, Alfred Hitchcock & James Stewart, and the insane number of brilliant collaborations between Akira Kurosawa & Toshiro Mifune. But enough off honourable mentions, let’s get to this week’s Top 5 Actor and Director collaborations.

Number 5:

  • Shuggie: John Carpenter & Kurt Russell – John Carpenter made his name with horror films like Halloween, but it’s his films with Kurt Russell that I really love. Carpenter has an incredible way with creating films with a great B movie feel to them, but let’s be honest without someone as charismatic and talented as Kirk Russell would Big Trouble in Little China have worked? I doubt it. With Russell, Carpenter was able to create brilliant films like Big Trouble, Escape From New York, and The Thing. And in turn Russell was able to showcase his range as an actor thanks to the work of Carpenter. He has the cheesy action comedy hero Jack Burton, R.J. MacReady as a horror lead, and Snake Plissken who inspired the main character in the hugely successful Metal Gear video game franchise. This might not be the first collaboration that springs to mind, but with those three films, it’s an underrated one in my eyes.
  • Ronni: Tim Burton & Helena Bonham Carter – Before the couple’s split in 2014, this pairing produced a few really fantastic films, though that’s not to say that their joint output has been of a consistently high quality. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street recreated the creepy atmosphere of the original Sondheim musical whilst bringing it to a new audience of horror aficionados. Bonham Carter nailed her macabre and unhinged Mrs Lovett and, under Burton’s direction, she even managed to cultivate a sense of sympathy for the struggling and lovesick pie-maker in the face of her murderous ideas. As Emily in The Corpse Bride, she similarly engenders sympathy even as a quasi-villain in the stop-motion film that was only pipped to an Oscar for Best Animated Feature by another film starring Bonham Carter, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. However, I won’t deny that, in recent years, the partnership’s production has suffered a major dip in quality – looking at you, Alice in Wonderland.

Number 4:

  • Shuggie: Wes Anderson & Bill Murray – Wes Anderson often works with many of the same actors, but none as often as Murray. With the exception of Bottle Rocket (his first film) Murray has appeared in every single one of Anderson’s films. Whilst Murray often takes supporting roles, such as in Grand Budapest Hotel, or Fantastic Mr Fox, but thanks to Murray’s brilliant comic ability he’s often a standout. It’s says a lot about the relationship between the two that Anderson always trusts Murray to feature or star in his films, and how much Murray clearly enjoys working with Anderson to always work with him, even in a small role.
  • Ronni: David O. Russell & Jennifer Lawrence – As with my pick for number five, this pairing is ever so slightly hit and miss for me. My enjoyment of Silver Linings Playbook and Joy more than equal out my disinterest in American Hustle but the latter does hold this back from the Top 3, as does my general dislike of Jennifer Lawrence when she’s not pretending to be someone else… With Russell at the helm, Lawrence’s Playbook performance was gritty and honest, and injected realism into the frequently saccharine genre of the rom-com. In its treatment of mental illness, I personally felt it humanised and normalised where Hollywood has an awful tendency to demonise (see M. Night Shyamalan’s Split for one…). The actor-director pairing brought a similarly raw edge to the eponymous and beaten down heroine of Joy which, though the structure of the film was entirely predictable, still managed to make me feel excited and passionate about mops of all things and, for a short while in the warm afterglow of a family trip to the cinema, had me hailing the cleaning appliance as a huge step for women’s rights.

Number 3:

  • Shuggie: Martin Scorsese & Robert De Niro – People talk about the work that Scorsese and DiCaprio are producing these days, but it’s nothing compared to the film’s Scorsese made with De Niro. Mean Streets, Cape Fear, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Casino, and more, it’s an incredibly list of films, and probably the best work of their careers. Not only are these generally considered Scorsese’s best films, but also much of De Niro’s best work as an actor. Their collaborations led to 3 of De Niro’s Oscar nominations and 4 of his BAFTA nods, which just goes to show how they drew the best out of one another. Furthermore without De Niro bringing the book to Scorsese we wouldn’t have got the masterpiece that is Raging Bull.
  • Ronni: David Fincher & Brad Pitt – This collaboration produced cult favourites Fight Club and Se7en and, despite their penchant for a certain level of gore and violence, I love both in a “I don’t want to watch this again for a few years, thank you very much” kind of way. In Se7en, Pitt’s close-ups during his climactic and gut-wrenching internal struggle showcase some of his best acting. Fight Club (also starring Bonham Carter, of course) has arguably achieved ‘modern classic’ status, though it also seems to be a ‘marmite’ kind of film; as with the condiment, I come down firmly on the love-it-in-moderation side. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was another film stemming from this particularly pairing but one I wasn’t particularly bothered about – I might have cried my eyes out, but I do that at adverts so that’s hardly a metric of quality. There are rumours that a World War Z sequel might be on the way from Fincher and Pitt and I’m not sure if that’s the best or worst news ever!

Number 2:

  • Shuggie: The Coen Brothers & John Goodman – The Coens have actually made more films with Frances McDormand, but to me Goodman is so often the standout character in their films. The only one of my favourite Coens films that is missing Goodman’s involvement is Fargo, but I think that bringing the character of Walter Sobchak to life in The Big Lebowski more than makes up for it. Goodman is genuinely brilliant in nearly everything that he does, but it’s when the Coens bring him in that the magic really happens. He not only perfectly fits their very styalised brand of humour, but he also brings incredible gravitas to characters that could feel too ridiculous without him. He essentially plays the part of the Cyclops Polyphemus in O’Brother, one of the parts that could have been the hardest to pull off, but he still makes it great villainous role. There aren’t many better collaborators than this trio, in fact in my eyes there is only one.
  • Ronni: Sofia Coppola & Kirsten Dunst – A far cry from some of my earlier picks, this artist-director collaboration has so far produced two films, with a third one on the way. Based on Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic biography of the infamous French queen, Marie Antoinette highlights the title character’s naivety and youth as she leaves her homeland and family to marry a complete stranger, the future Louis XVI of France. Dunst’s acting and such directorial decisions as the intentional anachronism of pink Converse hi-tops amongst the queen’s 18th Century wardrobe remind the viewer that the eponymous heroine in fact matured greatly during her tenure as monarch and even attempted to improve a rapidly worsening political situation. The Virgin Suicides sticks in the memory with a Polaroid-esque feeling to it; it nostalgically captures the melancholy and angst of growing up, with elements that feel more akin to 80s classic The Breakfast Club than the shocking tragedy it really is at heart. In the coming year, Coppola is set to preside over another story of young women attempting to find their place in the world in a remake of The Beguiled with Dunst again in a starring role – I’m looking forward to seeing the director’s distinctive style in the setting of Civil War America.

Number 1:

  • Shuggie: Quentin Tarantino & Samuel L. Jackson – With the exceptions of Reservoir Dogs and Deathproof Jackson has appeared in all of Tarantino’s film. He started in Jackie Brown, before blowing everybody away in Pulp Fiction. He may only cameo in Kill Bill and narrate Inglorious Bastards but that’s still enough to ensure he appears in two of my favourite films of all time. His supporting role in Django Unchained was such a different kind of character than I’m used to seeing him play. And then he topped it off with The Hateful Eight, which may just be his career best performance, and one that I believe he should have earned an Oscar nomination for. It’s such a rich and varied partnership. Under Tarantino, Jackson handles so many different roles; hero, villain, narrator, anti-hero. Tarantino knows the range that Jackson can offer, and has given him many of the juiciest roles of an incredible career. And you know that Tarantino will always get the best out of SLJ.
  • Ronni: Wes Anderson & Jason Schwartzman – A quick look at Wes Anderson’s Wikipedia will highlight the huge number of collaborations I could have chosen here. It’s true that Bill Murray would be the obvious one, having featured in all but one of the director’s eight films released so far, but it’s his Rushmore co-star, Jason Schwartzman, who best sums up the delicious absurdity of Anderson’s style for me. Equally, Owen Wilson has been in seven of Anderson’s films and often co-writes them, but I couldn’t exactly choose a collaboration that doesn’t extend to the best of the bunch (Moonrise Kingdom, obviously). Sofia Coppola’s cousin and Dunst’s on-screen husband in Marie Antoinette, he had had no acting experience before his debut as Max Fischer in Rushmore and yet he is utterly wonderful as an eccentric high-school student in love with his teacher. His Jack Whitman in The Darjeeling Limited had me grinning at the character’s bizarre charm rather than cringing at his slightly more questionable actions, whilst Moonrise Kingdom’s Cousin Ben’s unfazed reaction to a certain marriage fulfills many a child’s dream of adults taking them seriously. I do wish that more of their films together would pass the Bechdel test but the sheer breadth of Schwartzman’s roles within Wes Anderson’s endlessly creative, utterly beautiful and almost fairytale worlds places this collaboration firmly at the top of my Top 5.
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