Last week, we here at Audiences Everywhere discussed our all-time favorite movie trailers. This came on the heels of the release of the Interstellar full-length theatrical trailer. The buzz surrounding this movie is palpable. And it’s easy to understand the hype considering the film marks the convergence of an actor and a director who are both enjoying a historic upward trend from a career perspective. After The Prestige, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and Inception, Nolan is a can’t-miss director, and McConaughey is riding a year’s worth of hits that include Dallas Buyers Club, Mud, and True Detective, His turns in each of these works not only generated high praise and awards, but the performances were so deserving of praise that no one even blinked or called into question when he thanked himself in his Oscar acceptance speech. So now these unstoppable forces converge, at the right time, on a movie poised to be both a mega-blockbuster and an award season contender. Seems like an ideal scenario, and that got me thinking. When has this happened before, and what were the results? As stirring and powerful as the trailer for Interstellar makes the movie seem, it’s really the strength of Nolan’s last decade and McConaughey’s last year that makes this feel like a recipe for success.
Nolan has certainly enjoyed similar success by way of casting the best actors in the business at the right time. Obviously Christian Bale in The Dark Knight trilogy made for great results. Bale has had a literal lifetime of acting credits, but really hit his upward streak following American Psycho and Reign of Fire. Nolan snatched him up for Batman Begins and now Christian Bale is a universally welcome, albeit moody, addition to any movie. Nolan was a popular director following his releases of Following and Memento, but still just “on-the-radar” as a potential superstar. It wasn’t until The Prestige that confident acclaim started pouring in. The breakthrough was a brilliant movie starring Bale and another actor who was very recently imprinted on the American movie-goers’ psyche at the time: Hugh Jackman. As Nolan’s stock kept rising with the continuation of the Dark Knight series, he struck gold yet again with Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception. Inception won scores of praise, and Nolan firmly established himself as a director who can draw the most popular rising talent of the moment and still produce exceptional results.
Does this mean even more success for McConaughey?
If the past is any indication, the pairing of a superstar actor and up-and-coming director (and vice-versa) can produce box-office and critical gold. Let’s have a look at a few examples.
Alfred Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart – Rear Window
Jimmy Stewart is the definition of a superstar. A true to form everyman. He has starred in some of the greatest classics American cinema has to offer. Oh, and not to mention he took an extended break in the middle to fly combat missions in Europe during World War II. By the time he met up with Alfred Hitchcock in the late-1940s he had already won one Oscar for best actor and had been nominated for scores of other awards. Similarly, Hitchcock has positioned himself as a fixture in film history. Many of those high achievements, coincidentally, were covered by the Audiences Everywhere staff yesterday. Hitchcock had been Oscar-nominated for best director three times before working with Stewart. By the time these two cinematic titans finally met in 1948 for Rope, it seemed destined that the film would be a hit. At the time of its release, however, this film was far from a hit. Criticized for the subject matter and experimental filming techniques, the movie was somewhat panned by some major critics upon release. This did not stop the pair from working together again, and finally finding success, in 1954 for Rear Window. This film was a hit. Hitchcock was subsequently nominated again for best director, and the film itself was nominated for an addition three Oscars. This also wouldn’t be the last time the Hitchcock/Stewart model would work. Vertigo would also go on to win and be nominated for numerous awards.
Clint Eastwood/Kevin Costner – A Perfect World
Fast forward a bit and we uncover a more modern American film icon: Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has found success in both acting and directing, and has a long established history of such. He reached a career apex following the 1992 release of Unforgiven, in which he both acted in and directed. Amazingly, Eastwood won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director, and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Quite an achievement and well deserved for one of the best westerns of all time. Not to be outdone in the art of simultaneous acting/directing success, Kevin Costner’s epic film Dances with Wolves was widely praised just a few years prior. The meeting of these two giants in A Perfect World seemed destined for greatness. With Eastwood again taking the reins as director, A Perfect World received critical and commercial praise. Granted, no major awards were thrown at this film, but it is widely regarded as Costner’s best acting performance and one of Eastwood’s finest directorial efforts. Again, the convergence of superstar talent proved successful, and this success would continue to follow Eastwood for many years to come. For Costner, well…
Stanley Kubrick/Jack Nicholson – The Shining
Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director. Seems only fair that I include one of his movies as an example in this short list. Kubrick had a slew of magnificent movies under his belt before releasing The Shining in 1980. This movie actually has three major power players involved, if you break it down. Kubrick directing the follow up to Barry Lyndon, Jack Nicholson as the lead actor, and the script being an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. This must have been mind-blowingly exciting at the time. Two of the most talented individuals in film taking on a novel written by the best horror novelist in the business. Granted, no one knew what we know now about Stephen King movie adaptations and their inconsistency.
Despite the future flops that would spring forth from King’s novels, The Shining worked in all areas. Kubrick’s direction was brilliant, so much that it has spawned scores of conspiracy theories of “hidden meanings” cleverly disguised in the film. Much to King’s dismay, he took liberties with the source material, and wrapped the content of the novel up within the confines of the just over two hour runtime. Nicholson also shines; giving us his most memorable acting performance since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It received mixed reviews at first, but didn’t take long to propel itself into the must-see horror movie.
Alfonso Cuarón/Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Alfonso Cuarón is a simply masterful director. 2006’s Children of Men is considered by many to be one of the greatest movies of the decade (our editor-in-chief would say even longer than that), and I do not disagree. Cuarón has the ability to weave a complex, emotional story together while also providing the viewer with some of the best action sequences and camera-work displayed by any director for a long while. Following the massive success of Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuarón would take some time off to arrange the pieces for his next masterpiece: Gravity. This one was going to be grandiose in all aspects. Dizzying sequences, genuine suspense, and a heartfelt story of loneliness in the darkest of places. He knew that he also had to go big on talent for this one. He chose the always steady George Clooney for the male lead, and needed a similarly strong female lead. Sandra Bullock, despite being one of the best female actresses in the last 20 years, was also coming off a strong streak of movies, including her recent Oscar turn for The Blind Side. Not to mention, Bullock possesses the strength of character and emotional range required of a lead role that spends much of her time alone surviving on screen. This decision turned out to be a very good one for Cuarón and company. Gravity went on to win a gazillion Oscars and Bullock was nominated again for Best Actress. Reviews were glowingly positive across the board (maybe not from the motion-sick IMAX crowd) and the movie is now viewed as a groundbreaking technical achievement in cinema. Again, another great example of a superior director and superior actor coming together at the right time for superior success.
Coen Brothers/Tom Hanks – Ladykillers
A movie having a combination of a wildly successful upswing actor and a proven-but-still-upswinging director does not always mean the movie will be a success. Ladykillers is a perfect example of this. The directing duo of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen had enjoyed a great deal of success for two decades into the 2000’s. The pairing with multiple Oscar award-winning actor Tom Hanks seemed destined for success. The movie was a remake of the British comedy favorite that starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. The Coen’s even brought in their favorite Grammy winning musical producer T Bone Burnett to provide the soundtrack. Despite all the talent working together in the film, Ldaykillers was ultimately a flop at the box office. It received some positive reviews, but the majority fell somewhere around the “meh” category. Coen purists may still hold Ladykillers in a high enough regard, but for most, this one is one of the more (or only) forgettable Coen Brothers movies. And certinaly one of the more forgettable Tom Hanks movies. But not the only one…
So, if my one hour of research has taught us anything, the combination of superstar acting and directing talent at the right time yields success far more often than not. I could go on forever with examples of this working. Almost every legendary director has used the popular actor of his/her time; it’s a no-brainer decision. Martin Scorsese has ridden this formula for decades now. What proved much harder to find, is examples of this NOT working. Sure, every superstar actor and director has bad movies, but it is certainly a rare occasion when two at the top of their game, working together for the first time, have this problem. Will Interstellar succeed like so many before it, or will it have a fate similar to LadyKillers?
What say you, the audience? Have any good examples of this rising intersection that didn’t work? Or any examples that worked well that happen to be personal favorites? Take to the comments and let us know.