Give ’em The Chair: Favorite Director Portrayals

Movie Director PortrayalsIn what is one of the most overlooked acting stints of the last ten years, Christian McKay, a British actor of little renown, turned in a tour-de-force performance in Me and Orson Welles (2007). Director Richard Linklater selected McKay for the part after seeing his acclaimed interpretation of the late, multi-hyphenate talent in the one-man play Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.

Me and Orson Welles concerns a teenager (Zac Efron) who wants to work with Welles’ famed Mercury Players as they prepare for a 1937 stage adaption of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

While the film received generally good reviews, it barely made a blip on the box-office radar. But McKay garnered well-earned kudos for humanizing the bigger-than-life genius that was Orson Welles.   

“Christian McKay…gives what I believe is the most exact and uncanny screen portrayal of an historical figure, ever,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle.

 “…But the ego and the brilliance (of Welles) are in full blossom. They are captured, with a brio and wit that puts most biopic mummery to shame, by Christian McKay, a British actor with a slender résumé and superhuman confidence,” observed A.O. Scott of the New York Times.

McKay, of course, was not the first person to being Welles to life onscreen. Also giving solid performances as the triple (or was it quadruple?) threat were Angus MacFadyen in Cradle Will Rock (1999), Liev Schreiber in RKO 281 (1992), and Vincent D’Onofrio (with voice supplied by Maurice LaMarche) in Tim Burton’s sublime Ed Wood (1994).

Which got us thinking: What other real-life directors were memorably (and, we assume, realistically) brought-to-life onscreen?

Chaplin (1992)

Robert Downey, Jr. gained oodles of respect for his Oscar-nominated turn as “the Little Tramp.” Richard Attenborough’s ambitious bio-pic covers Chaplin’s life from his earliest days through his return to America to receive an honorary Academy Award after a generation in effective political exile. Downey threw himself head-first into the dramatic scenes, as well as the re-creations of the silent era actor-director-producer-writer’s beloved film work. Also worth noting is Eddie Izzard’s fine portrayal of Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich’s what-if story The Cat’s Meow (2001).

The Director Speaks: “If you want to understand me, watch my movies.” 

Ed Wood (1994)

Johnny Depp dons angora sweater, and takes cues from role models Ronald Reagan, Mickey Rooney and Casey Kasem as the world’s most optimistic awful movie director, in favorite collaborator Tim Burton’s chronicle of Wood’s wacky career, including the road to making the notoriously awful Plan 9 from Outer Space. Martin Landau nabbed an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his tour-de-force interpretation of a down-and-out Bela Lugosi, but Depp adds depth to the cross-dressing cockeyed optimist Wood.      

The Director Speaks: “Really? Worst film you ever saw? Well, my next one will be better. Hello…Hello.”

Gods and Monsters (1998)

For his work as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man helmer James Whale, Ian McKellen received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and took home several year-end critic awards. The openly gay McKellen played the homosexual director in the latter years of his life when he suffered from failing health, but managed to keep his libido chugging along. The film focuses on the uneasy relationship between Whale and his handsome, ex-Marine gardener (Brendan Fraser), whom the filmmaker uses as a model for his sketches and his fantasies.

The Director Speaks:  “Making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world. Working with friends – entertaining people – yes, I suppose I miss it.”

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

What really went on during the making of F.W. Murnau’s landmark silent vampire epic Nosferatu? According to this stylish film from experimental filmmaker Elias Merhige, lots. Murnau (John Malkovich) moves the German production to a different part of Europe where odds thing occur off the set, most attributed in some way to the film’s mysterious star Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who insists on using the Stanislavsky method of acting to the hilt. Or is he really a bloodsucker? Perhaps only Malkovich’s egomaniacal, drugged helmer knows for sure.  

The Director Speaks: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Max Schreck, who will be portraying our vampire, Count Orlock. As you no doubt have heard, Max’s methods are somewhat… unconventional, but… I am sure you will come to respect his artistry in this matter.”

Badassss! (2003)

Director/star Mario van Peebles salutes (and portrays) his father Melvin Van Peebles in this highly entertaining survey of the hectic financing and production of Melvin’s explosive 1971 effort Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song, an incendiary, shoestring-budgeted film about race relations that brought in millions of dollars, received approval from the Black Panthers, and got the “X” rating from an all-white jury.    

The Director Speaks: “I got everything I own on the line. But the movie is bigger than me!”

The Aviator (2004)

Different aspects of the life of uber-eccentric engineer-entrepreneur Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) were examined in Martin Scorsese’s handsome biopic, including his Hollywood efforts as the obsessive producer/director of projects like the Jean Harlow starrer Hell’s Angels (1930).

The Director Speaks: “Actresses are cheap in this town, darlin’. And I got a lot of money.”

Hitchcock (2011)

On paper—and maybe even on-screen—it doesn’t look like it should work. That would be Anthony Hopkins, in pasty makeup, playing the “Master of Suspense.”  But, damn, if Hopkins doesn’t pull it off, thanks to his body language and voice. He only fleetingly looks like Hitch, but you can tell that the Oscar winner is pulling out all the stops, whether he’s arguing with a studio head, throwing out a darkly humorous quip, terrorizing a blonde actress or conversing with his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). Hopkins’ take on Hitchcock makes an interesting comparison to Toby Jones’s nasty and sadistic interpretation of Hitch in The Girl (2012), which centered on the director’s disturbing relationship with The Birds/Marnie star Tippi Hedren.

The Director Speaks: “The only worse than a visit to the dentist is a visit to the censor.”   

Hugo (2011)

Just the fact that Martin Scorsese was able to make a film that featured Georges Melies is amazing in itself. Set in Depression-era Paris and based on the acclaimed children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Charbet,” the plot centers on Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a 12-year-old orphan boy who lives in seclusion within the rafters of the city’s train station. He befriends a young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of a toymaker (Ben Kingsley) who peddles his wares to the commuters. It turns out that the toyman is, in fact, Melies, the pioneering silent filmmaker who made 1902’s A Trip to the Moon and other early effects-filled efforts. The film’s pleasures are many—the astonishing production design, the immersive 3D process, the gorgeous cinematography, the glorious re-enactments of Melies’ films, and Kingsley’s performance as a man brought to rediscover the magic of his works after the tragic events in his life reduced them to memories shared by few.

The Director Speaks: “My friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are; wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians… Come and dream with me.”

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

The seven days real-life gopher Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) spent with the troubled Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) while she filmed 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl is the focus of this fascinating period piece. Williams received an Oscar nomination, as did Kenneth Branagh for his portrayal of leading man/director Laurence Oliver, who first wishes to seduce the actress, married to playwright Arthur Miller, then realizes she just isn’t worth it because of her frustrating demeanor.   

The Director Speaks: “Teaching Marilyn Monroe how to act, is like teaching Urdu to a badger.”

Then there were films in which thinly-veiled fictional directors filled in for real filmmakers. Among them:

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952): There is no shortage of roman-a-clefs in Vincente Minnelli’s behind-the-scenes survey of some of the nasty things that go on in Hollywood. Kirk Douglas’s smarmy producer is a combo of Orson Welles, Val Lewton and David O. Selznick, while Leo G. Carroll’s egocentric Brit filmmaker is clearly a spoof on Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he worked with several times.

8 ½ (1963) and Nine (2009): Federico Fellini’s fantasy-filled reflection on himself starred Marcello Mastroianni as his alter ego, creatively stuck between the reel world and the real world, in which domestic problems abound. The film ultimately spawned the Tony-winning 1982 Broadway musical adaptation Nine, which came full circle in a star-studded screen version headed by Daniel Day-Lewis as the conflicted filmmaker.

Inserts (1974): Advertised as “the degenerate movie done with dignity,” this X-rated dark comedy centers on a silent film director known as “Boy Wonder” (Richard Dreyfuss) who couldn’t make the transition to sound films and now directs porno movies from his home studio. “Boy Wonder” seems to be an amalgam of Orson Welles and Howard Hughes and, while John Byrum’s stagy film received lousy reviews, it’s well worth seeking out for its cast (Bob Hoskins, Jessica Harper and Veronica Cartwright co-star) and its pluck.   

All That Jazz (1979): Roy Scheider copped an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of pill-popping, chain-smoking, bed-hopping stage director Joe Gideon, an obvious stand-in for All That Jazz helmer Bob Fosse himself. A dark, autobiographical saga told with stunning style and impressive musical sequences.  

Stardust Memories (1980): Woody Allen bites the hand that feeds as the Woody-like Sandy Bates, a director pondering big questions during a weekend retrospective of his work.    

Star 80 (1983): The tragic life of model/actress Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), who was killed in a murder/suicide by  possessive husband Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), is the basis of Bob Fosse’s final film, a powerful tale about the dark side of Hollywood. While some of the names are kept real (Cliff Robertson as Hugh Hefner), director Peter Bogdanovich (played by Roger Rees), who was having an affair with Stratten, had his name changed to Amyan Nicholas.

Irreconcilable Differences (1984): Drew Barrymore is the kid who demands a divorce from her bickering show-business parents. Ryan O’Neal plays the father, a director based on Peter Bogdanovich, while Shelley Long portrays the mother, a screenwriter based on Polly Platt. O’Neal falls for his leading lady (Sharon Stone, in a role based on Cybill Shepherd) while he is filming an elaborate dud, a musical version of Gone with the Wind called Atlanta  (inspired by At Long Last Love).   

 White Hunter, Black Heart (1990): This personal project for director/star Clint Eastwood had him take a role inspired by John Huston and the cantankerous filmmaker’s obsession with bagging a huge elephant during the location shoot of The African Queen.  

Matinee (1993):  John Goodman has the time of his life channeling cigar-puffing, gimmick-maestro movie mogul William Castle in the guise of the fictional Lawrence Woolsey. Joe Dante’s film is a sweet coming-of-age saga, a look at the tensions gripping U.S. citizens in Florida during the 1962Cuban Missile Crisis and a salute to Castle’s cinematic chutzpah.