An exchange between Johnny Depp and Ricky Gervais, from the first series of Gervais’s TV show Life’s Too Short:
“You know, I’m working with a great director just now. A guy the name of Tim Burton. You ever heard of him?”
“And the film itself is really brilliant… And, um, I’m playing a very interesting character. Do you have any idea who my leading lady is on this film?”
“In the Tim Burton film?
“How’d you know?”
“Stab in the dark.”
“She thinks you’re an idiot.”
It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Depp made films for directors who weren’t Tim Burton. However, of late, his partnership with the tousle-haired, black-clad director of all things gothic has increasingly dominated his career. Some would say it’s made Depp’s career rather stale. Yes, he was great in the 1990s when Burton gave him roles in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow. However, having been force-fed Depp-Burton versions of Willie Wonka, Sweeny Todd, the Mad Hatter and Barnabas Collins in quick succession since the mid-noughties, I suspect modern audiences hope that Depp and Burton, like a married couple whose marriage has lost its magic, might want to spend a little time apart from each other.
Anyway, this has made me think about regular collaborations between other actors and directors. Back in cinematic history, of course, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston were a prominent acting / directing duo, as were John Wayne and John Ford. More recently, we’ve had Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and more recently still, Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino. Here are a few of my own favourite actor (or actress) / director team-ups. Note that I’ve excluded performers who appeared in numerous movies directed by their spouses, which means there’s no mention of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes or, for that matter, Mr and Mrs Tim Burton.
Dick Miller and Joe Dante.
Craggy New York character actor and former middle-weight boxer Dick Miller made his name in the 1950s and 60s appearing in films directed by the human B-movie factory that is Roger Corman – for example, It Conquered the World, Little Shop of Horrors, The Premature Burial, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Wild Angels, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, The Trip and most famously 1959’s A Bucket of Blood (in which he played a very bad avant-garde sculptor called Walter Paisley who starts faking his art by murdering the annoying Beatniks at his local café and covering their bodies in clay). When Corman moved into producing and encouraged young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him (on low salaries and with low budgets), Miller got passed on like a family heirloom to Corman’s prodigies – Jonathan Kaplan (1973’s Student Teachers), Jonathan Demme (1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (1976’s Carquake), Allan Arkush (1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and James Cameron (1984’s The Terminator – Miller is the hapless shopkeeper who furnishes Arnie with his weaponry).
However, his longest and most prolific partnership has been with Joe Dante, who by my calculations has cast him in 13 movies, from 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard to 2009’s The Hole. Dante usually puts Miller in blue-collar roles – security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his memorably harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver. Furthermore, in honour of his most famous role, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling (1981) and the Dante-directed segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) – see Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.
Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.
Unstoppable sex-crazed schizophrenic German force meets unmoveable insane-dream-obsessed German object? The relationship between Kinski and Herzog could be euphemistically described as ‘tempestuous’ and it was that way from the very beginning. Their first collaboration, Aguirre, Wrath of God, saw Kinski lose his cool so spectacularly that he fired a gun at a film-crew tent and blew a fingertip off one of the extras. Herzog, in turn, was said to have held a gun on Kinski to force him to continue filming, although Herzog denies this. Meanwhile, 1982’s dragging-a-steamship-through-the-Peruvian-rainforest epic Fitzcarraldo was right up Kinski and Herzog’s street – they eschewed the use of special effects and did it using real steamships in real rainforest. By this time Kinski was so off his head that supposedly one of the local Indian chiefs approached Herzog and offered to kill him.
(c) Werner Herzog Filmproduktion
Kinski and Herzog’s other collaborations were Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), in which, miraculously, Kinski managed to keep his cool during the four-hour make-up sessions required to turn him into the bald, toothy, Spock-eared and talon-fingered nosferatu of the title, Wozeck (1979) and Cobra Verde (1987). Herzog was so unbearable during the filming of that last movie that original cinematographer Thomas Mauch ended up walking off the set and Herzog himself didn’t employ Kinski again.
Shelley Duvall and Robert Altman.
The huge-eyed, gangly and charming Shelley Duvall was rarely absent from Robert Altman’s movies during the 1970s – she was in Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Thieves like us (1974), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and Three Women (1977). With her distinctive appearance, it was inevitable when Altman agreed to direct Popeye for Disney Studios in 1980 that he asked Duvall to play Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl. (Indeed, Duvall was initially reluctant to accept the role because ‘Olive Oyl’ was the nickname she’d been tormented with at school.) Afterwards, the actress and the director went their separate ways. Duvall devoted herself to producing television adaptations of fairy stories and children’s books, though not before she got pursued around the Overlook Hotel by an axe-waving Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980).
Oliver Reed and Ken Russell.
The pugnacious and permanently-pickled legend that is Oliver Reed had been making swashbucklers and horror movies for Hammer Films and swinging-sixties comedies for Michael Winner when Ken Russell – a director best described by the adjective ‘unrestrained’ – gave him a leg up into arthouse cinema. Reed had small parts in Russell’s Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975) but it was in Russell’s three best remembered films – Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975) – that he excelled.
Women in Love is famous for its saucy nude wrestling scene between Reed and Alan Bates – even now you have to ‘sign in to confirm your age’ to view it on youtube. Of major concern to Reed and Bates before they filmed it, apparently, was the question of whose member would look bigger and whose would look smaller. (To their relief, when they compared lengths, it was a draw.) Two years later, Reed played Urbain Grandier in Russell’s hugely controversial The Devils, based on John Whiting’s play of the same name and The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley – such passions did the film arouse that in a TV debate Russell walloped critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard (the paper that Walker wrote for) when the latter described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’. In Tommy, Reed held his own as the title character’s brutal stepfather – holding his own was no mean feat in a movie that included Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Keith Moon as the detestable child-molesting Uncle Ernie and Ann-Margaret writhing in a morass of baked beans.
(c) Warner Brothers
Both Reed and Russell’s careers went into freefall in the 1980s and thereafter their paths didn’t cross again. It might’ve been fun, though, to see Reed in Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (1988) – you could almost imagine him fumbling to open his trousers whilst bellowing, “You call that a giant worm? This is a giant worm!”
Stephen Rea and Neil Jordan.
Irish director Neil Jordan’s films seem to need the presence of Stephen Rea. Whether he’s in a main role – Angel (1982), The Crying Game (1992) – or a supporting one – Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997) – or just turning up in a cameo – The Company of Wolves (1984), Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – the lugubrious-faced Belfast actor apparently adds some talismanic luck to the artistic success of Jordan’s work. The Rea-less Mona Lisa (1986) is an outstanding exception; but, looking at the likes of High Spirits (1988), We’re no Angels (1989) and The Brave One (2007), none of which had him on board, the general rule for Jordan’s films seems to be, no Rea, no good.
Sheila Keith and Pete Walker.
A combination of exploitation cinema and social commentary, British director Peter Walker’s 1970s horror movies were memorably grim – serving up (for the time) disturbingly graphic violence, attacking institutions like the judiciary and the Catholic church, and generally showing how depressingly grotty life was in 1970s Britain. What helped their impact immeasurably was his repeated casting of Scottish actress Sheila Keith, familiar to several generations of British TV viewers for her appearances as prim ladies of a certain age (often aristocrats or nuns) in cosy situation comedies like The Liver Birds, Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em, Rings on their Fingers, The Other ‘Arf, Bless Me Father, Never The Twain, A Fine Romance and The Brittas Empire. But there was nothing cosy about the chilling harridans whom Keith played for Walker, in House of Whipcord (1974), in House of Mortal Sin (1975) and most subversively in Frightmare (1974), in which her Dorothy Yates character shifted gears between being a confused, pathetic, middle-aged housewife and a demented brain-eating cannibal. Apparently, she found these roles liberating compared to her normal acting fare. And the now-classic stills of Keith in Frighmare, wielding a Black-and-Decker drill, grinning, and splattered with a victim’s cerebral tissue, suggest an actress who enjoyed her work.
Walker cast her in two later horror movies, 1978’s The Comeback and 1982’s House of the Long Shadows, but neither was to the standard of their earlier work. The Comeback at least has an interesting idea – an elderly couple (one of whom is Keith) take gruesome revenge on a faded rock star whom they believe induced their daughter to commit suicide. Confronting the rocker at the end, Keith admonishes him in a hate-filled voice for his decadence and depravity and even his lewd bodily ‘contortions’ onstage. This would’ve worked if the rock star had been played by someone properly decadent like Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop but, laughably, he’s played by Jack Jones, housewives’ favourite and singer of the Love Boat theme. Jones’s performance was likened by one critic to a ‘hibernating bear’.
Roy Kinnear and Richard Lester.
The portly and eternally flustered-looking comic actor Roy Kinnear was a fixture in the films of American-based-in-Britain director Richard Lester during most phases of Lester’s career. Kinnear turned up in the second of the movies Lester directed with the Beatles, 1965’s Help!, then accompanied Lester when he moved on to directing the surrealist black comedies 1967’s How I Won the War and 1969’s The Bed Sitting Room, and then provided comic relief in Lester’s The Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers in 1973 and 1974. Around this time too, Lester cast Kinnear in his British disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), giving him a role with more depth than usual – he played Curtain, the luckless entertainments officer who has to keep a cruise-liner-load of passengers amused after it transpires that a terrorist has placed six bombs on board the ship.
Only during Lester’s box-office peak – 1980’s Superman II and 1983’s Superman III – did Kinnear fail to make an appearance in his old friend’s films. The two were reunited in 1988 for a belated second sequel to The Three Musketeers, The Return of the Musketeers, but tragedy awaited. During filming in Spain, Kinnear was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken pelvis. The following day, in hospital, he died of a heart attack. Lester was so upset by the experience that, apart from a concert film for Paul McCartney, 1991’s Get Back, he hasn’t directed a movie since.
(c) United Artists