The 20 Greatest Acting Performances from Directors in Movies Other than Their Own

6. Woody Allen in “The Front” (Martin Ritt, 1976)

Woody Allen in “The Front”

Woody Allen is no stranger to acting. He appears in more than half of his own films and in the early days, he would frequently cast himself in the lead role. Who could forget his performances in films like “Annie Hall”, “Hannah and Her Sisters” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors”?

The problem with Allen’s acting is that he tends to play himself in every movie thus creating the same character over and over again; his approach towards a character is always a neurotic, funny, dysfunctional little man approach. In 1976, he appeared in Martin Ritt’s “The Front”. What is shocking is that not only the he did not direct the film; he didn’t write it or produce it. In “The Front” he is just the lead actor…nothing more.

Set in the era of the communist blacklist frenzy, the film opens with Howard Prince (Woody Allen) an average and plain man. His small time social status is about to change when his friend Alfred Miller, a successful TV writer, offers him the chance of a lifetime. Because Miller was blacklisted by the McCarthy committee, his career could be over.

Unless Howard agrees to put his name on Miller’s television scripts that way allowing the writer to keep working and gaining fame for himself. Howard sees this proposition as the perfect opportunity for him to move up in the world. Unfortunately, chaos breaks loose when several other writers ask Howard to put his name on their work in order to relieve them of McCarthyism.

Although Allen was very hesitant in taking the lead part in a movie he had no control over, the role fits him like a glove. Howard is naive, humorous and a daydreamer…just like Woody.


7. Francois Truffaut in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

Francois Truffaut in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

Francois Truffaut was a self-taught cinema scholar whose films helped create the famous “Nouvelle Vague” movement in the 60’s. He was often accused that his aim in film is to make money not art (attributed to the fact that Truffaut came from a background of poverty) but masterpieces such as “The 400 Blows”, “Jules et Jim” and “Day for Night” prove everybody wrong. His goal was to direct 30 movies and then retire to write books for his remaining days.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck when Truffaut died of brain tumor at the age of 52 – he had 25 films listed under his name failing just short of his personal goal. Aside from directing (and sometimes acting) his movies and living his tumultuous life, Truffaut found the time to take on some acting jobs in other filmmakers’ works. His most famous acting part is that of French scientist Claude Lacombe in Steven Spierlberg’s sci-fi classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is one of the few movies written (not just directed) by Steven Spielberg. This comes as no surprise given the director’s love for the extraterrestrial. Being of big fan of Francois Truffaut, Spielberg said he was honored when the legendary French director agreed to do the part.

The film looks at the extraterrestrial phenomenon from two different perspectives; the scientific one represented by scientists (led by Truffaut’s character) and the one of the average person represented by blue collar worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). Roy’s life changes radically one night after experiencing a close encounter with a UFO.

Despite his efforts, Roy is unable to trace the unidentified spacecraft. He becomes fascinated with the whole phenomenon and – through his erratic behavior – he distances himself from his wife and children. Roy becomes increasingly obsessed with subliminal, mental images of a mountain-like shape and begins to make models of it. He continues to seek enlightenment even after his family leaves him.

Meanwhile, the scientists discover that music is the key in communicating with the aliens (a five-tone musical phrase in a major scale that is now part of cinematic history). Truffaut’s scientist is not mad scientist but is, nonetheless, quite a wacky one. In a sense, Truffaut parodies the scientist world, through his over the top gestures, but also parodies the American perception of the French people through his deliberate English speech impediments and accent.


8. Nikita Mikhalkov in “Siberiade” (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1979)

Nikita Mikhalkov in “Siberiade”

Russia could never complain about the lack of artistry and talents. From music to literature and visual arts, Russia has a certain feeling to its artists that few countries can compete with. This country gave the world among many Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy among many. The world of cinema is no exception.

Russian cinema is highly regarded all around the world and its films are universally praised. Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Konchalovsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Pavel Lungin are just a few names of directors that make any “best directors list” wherever, whenever. Surprisingly, not everyone knows that Andrei Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov are brothers. Both of them began their careers in the early 70’s but their roads in life were always different.

While Konchalovsky moved to Hollywood in the early 80’s, Mikhalkov remained in his country and became an art-house darling with films such as “A Slave of love”, “Burnt by the Sun” and “12”. The two had a rich collaboration in the 70’s with Mikhalkov (the younger brother) acting in Konchalovsky’s early directorial efforts and Konchalovsky contributing to the script of Mikhalkov’s “A Slave of Love”.

However, their most famous collaboration is younger brother’s Nikita Mikhalkov superb acting in older brother’s Andrei Konchalovsky’s 5 hour epic “Siberiade”.

“Siberiade” is comparable in every way with other movie mammoths such as “Novecento” or “Satantango”. From the first frame of the film to the last, Konchalovsky lays down a poem of images for the whole world to see. The film is conceived in four parts spanning much of the 20th century.

The first part of the movie tells stories of Russia’s rural culture, as connected to the pre-electrified epoch that is being narrated; then comes the second part of the film that concerns Russia’s involvement in World War II. This part can be seen as a stand-alone heroic epic. The third and fourth part deal with the modernization of Siberia with its benefits and its flaws.

Throughout the film, the differences in epoch are displayed in a stylistics thus writing a continuous history of Siberia in the 20th century. To make the film easier to follow, all these stories and themes are presented trhough the eyes of three generations of men and women from two rival families.

These people see Siberia evolve from a snow ridden land with no electricity or means of transportation to an oil tycoon’s heaven filled with empty promises of a better life. Mikhalkov plays the final version of Aleksey Ustyuzhanin, an engineer who returns to the small Siberian village of Yelan after fleeing from it years ago to join the Great Patriotic War and fight for the revolutionary cause. Now Aleksey is a decorated war hero and wants to use his money and influence to begin drilling for oil in his native village.

It is here that he re-encounters his teenage love and tries to reignite the old flame of passion. Also in the village is the man who killed his father who is now a bitter, frail old timer. Despite his efforts to reconnect, Aleksei cannot love the woman he loved as a boy as they have grown apart and cannot revenge his father’s death, as he feels nothing but pity and disgust towards his killer. Decades of life on this Earth make the time that heals all wounds.


9. Rainer Werner Fassbinder in “Kamikaze 1989” (Wolf Gremm, 1982)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Kamikaze 1989

If you want to talk about excess and living life on the fast lane check out German director’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder life and work. Fassbinder is one of the most important figures in the New German Cinema. Fassbinder lived his life as if there was no tomorrow and had an obsessive desire to provoke and disturb. He also maintained a frenetic pace in filmmaking.

In a professional career that lasted less than fifteen years, he completed forty films, two television film series, three short films, four video productions, twenty-four stage plays and four radio plays. He had thirty-six acting roles in his own and others’ films. He also worked as an actor (film and theater), author, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theater manager.

His phenomenal creative energy, when working, coexisted with a wild, self-destructive libertinism that earned him a reputation as the wild child of German Cinema. He had tortured personal relationships with the actors and technicians around him who formed a surrogate family. The strange character of Lieutenant Jansen in the even stranger film “Kamikaze 1989” fitted Fassbinder like a glove.

In a totalitarian society, Lieutenant Jansen is investigating a string of bombings that take place in a punk-future city. Jansen gets more than he bargained for when his investigation leads to a corporate media conspiracy. He is slowly lured, by high-placed people and by his own morbid curiosity, into a world of lies and deception where nothing is what it seems.

“Kamikaze 1989” is not a masterpiece but if you are a fan of Fassbinder, you will have a great time, as the eccentric director is always fun to watch. Lieutenant Jansen seems to be modeled after Fassbinder’s self-destructive persona and that is always a guarantee of an enjoyable and interesting movie experience.


10. Mel Brooks in “To Be or Not to Be” (Alan Johnson, 1983)

Mel Brooks in To Be or Not to Be

Mel Brooks loves a good laugh. The secret to his career seems to be that he never takes anything too seriously and that there is no subject serious enough not to be made fun of. Brooks began his career as a comic and gradually entered the world of cinema before becoming an iconic comedic director.

He is best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies but few people know that he also has a very good eye for drama, producing non-comedic films such as “The Elephant Man” and “The Fly”. Still, Mel Brooks is as his best on comedic territory that’s why he chose to produce and star – but not direct – in this remake of the comedy classic “To Be or Not to Be”.

This 1983 remake is directed by Alan Johnson and stars real life husband and wife Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. It is the story of a Polish actor named Frederick Bronski (Mel Brooks) and his wife Anna (Anne Bancroft) who are about to star in “Hamlet”. The setting is Poland at the start of World War II.

In the opening, Anna has been receiving flowers from a young pilot who always sits in the second row during the performances, so she decides to meet with him backstage during her husband’s rendition of the “To Be, or Not to Be.” monologue. Meanwhile, word comes of invasion by the Nazis, and everything spins out of control. From here on all hell breaks loose upon Poland, the theater and its actors.

Brooks does a terrific job in portraying the ego-centric actor, unaware of his wife’s infidelity and successfully parodies the archetypal actor who takes himself too seriously. In the end, the show must go on no matter what.