The 25 Best Director-Actor Collaborations of All Time

Once in a while a talented director and actor will hit it off and continue working together on multiple films. A certain trust and bond develop and the multiple collaborations result in the pair growing together whilst getting better at the creative process involved in the art of film making, often leading them to make even better films , the further they go along. Cinema’s history is littered with partnerships like this and there is no doubt that we as the audience benefit from it in the long run.

Below you’ll find some of the best partnerships of this kind in the history of cinema. Some of them worked together for a few films, others were partners for their entire careers, but all of them made great films together, which we can now all enjoy.

Ladies and gentlemen, here are 25 of the greatest multiple collaborations between directors and actors to have ever graced the screen.


25. Jeff Nichols & Michael Shannon (4 collaborations)

Most noteworthy films: Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter & Mud

The first entry on this list is the relatively new collaboration between director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon. Shannon had already been around for a while (Groundhog Day, in which he had a tiny part back in the day, was his first feature film appearance) but magic struck when he starred in the directorial debut of Jeff Nichols, one of the best new directors to come out of Hollywood in recent years.

Shannon has been in all three of Nichols’ features so far and will also star in his next film, Midnight Special, a science fiction film inspired by the works of John Carpenter, which is currently still being filmed and scheduled to be released in 2014. Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, which competed for the Palme D’Or at Cannes, all received high critical praise, so let’s hope these guys keep working together to supply us with lots more quality cinema. At this point there is no reason to think that they will not.


24. Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder (3 collaborations)

Most noteworthy films: The Producers, Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein

The only entry on this list with less than four collaborations in total, the collaboration between Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder nonetheless completely deserves to be on here. In Brooks’ life’s work as a director there is no doubt whatsoever that all three films he made with Wilder in one of the lead roles between 1967 and 1973 are the absolute highlights of his career and that all of them have gone on to become genuine comedy classics.

The same can not truly be said about Wilder as he also did the fantastic Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory during this time and later went on to have a successful partnership with Richard Pryor (who by the way was Brooks’ old writing partner) in various movies. Nonetheless, he himself has joked that if he had not met Brooks “I might be a patient in some neuro-psychiatric hospital now, looking through bars as I made wallets.”


23. Pedro Almodóvar & Penélope Cruz (5 collaborations)

Most noteworthy films: All About My Mother, Volver & Broken Embraces

Penélope Cruz started her collaborations with Almodóvar with the small role of a prostitute, who gives birth to a baby boy on a public transit bus in the introduction of Live Flesh, but was upgraded to a nun and a larger part for his next movie, All About My Mother, which is one of the absolute pinnacles in a career filled with wonderful films by Spain’s greatest living director.

It took seven years and two more Almodóvar movies after that , before Cruz scored one of the lead roles in Volver for which she received a string of Best Actress Awards, including at Cannes (shared by all six main actresses) and a lot more nominations to boot, including an Academy Award one. Since then she has starred in two more Almodóvar movies and there is no reason to believe they will leave it at that, especially since the director is known for his strong female leads, which is exactly the type of role Cruz excels in and loves playing.


22. Mike Leigh & Lesley Manville (6 collaborations)

Most noteworthy films: Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing & Another Year

Mike Leigh is a real actor’s director, gifted with a knack of getting the most incredible naturalistic performances from all actors he works with. He also tends to work with the same people frequently and has a roster of regulars, who all deserve to be on this list, but there is something about the roles played by Lesley Manville which just stands out.

First appearing in Leigh’s early High Hopes in 1988 as a cold hearted upper-middle class bitch, she was next seen in a small role as a social worker in Secrets & Lies, Leigh’s breakthrough film which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1996. Their next collaboration, Topsy-Turvy, resulted in Manville getting a nomination for Best Supporting Actress from the London Film Critics Circle but it was their fourth film, All or Nothing, which eventually landed her this Award albeit for a lead and not a supporting role in that film.

In 2010 she took on another major role in Leigh’s ensemble piece Another Year. Both the movie and her performance were very well received and both got many nominations from award ceremonies worldwide, taking home the award for a significant amount of those nominations.


21. Luis Buñuel & Fernando Rey (4 collaborations)

Most noteworthy films: Viridiana, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie & That Obscure Object of Desire

Luis Buñuel had been making films for more than 30 years when he made his first feature starring Fernando Rey but it kick-started a very fruitful phase in the legendary director’s great career just before he went into his “Second French period” in which Rey played a major part (the First Period being the director’s first golden age when he made the surrealist masterpieces Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or) .

The men first worked together in 1961 on the movie Viridiana, which is considered by same to be Buñuel’s greatest film and which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year. The men wouldn’t work together again for nine years but they followed up their movie in 1970 with the just as excellent Tristana, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars but did not win that year. Two years later they made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which became a big hit in Europe and this time around did win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Buñuel proceeded to make one film without Rey in 1974 but the men rejoined forces for what would be the last film by the famed director, That Obscure Object of Desire, which again was nominated for Best Foreign Film but didn’t win. Nonetheless the movie was a critical success and received various other prestigious awards. Buñuel retired from film making and died in Mexico 6 years later. Rey kept making films to his death in 1994.


20. Martin Scorsese & Leonardo DiCaprio (5 collaborations)

Most noteworthy films: The Departed, Shutter Island & The Wolf of Wall Street

The partnership between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio is the second long running collaboration this director has had with an actor but we’ll get to that other one a bit later on.

Their first two films, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, were both period pieces and good enough films although it seemed Scorsese was no longer in the top form he had been in the previous two decades. But then they did The Departed in 2006, a remake of the excellent Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, and this movie really put Scorcese back on the map, finally getting him his Academy Award for Best Director, an accolade and acknowledgement which had eluded him throughout his lengthy career (although it remains a crime that he never won this award earlet for movies which were far more deserving of it). Additionally the film won three other major Oscars and plenty of other awards, signalling a true return to form for the famed director.

The two went on to make Shutter Island next which would be Scorsese’s highest grossing film to date. Their latest work, the recent The Wolf of Wall Street, has once again been well received and has earned both Scorsese as well as DiCaprio Academy Award nominations. It can be argued that it has been the Scorsese directed films that DiCaprio has starred in, which have given him the critical acclaim he deserved, after having mainly been a teen heartthrob during the nineties. Judging by the way they are going at this stage, there is no reason to believe we will not see another film from this team.


19. Wes Anderson & Bill Murray (7 collaborations)

Most noteworthy films: Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou & Fantastic Mr. Fox

Although there had been some hints that Bill Murray had more in him than just goofy comedies, it appears that it was his partnering with Wes Anderson in 1998’s Rushmore that really seemed to have ushered in a Murray re-invention and renaissance.

The actor has appeared in every single film directed by Anderson ever since. Rushmore was a critical success and Murray arguably gave a career-best performance up until that point. It’s impossible to tell but without the films by Wes Anderson, we might never have seen Murray in a film like Lost In Translation or the works of Jim Jarmusch.

He returned for a supporting role in the excellent The Royal Tenenbaums and had the title role in Anderson’s ensemble piece comedy The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou next as a Jacques Cousteau-like character.

After a cameo in Anderson’s next film, The Darjeeling Limited, he voiced the badger in Fantastic Mr Fox, a wonderful stop motion animation by the director based on the book by Roald Dahl. After that he had another supporting role in Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and a small role in his latest The Grand Budapest Hotel.


18. John Woo & Chow Yun-Fat (5 collaborations)

Most noteworthy films: A Better Tomorrow, The Killer & Hard Boiled

John Woo & Chow Yun-Fat have a lot to thank each other for. Woo had been directing for 18 years but his career was in a slump and he even moved from Hong Kong to Taiwain as a result, whilst Chow was just another dramatic actor making a living in Hobg Kong, when Tsui Hark decided to back Woo’s pet project A Better Tomorrow in 1986. The movie was a gigantic success and single-handedly changed Hong Kong cinema forever, putting a new genre, Heroic Bloodshed, firmly on the map. Woo became one of the biggest directors to ever come out of the region and Chow Yun-Fat became a superstar and even an icon of Hong Kong cinema.

The two men returned the following year with the compulsory sequel, which also did mega-business and refined the elements that had made the first film a monster hit. Two years later the two returned with The Killer, another Heroic Bloodshed flick, which upped the ante even further and possibly remains the highpoint of the entire genre. After that they did another action film but this time blended with more humour. The movie, Once a Thief, did okay in Hong Kong but was far less popular than their three previous efforts.

So in 1992 they came back with a bang in the form of Hard Boiled, which added Hong Kong veterans Tony Leung and Anthony Wong to the mix and dialled the volume up to 11. After that John Woo took off to start a career in the States, whilst Chow Yun-Fat was the biggest movie star in Hong Kong. Neither of them would ever reach the same heights again.