Do you think of George Clooney as a movie star or as a director?
His latest film, The Midnight Sky, shows him in both modes as he plays a scientist living alone in the Arctic Circle after an “event” makes Earth uninhabitable. This is the seventh film that Clooney has directed in the last 18 years. (By means of comparison, Martin Scorsese has done eight features in that same time span.) So filmmaking is clearly a passion for the Ocean’s Eleven actor — as Clooney once put it in an interview, writing and directing are “something you can do well into your old age” once audiences get tired of seeing you in front of the camera.
But where does Clooney stack up against other modern movie stars who have segued into filmmaking? I came up with a list of 12 such actors, deciding to make my cutoff that they’d had to have made at least three films on their own. (That disqualified Greta Gerwig, but with her next movie, she’d probably place pretty high on these rankings.) The trick in making this list was judging the whole body of work — but also weighing how they’ve done as a director in recent years. As you’ll see, some of these actors started off strong and then seemed to lose momentum, while others feel like they’re just now hitting their stride. Balancing all that wasn’t easy.
That said, I knew before I started who would be No. 12 — and who would most certainly be No. 1.
12) James Franco
Have you heard of The Ape? Good Time Max? The Broken Tower? Child of God? These are just a few of the movies directed by Franco, who for a time was celebrated as a renaissance man who immersed himself in tons of different projects while pursuing graduate degrees and teaching and showing up on General Hospital. His ambition suggested a soulful artist who didn’t just want to be a heartthrob, but the truth is, very few of his directorial efforts are especially accomplished — or even that well-known. (It’s very likely that of the nearly 20 movies he’s made, the only one you’ve heard of is The Disaster Artist.)
It was easier to forgive his failings behind the camera as the byproduct of an enthusiastic but unfocused young man. But after multiple #MeToo allegations came out against Franco in 2018, his harmless, pretentious indies suddenly seemed a lot less adorably inept — now, they just feel like the work of an entitled guy who doesn’t have the talent (or moral compass) to justify his confidence.
11) Sylvester Stallone
When Rocky won Best Picture in 1977, it was a triumph for Stallone, an outsider who had written a script about an underdog boxer that he wanted to play in the movie. Rocky made Stallone a feel-good story and a star, and he quickly parlayed both into a directing career, starting with 1978’s Paradise Alley and then the following year’s Rocky II. Since then, he’s directed three more Rocky movies, the 2008 Rambo comeback vehicle and The Expendables, which proved to be (briefly) a return to box-office glory for a group of over-the-hill action stars. (And, of course, he also inexplicably directed 1983’s Staying Alive, a sequel to Saturday Night Fever.)
Where other actors have used their directorial efforts to show off other sides of their artistic personality, Stallone has really focused on protecting and extending his brand by getting behind the camera. But that shouldn’t be that surprising: After all, he wrote Rocky to break into Hollywood, and ever since he’s been very sly (my apologies) about ensuring that he has complete control over his career.
10) Sean Penn
The two-time Oscar-winning actor started out as the adorable, troublemaking stoner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High before transitioning into one of his generation’s most acclaimed and committed performers. And, for a while, he also seemed like a promising filmmaker. In the early 1990s, he made The Indian Runner, a sibling drama inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolmen,” and then followed it up with two smart, uncompromising character studies starring Jack Nicholson, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge. From there, he made Into the Wild, probably his most accomplished and commercial project yet as a director.
Much like his work as an actor, these films were all solemn affairs that leaned heavily on their artistic integrity. Unfortunately, Penn sabotaged much of his good will with 2016’s The Last Face, a torturously ponderous romantic drama starring impossibly beautiful actors (Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem) playing moody lovers working in Liberia. The movie was practically laughed off the screen at its press screening at Cannes, suggesting that Penn’s self-righteousness and ego had finally undone him. He could always rebound, but as a filmmaker, he’s starting to run the risk of becoming a parody of the ultra-serious auteur.
9) Kevin Costner
The star of Bull Durham and Field of Dreams kept his hit streak going by making a film about a disillusioned Civil War soldier who finds himself after befriending Native Americans. Dances With Wolves won multiple Oscars, an achievement Costner has subsequently never come close to matching. To be fair, Costner has only directed two movies since, with the latter being 2003’s well-regarded but underseen Open Range. Unfortunately, in between was The Postman, the sort of ego-driven disaster that gives actor-turned-director projects a really bad name.
Nonetheless, in an interview last year, he hinted that he hadn’t lost his enthusiasm for sitting in the big chair. “I’m going to play the second half of my career out directing,” Costner said, “but it could very well be in television.” I’d give anything to see him work on something with Madonna.
8) Ben Affleck
When Affleck made his directorial debut with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, the critical consensus was that it was a pleasant surprise. A solid, unpretentious thriller that featured his kid brother Casey, the movie seemed to be Affleck’s attempt at a major career pivot after the star-vehicle fiascos Gigli and Paycheck. (Affleck was so anxious about getting Gone Baby Gone right that he cast Casey so he didn’t have to think about acting in the movie as well. As Affleck said at the time, “I don’t know how in the world guys like Clint Eastwood manage to do Unforgiven … it just seems incredibly difficult.”)
His next film, The Town, was a little better — and even starred him — and then the one after that, Argo, ended up winning Best Picture, although Affleck didn’t get a nomination for Best Director. (Don’t feel bad for the guy: He won an Oscar for producing the film.) Getting into the director’s chair helped rebuild Affleck’s reputation, although his most recent film, Live by Night, was critically derided and barely made a dent at the box office. (And after initially agreeing to direct himself in the next Batman movie, he stepped aside, with Matt Reeves now making the film with Robert Pattinson.) Affleck has some projects coming up, but it’s hard not to think of him as a star once again at a crossroads. Is he going to be able to hack it as a filmmaker over the long haul?
7) George Clooney
Things started off so promisingly for Clooney’s directing career. His debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, was an uneven but risk-taking anti-biopic — it was based on the life of Gong Show host Chuck Barris, who claimed he secretly worked for the CIA — and his follow-up, Good Night, and Good Luck, earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. But since then? Well, it’s been a study in diminishing returns. Whether he’s trying to have a little fun (Leatherheads) or do a Coen brothers-esque exploration of mid-century suburban racism (Suburbicon), Clooney has often missed the mark, either going too broad in his comedy or being too smug in his political commentary.
As for his thoughtful sci-fi drama The Midnight Sky, you will mostly think of the many, many movies it reminds you of. (Clooney keeps saying that his model for the film was The Revenant meets Gravity, which doesn’t help because those two Oscar-winners are far superior.) The Midnight Sky is ultimately touching enough that it works, but Clooney doesn’t seem especially inspired by what he’s making of late — which certainly wasn’t the case when he first stepped behind the camera.
6) Barbra Streisand
An EGOT recipient and a massive star of stage and screen, Streisand was also a boundary-breaker when it came to directing her first feature, the 1983 musical Yentl. (The studio that released the Oscar-winning drama proclaimed that she was “the first woman in the history of motion pictures to produce, direct, write and perform a film’s title role.”) To date, she’s only directed three films, but each has received multiple Academy Award nominations, with 1991’s The Prince of Tides being up for Best Picture — although she didn’t receive a Best Director nod to go along with it. At that time, only one woman had ever been nominated for that prize, and Streisand felt that sexism had played a part in her being snubbed. (“We’re still fighting it,” she said soon after. “It’s as if a man were allowed to have passion and commitment to his work, but a woman is allowed that feeling for a man, but not her work.”)
As a result, it’s hard to accurately assess her directing career: The resistance she must have faced, even as a big star, almost certainly kept her from making as many movies as she would have liked. But she set the stage for the next generation of actress-turned-directors like Greta Gerwig and Olivia Wilde. And it was fitting that the Academy had her present Best Director at the 2010 Oscars, when Kathryn Bigelow became the first (and, so far, only) woman to win the award.
5) Angelina Jolie
For decades now, Jolie has parlayed her stardom into a very public role as an activist for refugees. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that, when she started making films, she’d turn her attention to stories about war, injustice and suffering. Her first feature, 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, was a romantic drama that used the Bosnian War as its backdrop, emphasizing the atrocities of that conflict. Since then, she’s continued to make uncompromising movies, although the sincerity of her purpose can sometimes end up being more commendable than the films themselves.
Still, her change-of-pace portrait of a couple coming apart, By the Sea, is fascinating as a snapshot of her and Brad Pitt’s collapsing marriage. (You wonder just how autobiographical and traumatic it was for the two stars, who seem to be working through their issues on camera.) And her most recent work, 2017’s First They Killed My Father, is her best yet, examining the horrors of the Khmer Rouge from the perspective of a little girl just trying to stay alive. Jolie is still primarily thought of as an actress, but that might change over time if she keeps directing such interesting, challenging films.
4) Mel Gibson
Anyone who saw 1993’s The Man Without a Face couldn’t have imagined where Gibson would go as a filmmaker. His directorial debut after years of Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films was an earnest, well-meaning inspirational drama in which he played a disfigured man who becomes an unlikely mentor to a local boy (Nick Stahl) in need of a father figure. The Man Without a Face is in no way representative of the obsessively violent films he’d soon be churning out, including the Oscar-winning Braveheart and the blockbuster religious drama The Passion of the Christ.
There are a thousand reasons to object to Gibson personally, but whether it’s his hallucinatory odyssey Apocalypto or the gut-wrenchingly intense war drama Hacksaw Ridge, there’s no question the man has a way with an action sequence — which shouldn’t be surprising considering the movies that made him a star in the first place.
3) Robert Redford
“I was producing things I was acting in, but I had never directed and I felt it was time,” Redford said about his decision to make 1980’s Ordinary People, the story of a family consumed by grief and anger. “I was looking for a piece of material that was about behavior and feelings. When I read Judith Guest’s book, I thought, ‘This is it.’”
In retrospect, it makes sense that Redford, an earnest movie star who made politically engaged hits like The Candidate and All the President’s Men, would focus on directing films that tackled big subjects. Ordinary People won Best Picture, and although he still starred in movies, like 1984’s The Natural, his focus shifted to directorial projects, including 1992’s A River Runs Through It (one of Brad Pitt’s first films) and 1994’s excellent Quiz Show, a condemnation of television and commercialism from the perspective of a forgotten 1950s quiz-show scandal.
Granted, in later years, Redford’s films got more stridently political without actually being entertaining or compelling, but you could argue that his major artistic contribution of the last few decades is the Sundance Institute, which helped shepherd the Sundance Film Festival, the most important annual American independent festival.
2) Warren Beatty
Because he’s known for being controlling and a perfectionist, it’s incredible to think that when Beatty finally directed his first film after years of producing them, he hired a co-director, his friend (and gifted comic writer) Buck Henry, to help him out. (“I worry and get uptight,” Beatty later explained. “Buck insists on having a good time. He won’t not have a good time.”) The pairing worked, as 1978’s Heaven Can Wait was an Oscar-winning smash, proving that the star of Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo was also a talented director.
But after collaborating with Henry on Heaven Can Wait, Beatty struck out on his own, winning the Best Director Oscar for his next project, the ambitious John Reed biopic Reds. Veering between political satires (Bulworth) and brightly colored comic-book blockbusters (Dick Tracy), Beatty approaches his directorial efforts like he did his star vehicles — with an utter commitment that suggested he’d happily spend years pursuing a project if he thought it was worth it. Alas, his most recent film, the mediocre Rules Don’t Apply, was proof that, sometimes, all that time spent still couldn’t guarantee a satisfying product. But before then, his track record as a filmmaker was fairly stellar.
1) Clint Eastwood
Eastwood turned 90 in May, and for about 50 of those years, he’s been directing. A movie star starting in the mid-1960s thanks to his role as the iconic Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s pungent Westerns, Eastwood made his directorial debut with 1971’s Play Misty for Me. “It’s a natural progression, if you’re interested in films,” he once said when asked about what prompted his aspirations to work behind the camera. “The overall concept of a film was more important to me than just acting.”
Pretty soon, he was making his own Westerns, like High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales, but he had ambitions beyond directing himself in star vehicles. From Bird (about jazz musician Charlie Parker, played by Forest Whitaker) to the Oscar-winning Mystic River, Eastwood developed into an artist who explored all kinds of stories — and not necessarily ones that had a role for him. This century, he’s basically stopped acting, except for occasionally in his own movies, which has only cemented his status as an auteur. As much as Dirty Harry and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly define his legacy, so too do Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and several other films he directed.
Of the movie stars on this list, Eastwood is the only one who could go into cinema’s hall of fame simply on the strength of his directing. The rest of them have a long way to go before they could make such a claim.