We're watching movies in a century with the bloom still on it. Tough sledding for actors who direct if they want to match or exceed the success record of their predecessors. Given the 20th-century triumphs of such icons as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurence Olivier and Citizen Kane auteur Orson Welles, plus directing Oscar wins for the starry likes of Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Robert Redford (Ordinary People), Warren Beatty (Reds), Mel Gibson (Braveheart), Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves), and — kill me now! — Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful), the 21st century offers challenges galore. Here's a list of 10 actor-directors trying to stake their claim on both sides of the camera.
She's only directed, written and starred in one film. But 2010's Tiny Furniture is a hell of a calling card. It's a low-budget ($25,000) comedy of touching gravity that finds god in the details of family life – and the devil, too. Dunham's talent flourishes now on HBO's Girls, revolving around four frank-talking Manhattan friends, Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). It's Sex and the City done raw with no sentimental apologies. Dunham won Emmy nominations for acting and directing. She's only 26, so expect more awards in her future. It'll be fun to watch her move up and up on this list.
OK, you'll have to forgive him for Battleship, easily this year's worst movie. But Berg brings the same intensity to directing that he does to his acting. His passion is undeniable. Just check out his dual talents at work in 1998's Very Bad Things. Berg excelled at capturing small-town football frenzy in 2004's Friday Night Lights and its subsequent TV series. In 2007, The Kingdom caught the drama of an FBI team in Saudi Arabia, and 2008's Hancock was a comedy with a real sense of character. My guess is that damn Battleship won't sink him.
She's one of the highest paid actors in the world, not to mention a tabloid staple stemming from her relationship with Brad Pitt and their every-growing family, and her good work as a Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. So when does Angelina Jolie have time to direct movies? Well, she did. In last year's In the Land of Blood and Honey, a love story set against the background of the Bosnian War, Jolie had critics saluting her skill behind the camera and at illuminating the harsher issues of our day.
As an actor, Roth sticks most in the memory for playing Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz, a soldier willing to take a bat to any handy Nazi in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. As a filmmaker, he's a bracing new voice in scare cinema, from his 2003 debut with the terrifying and psychologically acute Cabin Fever (check him out as Grim), through the influential Hostel and Hostel: Part II, in which Roth is unforgettable playing a head on a stick. To dismiss Roth as a degenerate part of the Splat Pack of scare-show directors is to write off a gifted provocateur.
The 33-year-old Canadian actress turned director with grit and grace in 2007's Away From Her, starring an Oscar-nominated Julie Christie as a wife displaying the first sign of Alzheimer's disease. Polley's filmmaking proved as deeply affecting as her acting in such films as The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica. Last year, with Take This Waltz, she sharply delineated the disintegration of a marriage between Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. And now there's Stories We Tell, a remarkable documentary in which Polley uses her own life as her subject, notably the fact that she was the product of an adulterous affair.
The comic actor showed his darker side directing 1994's Reality Bites and 1996's Cable Guy. By 2001, with Zoolander, he created a cult classic by skewering male-model posturing (Blue Steel, anyone?). And in 2008's Tropic Thunder, Stiller as director, co-producer, co-writer and co-star, showed us Hollywood at war with its own ginormous ego during the making of a megabudget Vietnam War epic with an uproariously inept cast and crew. Next up is Stiller's most ambitious project yet, as star and director of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, from James Thurber's beloved story about a daydreamer.
Given the way QT the filmmaker re-invented crime drama in the 1990's with Reservoir Dogs (he played Mr. Brown) and Pulp Fiction (he played the memorably flustered Jimmie Dimmick), you would think the former video-store clerk had no more worlds to conquer. Then in 2003 came the girl-powered Kill Bill and its sequel a year later. He celebrated women again in the "Death Proof" segment of 2007's Grindhouse, casting himself as Rapist No. 1., and he was the first scalped victim in his 2009 groundbreaker, Inglourious Basterds. We eagerly await new Tarantino surprises at year's end when he unleashes Django Unchained, a western that takes on slavery.
When he's not winning Oscars for acting in 2003's Mystic River and 2008's Milk, Sean Penn takes the director's seat and gives his chosen material complete focus. So far, Penn has not tried to direct himself as an actor. He started directing with 1991's The Indian Runner (based on Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman") and 1995's The Crossing Guard. But Penn hit his stride with 2001's The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson as a retired cop tackling one more case. He did his finest, deepest work to date in 2007's Into the Wild, the true story of a college grad (Emile Hirsch) lost in body and mind in the Alaskan wilderness.
People mag's two-time Sexiest Man Alive already has an Oscar for acting, for 2005's Syriana. And he came damn close to catching Academy gold for directing Good Night, and Good Luck in the same year. Clooney debuted behind the camera with 2002's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, suffered a setback with 2008's Leatherheads, and then came back swinging as director and actor in the 2011 political drama, The Ides of March.
The just-opened Argo, a fact-based thriller about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, is already getting raves, not just for Affleck's understated performance as a top CIA extractor, but for his skill at calling the shots. Affleck already showed he had directing chops with 2007's Gone Baby Gone and 2010's The Town, both set in his native Boston. But Argo puts him on a global stage. That sound you hear is Oscar buzzing.