Moviecrazed
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ACTORS WHO REFUSE TO STAY
ON THEIR SIDE OF THE CAMERA

By Guy Flatley



Anybody out there seen "The Brave," Johnny Depp's smashing directorial debut? You know the movie I mean, the one in which Johnny stars as a booze-ravaged American Indian who, in an effort to earn a quick $50,000 for his starving wife and kids, agrees to star in a snuff film that requires him to be tortured to death by a gang of bloodthirsty rednecks. If you did see the movie, you must have been a member of the audience that gasped with disbelief as it unspooled at the l997 Cannes Film Festival--just before it sank into oblivion.

Not that Depp is the only heavyweight performer to be kayoed by the awesome burden of calling the directorial shots. Will all of you who saw Robert De Niro's "A Bronx Tale," Shirley MacLaine's "Bruno," Edward Norton's "Keeping the Faith," Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do!," Kevin Spacey's "Albino Alligator," Anne Bancroft's "Fatso," and Sally Fields' "Beautiful" please raise your hand?

Okay, forget about those duds. Even critically acclaimed crossover projects like Gary Oldman's "Nil by Mouth," Tim Roth's "The War Zone," Jodie Foster's "Little Man Tate," Sean Penn's "The Crossing Guard" and Bill Paxton's "Frailty" played to lonely houses. So what tempts an actor to risk the humiliation of public rejection? Perhaps it's the urge to create something truly personal, a film in which even the smallest detail reflects his unique vision. Or maybe he wants to prove he's not just another pretty face.

Whatever the motivation, there will always be actors eager to follow the path taken by Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and other cinematic icons for whom being a movie star was simply not enough. Here, then, is the latest platoon of actors whose fervent wish is to command:


GEORGE CLOONEY: CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND

The virile, jokey TV idol who graduated to big-screen stardom with such hits as "Out of Sight," "Three Kings," "The Perfect Storm" and "Oceans Eleven" could afford to relax and bask in the glow of public approval. Yet he recently worked up a sweat behind the camera, directing an extremely offbeat comedy-drama which Miramax will open on December 27, in time to qualify for an Oscar.

The dangerous mind of the title belongs to Chuck Barris, who, in his 1996 book, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography," described what we ardently hope was his fictitious double life as the host of a seventies TV program called "The Gong Show" and a CIA hit man known in select circles as Sunny Sixkiller. Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Human Nature") did the adaptation and Sam Rockwell, considered by insiders to be a superstar waiting to happen because of his brazen scene-stealing in "The Green Mile," "Charlie's Angels" and "Heist," landed the plum role of the lethally tricky Barris. And speaking of double lives, Clooney himself will be seen as the CIA agent who coaxes Barris to play the assassination game.

Aside from George Clooney, could it be that this first-time director had trouble snaring box-office champs for his movie? Yes...unless you consider Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts big names. And, by the way, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon also show up as contestants on "The Gong Show."


DENZEL WASHINGTON: THE ANTWONE FISHER STORY

If Washington can win two Oscars for his controlled yet explosive emoting, why shouldn't he win one for his directing? We'll know what his chances are on December 20, when Fox Searchlight releases "The Antwone Fisher Story."

Who's Antwone Fisher? He's a U.S. Navy veteran who was ordered to seek help from a military shrink because of his fierce conflicts with shipmates. The root of Antwone's problem was a childhood marked by horrific abuse and a deep sense of unworthiness. In one orphanage after another, he spent his time wondering why his parents had abandoned him. Fisher finally found the answer to that question and today he is a successful writer, having penned the autobiographical "Finding Fish," which he then turned into the screenplay for "The Antwone Fisher Story." Newcomer Derek Luke plays Fisher, and director Washington had the good sense to cast himself in the role of the psychiatrist who leads the young man to emotional freedom.


JOHN MALKOVICH: THE DANCER UPSTAIRS

Being John Malkovich these days means being a highly acclaimed actor who is also a highly acclaimed director--at least, at Sundance, where audiences cheered "The Dancer Upstairs," the ambitious film that marks his directorial debut. Tentatively set to open before the year's end, this tough, uncompromising political drama, adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own novel, stars Javier Bardem as an idealistic police investigator battling corruption and terrorism in an unidentified Latin American country that looks an awful lot like Peru.

Unlike so many actor-directors who cannot resist the temptation to play both sides of the camera in the same movie, Malkovich does not appear in "The Dancer Upstairs." But you can catch him acting his heart out this fall in "Savage Souls," "Ripley's Game" and "Knockaround Guys."


CHRIS ROCK: HEAD OF STATE

Rock, an actor whose knockout work in "Dogma" and "Nurse Betty" was shockingly underrated, may finally gain the respect he deserves for "Head of State." Not only does Rock star in the DreamWorks comedy, which he co-wrote with Ali Leroy, but he also directs himself in what could be the weightiest role of his career. What's the role? The President of the United States. Or, at least the Presidential candidate, chosen by the Democratic Party to run when their first choice suffers a sudden demise. All we can say is, "Watch out, W!"


CHRISTINA RICCI: THE SPEED QUEEN

The mystery is, how can Christina Ricci find time to step behind the camera, since she's in virtually every movie currently playing or scheduled for release ("The Laramie Project," "Pumpkin," "Prozac Nation," "Borgia"). Yet the actress who blossomed from a strikingly offbeat child star to an even more strikingly offbeat adult star is determined to direct "The Speed Queen," which has been described as a dark comedy about a woman on death row. No word yet on whether Ricci will play the demanding lead role. But can anyone seriously doubt it?


MATT DILLON: CITY OF GHOSTS

Over a period of 23 years, the indecently handsome Dillon has established himself as a solid, if not exactly mega, star in films ranging from "Over the Edge" to "Tex," "The Flamingo Kid," "Drugstore Cowboy," "To Die For" and "There's Something About Mary." Now he makes the jump to movie director with this UA/MGM thriller in which he plays a shady character on the lam from the law. Hiding out in Cambodia (where the film was shot), he falls in with a questionable crowd and gets shadier--and more thickly in trouble--than he's ever been. Along for the risky ride: Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, Gerard Depardieu and James Caan (who took his own shot at directing with the quite respectable "Hide in Plain Sight," back in 1980.)



CHARLES S. DUTTON: AGAINST THE ROPES

Dutton, one of America's most distinguished character actors, steps out of character to distinguish himself as a feature film director (having already taken home an Emmy for his direction of the miniseries, "The Corner"). "Against the Ropes," based on the real-life story of Jackie Kallen, stars Meg Ryan as a never-say-t.k.o. promoter responsible for turning boxer James Toney--acted by Omar Epps--into a lord of the ring. Keep an eye out for the modest Dutton, in a small but inevitably well-played role, and terrific Tony Shalhoub (who makes his own directorial debut later this year with "Made-Up").


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