Stars try out a new chair

This week, George Clooney becomes newest A-lister to shout 'Action!'

Having an internationally famous face isn't enough for some movie stars nowadays.

A growing number are moving to the business side of the camera, trading the actor's traditional mantra - "What's my motivation?" - for the chance to yell, "Lights! Camera! Action!"

Denzel Washington, George Clooney, and Nicolas Cage all made their directorial debuts last month. The trend has been around at least since Charlie Chaplin, but it's picking up momentum. Other stars who sat in the director's chair during 2002 include Clint Eastwood, Danny DeVito, Ethan Hawke, Bill Paxton, and Billy Bob Thornton. This year brings Eastwood's "Mystic River" and Robert Duvall's "Assassination Tango," among others.

What's behind the phenomenon? Aside from the gratification of egos - a factor impossible to underestimate in the movie world - two main causes propel it.

One is the increasing degree of clout wielded by popular performers in Hollywood today. Participation by a bankable star may help get a film made, even if that participation takes place behind the camera.

Equally important is the ever-growing prestige of directing as cinema's most significant creative act. Until a few decades ago, moviegoers rarely knew or cared who directed the pictures they saw. Today the directorial heft of a Steven Spielberg or a George Lucas is enough to generate waves of buzz and curiosity. Many actors are eager to grab a share of that cachet.

"It's about self-esteem," says Kevin Lally, editor of Film Journal International.

"It's also about control," he continues. "Actors are afraid people see them as puppets, or commercial products manufactured by their directors. They want to show they're creative, too.

"So some open a restaurant, or start a perfume line with their name on the label. And others make directing deals!"

Directing a movie is the best way to get your personal vision on the screen - if you have a personal vision, as a surprising number of actors apparently do.

Washington, for example, has worked for other directors in films such as "Malcolm X" and "The Hurricane" where race plays a significant role. But his directorial style in "Antwone Fisher" reflects a desire to explore deep social and psychological currents without the showiness and self-congratulation that have marred some of his pictures that were shaped by others.

DeVito has a longtime hankering for dark-toned comedy, and his recent "Death to Smoochy" carries his sardonic worldview to extremes. Hawke is a Hollywood heartthrob with the aspirations of a real artist, and his underrated "Chelsea Walls" has a moody, off-the-cuff style that recalls the films of fellow actor-turned-director John Cassavetes.

And it's possible nobody would have filmed the bizarre "Confessions of Dangerous Mind" if Clooney hadn't fallen in love with it. (See review, this page.) He also plays a supporting role - the government agent who recruits TV host Chuck Barris for a secret life as a CIA assassin - but has the good sense to let Sam Rockwell handle the main character, reserving his own energy for this season's most unusual directorial touches.

The history of actors-turned-directors is almost as old as the movies. Legendary silent-film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton began as stage comedians, then worked their way into Hollywood two-reelers and features. They insisted on increased creative control as their personal popularity - and the profits of their pictures - skyrocketed. Chaplin not only directed and starred in his movies but wrote, produced, and composed the music for them.

Turning from acting to directing isn't an all-male activity, although men tend to dominate it, as they do Hollywood as a whole. Jodie Foster, Barbra Streisand, and Penny Marshall are among current actresses who have directed films such as "Little Man Tate," "The Prince of Tides," and "Big," respectively.

Some actors made occasional visits to the director's chair without choosing to settle down there. Lillian Gish, star of D.W. Griffith classics such as "The Birth of a Nation," used her fame to direct "Remodeling Her Husband" in 1920, but never repeated the experiment. Other one-shot directors include Charles Laughton, whose 1955 "The Night of the Hunter" is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.

A few actors-turned-directors succeeded so brilliantly that they're equally respected in both fields. Orson Welles was a veteran stage director before he started directing himself in masterworks such as "Citizen Kane" and "Touch of Evil." Cassavetes used the money he earned in hits like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Dirty Dozen" to finance artistically daring features such as "Shadows" and "A Woman Under the Influence."

And then there's Woody Allen, so famous for acting, directing, and writing that it's hard to say what his "real" profession is. He even plays movie directors, as in 2002's "Hollywood Ending."

Success stories such as these obscure the fact that audience members paid little attention to directors - giants such as Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra aside - until the 1970s, when the rise of "auteur" criticism encouraged moviegoers to think of good directors as the "authors" of their films.

One example of this change in mind-set came in 1976, at a press conference for "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or, Sitting Bull's History Lesson," a tragicomic western. At the end of the parley, star Paul Newman had garnered hardly a single question - while director Robert Altman was peppered with queries.

The age of auteurs had clearly arrived, and, clever Hollywood player that he is, Newman had already directed three movies, starting with "Rachel, Rachel" in 1968. Among the superstars who've followed in his footsteps are Robert Redford, starting with "Ordinary People" in 1980, and Eastwood, whose prolific directing career began with "Play Misty for Me" in 1971.

Redford and Eastwood belong to the exclusive club of actors-turned-directors who have won Oscars for their work behind the camera, with "Ordinary People" and "Unforgiven," respectively. Others include Kevin Costner for "Dances With Wolves," Mel Gibson for "Braveheart," and Ron Howard for "A Beautiful Mind."

Most actors consider themselves to be accredited experts in acting, the craft they've honed throughout their careers. If nothing else, they reason, taking the directorial reins will allow them to give fellow actors the freedom and flexibility they'd like other directors to give them.

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