MANY actors aren't content with acting nowadays. They want to direct, as well, and more of them are doing it all the time. A recent issue of Variety, the entertainment trade newspaper, featured page-1 photos of four Hollywood stars who have moved behind the camera lately: Kevin Costner, Jodie Foster, Dan Aykroyd, and Sean Penn. What's behind the trend? According to Lawrence Cohn, who observes the film industry for Variety, it's part of a larger tendency for studios to hire first-time directors of all kinds, from technicians trained in TV commercials to novices fresh out of film school. One reason is the cost - up to $6 million - of signing a director who's already established. Another is the comparatively young age of many production chiefs, who like to work with directors of their own generation. As for big stars who turn their hands to directing, many have long dreamed of sitting behind the camera, and use their contract-signing clout to make the wish come true.
Is it a good idea for actors to direct their own pictures? If the actor happens to be Orson Welles or John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, the answer is obviously yes. In other cases the situation is different: Gene Wilder did little to advance the art of cinema (or his own career) by directing ``The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother,'' for example, and Prince's directorial efforts have not pleased as many fans as his singing has.
The current on-screen example of a star-cum-director is Mr. Costner, who directed himself in ``Dances With Wolves,'' a western with large ambitions and an even larger running time - about three hours, much longer than the screenplay or even the fabulous North Dakota scenery manage to justify.
Although the movie isn't entirely successful, Costner has approached it with intellectual and emotional sincerity, as well as a first-rate technical crew capable of translating his ideas into well-crafted images. Costner shows real promise as a guide for his fellow performers, and even as a visual stylist with a penchant for broad vistas and sweeping bursts of action. What he needs to boost his directing career still higher is a strong producer who'll tell him to do some trimming the next time he falls in love with a long, long script.
In addition to directing, Costner gives a solid performance in ``Dances With Wolves,'' playing a disillusioned Civil War soldier who takes over an isolated outpost on the frontier and becomes intimately involved with his Sioux neighbors. The screenplay, written by Michael Blake from his own novel, follows the tradition of ``Cheyenne Autumn'' and other revisionist westerns that paint sympathetic portraits of American Indian life, making up for decades of grossly insensitive and often positively racist Hollywood treatment.
``Dances With Wolves'' has its own problems in the race department, implying that it's more ``natural'' for a white man to love a white woman (the script conveniently provides one) than to love an Indian woman. In other ways, though, it allows its native American characters full dignity - more than most of the white people, in fact - and one of them, brilliantly played by Graham Greene, emerges as the film's most interesting figure.
``Dances With Wolves'' is lucidly designed and photographed by Jeffrey Beecroft and Dean Semler, respectively. Only the familiar-sounding music score by John Barry seems inadequate. The picture is rated PG-13, reflecting a few scenes of western-style violence.