When a director throws a cinematic frame around an actor, literally dictating how audiences will see the man or woman caught in the camera’s gaze, that’s real power—and it can be a form of possession. The high-voltage connection—between a filmmaker’s visual imagination and the performer who brings it to life—can be mutually productive, a fertile collaboration that encourages director and actor to be better than they are alone.
Working together again and again may become an act of love or lust, deep friendship, even a form of creative rivalry. Such relationships may continue for years, each film building on previous stories and characterizations, so that every movie is deepened by accumulated meta-cinematic awareness. The movies may literally come to be about the director and actor(s) who make them.
As alter ego or avatar, the actor may serve as a projection of the directorial personality set exhilaratingly free to play in worlds created and populated by the master designer. Or maybe the performer just looks the part, his or her physicality the perfect expression of the director’s chosen genre, visual style or philosophy.
An actress may so capture the director’s imagination that she becomes muse, both the subject of his fictions and object of his desire. Such collaborations can be wildly creative, especially when Galatea challenges her Pygmalion by acting out on her own, upping the ante on aesthetic-sexual tension. On the dark side, such couplings can turn obsessive, even murderous. In cases like these, a movie can become a weapon, a form of assault.
Check out ten of our favorite actor-director collaborations, each of which has produced a host of memorable movies.
1. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton
Tim Burton, wild-haired master of dark, kinky fictions, is nobody’s idea of Johnny Depp’s twin brother. But the intense and quirky actor has become Burton’s doppelganger, projecting the wide eyes, fixed gaze and rictus smile of a vulnerable or deranged innocent abroad, often traumatized by cruel parents, unsuited for the real world. (That look can be traced back to the possessed tot in Burton’s 1982 animated short Vincent.) If Johnny Depp hadn’t existed, Burton would have had to invent him, as Vincent Price does in Edward Scissorhands, perhaps the director’s finest, most personal film. With his gift for shaping exquisite forms, Depp’s androgynously beautiful, pointy-haired naïf might have had the makings of a cinematic genius. His weirdly imaginative “cuts” first make him a star, then an outcast. It’s the Romantic paradigm of the misunderstood artist—or misfit child—eternally out of sync with the philistine masses. Freaks and failures every one, from the cross-dressing Ed Wood, a movie-mad, spectacularly untalented boychik churning out dreck—and resurrecting Dracula—in his studio-playhouse; to Willy Wonka, who, deprived of sweets as a child by a punitive dad, becomes lunatic puppetmaster in a killer eye-candy factory; to vengeful Sweeney, using his barber’s scissors to turn the world into abattoir. Channeling Burton’s sexually and spiritually arrested “children,” forever youthful Depp embodies Scissorhands’ existential dilemma: “I’m not finished.” Safe to say that diagnosis also applies to 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, reborn to play in Burton’s Dark Shadows.