Usually, directors are behind the scenes, spinning their vision into a movie. But they don’t always stay there. Occasionally, they’ll appear on screen. Sometimes, it can be a leading role. Other times, it’s merely a cameo. Here are ten great acting performances by directors in the films of others.
Fritz Lang as Fritz Lang, Contempt
Lang’s films- especially his silent films- are some of the best movies ever made. But before I’d ever seen a single film that he directed, I saw him playing the director in the film within Godard’s film, Contempt. How’s that for post-modern cinema? A director acting in a film in the role of… a director. Making it even more off-kilter, he didn’t even play a fictional director. He played himself, and it was precisely what the movie called for.
Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Steven Spielberg has a profound respect for cinema. In particular, he has a profound respect for Truffaut. So is it any wonder at all that when Spielberg needed a French-speaking scientist in one of his best early films, he’d choose Truffaut?
John Huston as Noah Cross, Chinatown
Huston must have had a soft spot for the new group of directors that crashed the Hollywood party in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Huston possessed the same rebellious streak that they did. And so he appeared across from Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski’s masterpiece. In the end, he wound up playing one of the all-time great villains.
Using DeMille gave the film an excellent touch of reality. And his presence allowed us to learn so much more about just how precipitous the fall from grace had been for Norma Desmond. DeMille was one of three actors in the film with directorial credits, along with Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim. Choosing one out of the three to include was not an easy task.
Steven Spielberg as Cook County Assessor’s Office Clerk, The Blues Brothers
I hadn’t seen The Blues Brothers for a great long while when I watched it a few years ago. And my jaw just about hit the floor when I recognized the office clerk. Take another look, just in case you weren’t aware of this little bit of cinematic fun.
After trekking cross-country in the hopes of becoming rich and famous, Kermit and the gang arrive at the film studio. They finagle their way around the secretary to find… Orson Welles. Upon meeting Kermit, he then instructs the secretary to “prepare the standard rich and famous contract”. If only life were that simple. Mel Brooks, another director, also had a role as Dr. Max Krassman.
Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
There’s so much makeup and costume around him that you can barely recognize him. But he’s in there. The voice is a dead giveaway.
When Ingmar Bergman was a child, the films of Victor Sjöström inspired him to become a filmmaker in his own right. In fact, meeting Sjöström was an integral part of the early development of Bergman’s capabilities. And so Bergman turned to Sjöström to star in his Wild Strawberries.
Corman influenced a great deal of directors. He had such an influence that James Cameron refers to it as graduating from “the Roger Corman Film School”. As such, many of his protegés have given him cameo roles in many of their own films, including everything from The Godfather: Part II to The Howling. Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs is one of the higher profile films on the Corman cameo list.
It wasn’t much of a role at all. He only appeared for millisecond in the middle of one of Edgar Wright’s brilliant montages detailing Sgt. Nicholas Angel’s career as a policeman. But I burst out laughing in the theater when I saw it, not knowing that it was Peter Jackson. The still image of Santa Claus knifing a cop in the hand gets me every time. I’ve gotten more laughter in my lifetime out of that one image than I have a whole lot of respectably funny films.