Who Will be the Next Great Actor-Director Combo?

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 28 2011 2:38 PM

The Next Scorsese and De Niro? Another Generation Pairs Off

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Screenwriter Steve McQueen (L) and actor Michael Fassbender (R) pose on arrival at the 3rd Annual Governors Awards in Hollywood on November 12, 2011 in southern California.

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Woody Harrelson is attracting Oscar buzz for Rampart, his second movie in a row with Oren Moverman, which opened Wednesday. Shame is the second collaboration between Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen (it opens Friday), and a third Fassbender-McQueen project is on the way. Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn, who fell into what could only be described as a bromance while making Drive, have already announced that they’re working together on a revenge flick called Only God Forgives as well as a remake of Logan’s Run. Take Shelter, which came out this fall, is the second collaboration between Michael Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nichols, and their third movie together is in post-production.

It’s as if a slow dance has come over the PA for a new batch of Hollywood talent: Actors and directors are beginning to pair off. The tradition of the great actor-director pairing is a venerable one: Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, John Ford and John Wayne. Even William Shakespeare had his Richard Burbage. But the actor-director pair that looms over the present is, of course, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro—aka The Collaborators So Famous They Got Their Own Wikipedia Page.

In the most fruitful actor-director collaborations, each artist challenges the other; they may even drive each other a little nuts. Think Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, whose fraught relationship Herzog chronicled in the documentary My Best Fiend. Despite repeated, mutual threats to kill each other (Herzog reportedly planned to firebomb Kinski’s house), the team managed to make a streak of classic films, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. De Niro and Scorsese similarly pushed each other into doing their best and often edgiest work; it’s hard to imagine another duo that could have pulled off Taxi Driver.

It takes more than talent and chemistry to manage a run of movies like that: We might need a new New Hollywood before we have another match as exciting as Scorsese and De Niro. But these new teams seem promising. While it’s hard to know with such young directors what sort of films they might otherwise be making, so far these combos—more so than recent big-name pairings like Scorsese and DiCaprio or Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe—appear bent on pushing each other into new cinematic territory.

You don’t have to be young, either: Woody Harrelson had been doing movies for nearly a quarter-century before teaming up with Oren Moverman. And, to add one last twosome, veterans Viggo Mortensen and David Cronenberg have found unexpected new life in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and now A Dangerous Method. Cronenberg and Mortensen have also expressed interest in filming a sequel to Eastern Promises—while also voicing concern about retreading old territory (an encouraging sign).

And as long as I’m discussing film veterans, I should mention one dark-horse candidate for the next Scorsese-De Niro team: Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. The two have long planned to reunite for The Irishman.

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One disappointment with this new crop? They are, once again, mostly boys’ clubs. There have been many notable actress-director combos, of course; recent ones include Tilda Swinton and Derek Jarman, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, and Woody Allen and his various muses. Perhaps Lars Von Trier and Charlotte Gainsbourg will continue their collaboration—and Laura Dern hopes to drag David Lynch back to directing. But, for whatever reason, many of the best female directors—Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, et al.—have preferred to cast a wider net.

What do you think? Could any of these new dynamic duos dethrone the Italian-American heavyweights? Which pair are you most excited to follow?

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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