The best and worst actors’ directorial debuts

As Ryan Gosling’s Lost River opens this weekend, we take a look at some great, and not so great, first attempts of actors in the director’s chair

This weekend sees the release of Lost River, the noir fantasy thriller that marks Ryan Gosling’s first foray behind the camera.


The film has garnered pretty mixed reviews so far, with several focusing on its muddled narrative. 

With last week’s release of The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe seemed to fare slightly better, with The Guardian citing the “emotional truth at its core that is both wholesome and compelling.”

Next week Alan Rickman’s second directorial effort, the period comedy romance A Little Chaos, will also open in UK cinemas.

It seems these days that more and more actors are looking to get into that director’s chair in order to share their visions with us. While this can sometimes be a splendid thing to behold, it doesn’t always work.

The transition from acting to directing is not as simple as you (or they) might think. Both are forms of storytelling, but require totally different skills and disciplines.

To celebrate the crop of actors-turned-directors, here’s a quick look back at some of the best and worst examples of this mixing of crafts. To keep it simple (and fair) we will only consider the directorial debuts and not full careers as a whole. 

The best

Clint Eastwood – Play Misty for Me (1971)

Clint has gone from ‘Man with No Name’ to Oscar winning director in a 44-year career behind the camera. However, for everyone there is a first time and it all started here with this superbly crafted psychological thriller, a precursor to Fatal Attraction, about a local radio show DJ who begins to regret the fling he’s had with an obsessive fan.

What the critics said:

Writing in 1971, Roger Ebert, the renowned film critic for the Chicago sun Times, wrote that for Eastwood’s debut, “It was a good beginning. He must have learned a lot during seventeen years of working for other directors,” adding “There is no wasted energy. Everything contributes to the accumulation of terror, until even the ordinary, daytime scenes seem to have unspeakable things lurking beneath them.”

Robert Redford – Ordinary People (1980)

Redford won an Oscar for his directorial debut about the dark side of suburban middle class family life, a feat shared by only one other actor on the list, Kevin Costner. That was quite a triumph for the star famed for his matinee idol looks. Who knew he had the creative chops to boot. He went on to helm a string of movies, including A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show (earning another Oscar nomination) and The Horse Whisperer. The main force behind the Sundance Film Festival since its creation in 1978, Redford continues to be a champion of independent cinema.

What the critics said:

Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, stated that: “It is a moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them. Not since Robert Benton’s ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ has there been a movie that so effectively catches the look, sound and temper of a particular kind of American existence.”

Kevin Costner – Dances With Wolves (1990)

Like Redford, Costner also made that successful transition from handsome leading man to Oscar-winning director in his first attempt. Costner starred as a soldier who is captured by American Indians on an isolated outpost, only to befriend them and come to understand their side of the story. He has since returned to the Western genre with Open Range, but it was this subversive take on it from behind the camera for which he will always be remembered.

What the critics said:

In The Washington Post, Hal Hinson praises Costner, citing him as having “the moviemaker’s fire in his gut. What he also possesses is a born storyteller’s instinct for engaging his audience. Costner makes the story accessible without cheapening it; he’s accessible in the best and purest sense in that his intention is always to find the telling human detail that draws us inside his sprawling saga.”

Sean Penn  The Indian Runner (1991)

Just as Penn was developing into an acting force to be reckoned with, he wrote and directed this spectacular drama, demonstrating the breadth of his talent. The story of a Vietnam vet’s return home and the subsequent conflict he encounters with his brother was the first of several wonderful films he has helmed, the finest arguably being The Pledge, featuring one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest performances.    

What the critics said:

Writing a retrospective for the Guardian, Rowan Righelato, writes that the film “is full of beautifully observed moments”, adding: “is to be treasured for its ambition to offer us a true reflection of ourselves, with all our flaws. And finally, for the hope inherent in that act – that from it we might learn to live a little better.”

Ben Affleck – Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Another handsome leading man (notice the trend developing here) who has made a smooth transition to directing, Affleck joined the Oscar ranks two years ago for his handling of Iranian hostage thriller Argo. For his debut Gone Baby Gone, Affleck also demonstrated his command over a tight, smart detective thriller.

What the critics said:

“It’s a major directorial debut from Affleck, successfully combining the elements of a smart, intriguing police procedural with a distinctive Bostonian flavour and the psychological sophistication and moral complexity that distinguish the very best mystery thrillers,” writes Angie Errigo in her review for Empire Magazine. 

Honourable mentions

Richard Attenborough – Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) 

Tim Robbins  Bob Roberts (1992) 

Robert De Niro – A Bronx Tale (1993)

Ralph Fiennes – Coriolanus (2011) 


And now for the worst…