Behind every great movie, there’s a team of dedicated, talented artists who work together tirelessly to produce a product that they hope critics and audiences will embrace. When an actor and director develop a rapport onscreen and off, they can develop a working relationship that is mutually beneficial.
What constitutes a successful actor-director pairing? It can be movies that generate widespread critical acclaim, resulting in a busy awards season, or a big-budget blockbuster that raises both of their profiles and popularity, paving the way for lengthy careers. Sometimes it’s both. Here are 15 of the best actor-director duos to have ever taken Hollywood by storm.
15. John Hughes and Molly Ringwald
John Hughes may be better known for his work as a writer, having penned 47(!) movies, including the likes of Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Plains, Trains & Automobiles. Hughes did direct eight films, working with some comedic heavyweights and discovering fresh faces who he turned into major stars (most members of the infamous “Brat Pack”). But it’s a redhead with infamously pouty lips, Molly Ringwald, who headlined two of his most popular and enduring films.
Sixteen Candles (1984) wasn’t Ringwald’s film début, but it was her first starring role. It was also Hughes first foray into the angst-y world of coming-of-age films that would become his seminal work. Hughes chose Ringwald over Ally Sheedy to play the role of Samantha “Sam” Baker, whose family forgets her 16th birthday. The film’s budget was $6.5 million, and it generated over $23 million. Hughes and Ringwald’s next film, The Breakfast Club (1985), which Hughes shot for roughly $1 million dollars, garnered a domestic gross of over $45 million. The movie has been recognized by The New York Times and Empire magazine as one of the best movies ever made. It was the last time Hughes directed Ringwald, but later that year, she went on to star in Pretty in Pink (1986) which was written by Hughes. This role solidified her standing as a teen icon.
14. James Cameron and Bill Paxton
James Cameron first cast Bill Paxton in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as the leader of a punk street gang in The Terminator (1984). Two years later, Paxton landed a much more high-profile role in Aliens, playing a jarhead doing battle alongside Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) against the parasitic space monsters. Paxton provided much-needed comic relief in the otherwise somber film (“Game over, man!”). Paxton’s next pairing with Cameron was in True Lies (1994) as Simon, a lecherous car salesman trying to seduce the bored wife (Jaime Lee Curtis) of a secret agent (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Although Paxton has been relegated to supporting roles in his Cameron outings, he’s a solid character actor and can shift seamlessly from comedy to action to drama.
Having a buddy who’s an ambitious filmmaker pays off when he casts you in one of the highest grossing films of all time. Paxton plays a treasure hunter searching for the Heart of the Ocean diamond worn by star-crossed lover Rose (Kate Winslet) in Titanic (1997). Paxton’s best work is not necessarily Cameron related (Big Love, A Simple Plan, Frailty), but he gets a piece of cinema blue-chip stock every time he signs onto a Cameron extravaganza.
13. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost/Edgar Wright
Simon Pegg got his acting start in British television series such as Asylum, Faith in the Future and Big Train. It was during this time that Pegg met Edgar Wright, with whom he worked with on Asylum. In 1999, Pegg penned a comedy show, Spaced, including a part for his friend, Nick Frost, and Wright directed. Penn and Wright took their professional relationship to the next level when they co-wrote the script for the comedy-horror film Shaun of the Dead (2004), in which Pegg stars as an aimless salesman, Shaun, whose personal life is a disaster area, and Frost plays his slacker best friend, Ed. The two prove surprisingly resourceful when London becomes ground zero for a zombie apocalypse. The film was the first in a series known as the Three Flavors Cornetto (Blood and Ice Cream) Trilogy, all written by Pegg and Wright, directed by Wright and starring Pegg and Frost. The films are witty, satirical and explore the inner-workings of an emotionally stunted male mind.
Shaun of the Dead was a huge hit critically both overseas and in the US, and it was nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award (BAFTA). In 2007, Time named it one of the Best 25 Horror Films and singled out Wright as a director to watch. Hot Fuzz (2007), the second Cornetto film, has Pegg and Nash playing cops in a normally small, sleepy English hamlet whose residents begin getting mysteriously murdered. The final Cornetto film, The World’s End (2013), follows a group of friends trying to complete an ambitious pub crawl in spite of their town being besieged by aliens. Both Fuzz and World’s End received favorable reviews. Pegg has emerged as the greatest international success story of the three friends, appearing in a slew of films and co-writing the latest Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, though we hope the trio has more team-up projects planned for the future.
12. Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy
Before Bridesmaids (2011), Melissa McCarthy was probably best known for her TV roles on Gilmore Girls and Mike and Molly. Paul Feig’s movie about the misadventures of a hapless maid-of-honor served as McCarthy’s big-screen breakout. McCarthy embraced the role of a bulky bridesmaid with a masculine energy and a love of dogs, and teh film became perhaps the biggest out-of-nowhere hit of 2011. McCarthy went on to team up with Feig again for the buddy cop film, Heat (2013), in which she portrayed a slovenly and vulgar detective opposite Sandra Bullock’s buttoned-down FBI agent. The film grossed over $159 million dollars domestically, and Feig proved that a movie starring a less-than-conventional comedic actress was not only marketable but could also be wildly successful.
McCarthy never seems to do as well in movies when Feig isn’t at the helm (Identity Theft, Tammy), and she continues to be his leading lady of choice. The twosome’s most ambitious and high-profile movie together, the all-female remake of Ghostbusters, hits theaters this July.
11. Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant
Alfred Hitchcock worked with several high profile stars on multiple films (Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, etc.) but the Master of Suspense’s favorite leading man was Cary Grant. The actor and director made four films together over the span of 20 years: Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959). Hitchcock has been quoted as saying that Grant is the only actor he ever loved. It’s rumored Hitchcock even delayed filming on North by Northwest until Jimmy Stewart was committed to another project, leaving the director open to cast his first choice, Grant.
All four collaborations between the director and actor were financial and critical successes, and they all received Academy Award nominations, although oddly enough, none were for Grant or Hitchcock. Grant was an established box-office draw before working with Hitchcock, thanks to some great screwball and romantic comedies, though Grant’s films with Hitchcock remain standouts.
10. Christopher Guest and Fred Willard
This is Spinal Tap (1984) director, writer and star, Christopher Guest, has a core group of talented comedians who are his go-to guys and gals every time he makes a film: Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Jennifer Coolidge, just to name a few. Guest’s films don’t generate massive ticket sales, but they often become cult classics. Fred Willard has worked on six of Guest’s films, eclipsing everyone on the director’s usual roster except McKean (also appearing in a resounding six).
Whether Willard’s playing a wildly inappropriate commentator for a dog show (Best in Show), a travel agent with acting aspirations (Waiting for Guffman), or the manager to some second-rate folk singers (A Mighty Wind), Willard delivers. Guest’s films are very collaborative since his scripts only give scenes and character backgrounds, allowing his actors to improvise the rest. Willard received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Guffman in 1996 and a Boston Film Critics Award for Show in 2000.
9. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell
The 1980s produced a lot of iconic big-screen action stars: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, and Harrison Ford just to name a few. Less widely acknowledged is Kurt Russell. In 1981, Escape From New York director John Carpenter campaigned for Russell to get the leading role of Snake Plissken over more established actors like Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones. Russell was eager to make the jump from a squeaky-clean Disney poster boy to a bad-ass convict with an eye patch, and he jumped at the chance to play Plissken, a stoic anti-hero. His character is forced to rescue the President of the United States after he escapes Air Force One, only to land in the middle of Manhattan, which has become a maximum security prison.
Carpenter went on to cast Russell as a helicopter pilot fighting an alien against the desolate Antarctic backdrop in The Thing (1982). The film didn’t perform well at the box office, competing against E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner. The Thing developed a cult following, and mainstream critics now consider The Thing one of the best horror movies ever made, a true cult classic. Russell and Carpenter made two other action films together, including a sequel to Escape From New York, but the duo weren’t able to replicate the formula that made their earlier films so memorable.
8. Wes Anderson and Bill Murray
When young director Wes Anderson secured Bill Murray to star in his second feature film, Rushmore (1998), it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Murray doesn’t have a reputation for being warm and fuzzy, and the actor has admitted he can be “difficult” to work with. Anderson writes roles with Murray in mind, gives the guy creative carte blanche and surrounds Murray with actors with whom he clicks on-screen and off.
Thanks to Anderson, Murray has received critical acclaim for playing richly-written characters in films such as Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). Here’s hoping for even more collaborations in the future.
7. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton may go down in history as two of the most amicable exes ever — their working relationship began after the actress and director ended their five-year romance. Allen directed Keaton in six films during the 70s starting with Sleeper (1973) and ending with Manhattan (1979), and he often cited Keaton as his muse during his early career.
Their most successful collaboration was of course the cinematic classic, Annie Hall (1977), a romantic comedy chronicling the complicated love affair between two neurotic New Yorkers. The title character was loosely based on Keaton, a factoid which helped Annie Hall become a critical and box-office hit. The movie garnered four Oscar nominations, and Keaton won for Best Leading Actress and the movie for Best Picture. The two haven’t worked together in years (having briefly united for one more collaboration in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery), but if they ever reunite, we’ll be the first ones in line.
6. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have made a staggering nine films together, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to tell where the pasty makeup ends and Depp begins. Depp has played a homicidal barber, the eccentric owner of a magical candy factory, a squeamish constable and a lovesick vampire. Burton has a distinctive point of view, and his films are vibrant, imaginative and visually breathtaking. He’s dabbled in multiple genres, from animated films to comedy to sci-fi to horror, and Depp is just as versatile. The actor even belted out show tunes for his longtime collaborator for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).
Burton and Depp also deliver at the box office: Sleepy Hollow ($206 million), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ($475 million), and Alice in Wonderland (over a $1 billion) are all considered major successes, and several other of the pairs collaborations have scored big financially. We’re sure we haven’t seen the last of these two.
5. David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence
By the time Jennifer Lawrence starred opposite Bradley Cooper in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012), she had already earned one Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in Winter’s Bone (2010) and snagged the lead in the film adaptations of the wildly popular YA books, The Hunger Games trilogy so she was already well on her way to stardom. Playing the over-sexed and socially awkward widow, Tiffany, Lawrence’s first film with Russell was a chance for the actress to tackle a more adult role. Playbook received eight Academy Award nominations, and Lawrence walked away with her first Oscar win (Best Actress).
The second outing for the twosome was American Hustle (2013), for which Lawrence earned another Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actress) for playing the emotionally unstable wife of a con man (Christian Bale). The period crime drama/comedy was a big hit at the box office as well, racking up over $250 million before all was said and done. Russell then cast Lawrence in a role that further showcased her versatility in their third film together, Joy, which wasn’t quite the success of their other team-ups, but it did score Lawrence another Oscar nomination. This pairing may have the brightest future of any on our list, so keep your eye on these two.
4. Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in over 150 films in every conceivable genre, and in that time, he’s gotten to work with some extraordinary talents, including Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese. It must be said, though, that his most fruitful partnership is with director Quentin Tarantino. The two have made seven films together, starting with True Romance (1993), a film Tarantino wrote but did not direct.
Jackson stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), where he played hitman Jules Winnfield, a shockingly secular professional badass who likes to quote scripture one minute and shoot people the next. Tarantino wrote the part with Jackson in mind, although a lackluster audition nearly cost him the role. Pulp Fiction resulted in Jackson’s first and only Oscar nomination in his storied acting career. Pulp Fiction became the first independent film to gross over $100 million dollars and remains a critical darling.
Jackson went on to appear in Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill (2003), Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015). Tarantino supposedly will only make two more films before calling it a career, so it seems a safe bet that Jackson will appear in at least one more film with his favorite director.
3. The Coen Brothers and Frances McDormand
When it comes to movie making, McDormand and husband Joel Coen mix business with pleasure. The couple married in 1984, the same year Joel and his brother and directing partner, Ethan, released their first film, Blood Simple. The film stars McDormand as Abby, a modern-day femme fatale in a neo-noir thriller. In the Coen brothers second film, Raising Arizona (1987), McDormand has a small part as a busybody homemaker and mother to a small horde of demon spawn. McDormand teamed up with the Coens again for Fargo (1996), playing Marge Gunderson, a pregnant, small town sheriff who finds herself involved in a murder investigation. Marge is a mild-mannered Minnesotan who punctuates her sentences with a lot of “Oh, yahs?” and “Yah don’t say?” with an unforgettable regional accent. The film didn’t kill it at the box office, but did receive rave reviews and was nominated for seven Oscars. McDormand won for Best Actress and the Coens for Best Screenplay.
McDormand has gone on to become a powerhouse actress in her own right, being one of the few actors to ever win an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony. She’s also continued to appear in several Coen brothers’ films: The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Burn After Reading (2008) and Hail, Caesar! (2016).
2. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio
This pair of cinematic legends simply clicked from day one, and the pair embarked on a creative journey that has spanned five films. Their first, Gangs of New York (2002), is an unwieldy opus about the bitter gang rivalries in the New York cultural cauldron, Five Points, that took place in the mid 19th century. The movie earned 10 Oscar nominations and was DiCaprio’s first significant role since Titanic. With Gangs, DiCaprio distanced himself as much as artistically possible from the worldwide blockbuster and prevented himself from being typecast in similar fare. The Aviator (2004), a biopic about Howard Hughes, and The Departed (2006), for which Scorsese finally scored a gold statue for directing, followed. In the latter, an acclaimed crime drama, DiCaprio plays a cop who goes undercover to infiltrate an Irish mob boss’ (Jack Nicholson) inner circle.
Shutter Island (2010) came next, and the duo’s fourth film remains their most profanity-ridden, debaucherous and disturbing piece of work: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). We can’t imagine these two managing to outdo what they’ve already done, but we can’t wait to see them try.
1. Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro
The most prestigious actor-director pairing of all time is a bit of a no-brainer. Scorsese and DeNiro have not only made nine films together, but several of those films are considered the greatest of all time. Scorsese’s early films were gritty crime dramas, often criticized for being overly violent. In Taxi Driver (1976), DeNiro plays the depressed loner Travis Bickle, a NYC cab driver turned vigilante. The film earned four Oscar nods. Raging Bull (1980), a biographical drama about middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, whose life implodes due to his inability to control his rage, soon followed. DeNiro spends the film either simmering , building to the inevitable boiling over, or giving in to every violent impulse. Raging Bull was nominated for eight Oscars. DeNiro won for Best Actor, and many fans, directors and critics have hailed the film as Scorsese’s greatest artistic achievement.
Scorsese and DeNiro’s other prolific films include Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) which earned a combined seven Academy Award nominations. There’s no topping these two legends, and we hope we haven’t seen their last on-screen collaboration.
Think we missed a great actor-director pairing? Let us know who you think should have made the list in the comments section.
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