By Matt Singer
If it feels like Russell Crowe is in every movie Ridley Scott directs these days, that’s because he is. After winning a Best Actor Oscar for “Gladiator” in 2000, Crowe reeled off three Scott pictures in three years: 2006’s “A Good Year,” 2007’s “American Gangster” and this year’s “Body of Lies.” And the two are already at it again: Scott recently announced that “Nottingham,” his long-stalled adaptation of the Robin Hood legend, will move forward with Crowe taking on both roles of the legendary archer and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Most of the greatest directors in history have important collaborations with actors who come to be synonymous with their work. Though each partner has had careers apart from one another, they come to represent a single creative entity in our minds: when we imagine a John Ford movie, we think of John Wayne in Monument Valley; when you say Toshiro Mifune, I think of him as Kikuchiyo in “Seven Samurai.” In the best cases, both partners are enriched: working with Clint Eastwood gave Don Siegel some of the most successful movies of his career; working with Don Siegel gave Clint Eastwood one of his most iconic roles and the drive to start his own directing career.
Crowe and Scott’s own collaboration has hit its stride in the last few years, just as several other up-and-coming actor-director combos have been coming into their own. Here’s a look at some of the most promising:
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio
Collaborations: “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed”
To star in films directed by Martin Scorsese, as Leonardo DiCaprio has done three times now — with a fourth, “Shutter Island,” coming next year — is to invite comparisons to Robert De Niro, who made eight pictures with Scorsese, three of which (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas”) are routinely mentioned in any list of the greatest films of their respective decades. Scorsese and De Niro haven’t worked together since 1995’s “Casino” and in that time, DiCaprio has clearly supplanted Bobby D as Scorsese’s go-to leading man. Not coincidentally, a lot of what DiCaprio brings to these performances — high-wattage intensity, a willingness to get ugly (morally and physically) on-screen — are the same things De Niro brought to his. Still, it’s hard to imagine De Niro taking on the role of eccentric billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes, which is why it’s not surprising to learn that the Hughes project belonged to DiCaprio first, with Scorsese coming on board to direct after their initial success with “Gangs of New York.” Even in these early stages, Scorsese’s pairing with DiCaprio has already brought him things the one with De Niro did not: a Best Director Oscar (for “The Departed”) as well as the director’s first two movies to gross over $100 million at the domestic box office.
See also: It appears that De Niro isn’t ready to pass the torch to his young competition just yet. He and Scorsese recently announced plans for their first movie together in over a dozen years: a based-on-truth mob story called “I Heard You Paint Houses.” Then again, DiCaprio is currently attached to two Scorsese projects in the works: “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”
Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen
Collaborations: “Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”
Since he discovered Seth Rogen in Vancouver while casting his cult television series “Freaks and Geeks,” Judd Apatow has cast the burly Canuck in every single project he’s directed, from the “Freaks” follow-up, “Undeclared,” to a key supporting turn in Apatow’s big-screen debut, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and eventually the lead role in last year’s “Knocked Up.” (He also stars in Apatow’s new project, next summer’s “Funny People” with Adam Sandler). Along the way, he’s encouraged Rogen’s own career as a writer, producing the scripts Rogen penned with his writing partner Evan Goldberg for “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.” An auteurist might want to believe that for Apatow, Rogen represents an alter ego for the director, the slovenly secular Jewish, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed guy whose gruff exterior belies his sensitive core. The reality behind the relationship may be a little more practical. “He was just so funny to hang around with, and he would improvise some hilarious lines that no writers could ever come up with,” Apatow told Bullz-Eye.com of Rogen. “He was such a good writer [on ‘Undeclared’] that it was almost embarrassing, because his scripts were better than most everybody else’s scripts, and he was a kid…when I got [“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”], I made him one of the stars so I could… force him to come to set every day and pitch jokes for all the other actors.”
See also: Apatow is one of Hollywood’s most loyal filmmakers in Hollywood, and has built a huge stable of dependable performers including Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Jason Segel, the second actor put on the Seth Rogen track when he got to write his own Apatow-produced vehicle, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
Woody Allen and Scarlett Johansson
Collaborations: “Match Point,” “Scoop,” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona”
Three of the four movies made during Woody’s Allen’s recent European vacation have featured a prominent American character; in all three instances, that character was played by Scarlett Johansson. The three movies have very different tones and themes — “Match Point” is a thriller with moral overtones, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” is a romantic travelogue and “Scoop” a goofy supernatural comedy — but in each film, Johansson’s role is roughly the same: the good-looking girl traveling abroad who enters a world (be it the British aristocracy, the Spanish art scene or journalism’s homicide beat) for which she’s not fully prepared. In the two comedies, her adventures are played for flirty laughs; in the drama, they drive her mad. Ironically, the partnership started almost by accident; Kate Winslet was originally cast in Johansson’s role in “Match Point,” but dropped out just before shooting started to spend more time with her family. Discussing Johansson’s casting with the website Buzzine Allen noted that she was selected initially out of desperation but that he “became totally captivated by her. She was not only beautiful but also bright, amusing, charming and gifted.” He’s promised in many interviews to try to work with her whenever he’s written parts for her, but their affair could be a strictly international one: ScarJo doesn’t appear in Woody’s next picture, a Manhattan-set comedy called “Whatever Works” starring Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood.
See also: Allen clearly prefers working with actors he knows, particularly female ones: Diane Keaton appeared in five of his pictures in the 1970s and a reunion in 1993 (“Manhattan Murder Mystery”) after Allen broke up with his next muse, Mia Farrow, following completion of “Husbands and Wives,” the couple’s 12th consecutive movie together (or 13th, if you count Allen’s contribution to the anthology film, “New York Stories”).
James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix
Collaborations: “The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers”
The cinematic connection between writer/director James Gray and actor Joaquin Phoenix must be inspired by mutual respect and a shared perspective on the creative process, because it’s clearly not about money. The fact that their previous two films together — 2000’s “The Yards” and 2007’s “We Own the Night” — made less than $30 million combined in the United States didn’t stop Gray and Phoenix from reuniting on “Two Lovers,” a romantic drama that premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival to mixed reviews and few interested distributors; its producers, 2929, ultimately gave the movie to its sister company, Magnolia Pictures, who’ll release it in January. Phoenix is Gray’s go-to black sheep; in all three pictures he plays a ne’er-do-well who holds a family’s fate in his hands. Gray needs Phoenix in particular because his films don’t indict these screw-ups, and it takes an actor of Phoenix’s caliber to craft characters we sympathize with even as they continue to disappoint us. In an interview with Cinema Blend, Gray defended Phoenix’s repeat casting even though it hasn’t translated to huge box office success. “I’m not trying say the things I’ve done are as good as this, but I don’t remember anyone telling Martin Scorsese, ‘You shouldn’t work with Robert De Niro again, ‘Raging Bull’ was not a success.’ “
See also: Phoenix’s co-star from both “The Yards” and “We Own the Night,” Mark Wahlberg, another James Gray favorite.
Are there actors and directors that you think bring out the best in one another? Let us know in the comments below.
[Photos: Russell Crowe in “Body of Lies,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008; Leonardo DiCaprio in “Gangs of New York,” Touchstone Pictures, 2002; Seth Rogen in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Universal Pictures, 2005; “Scoop,” Focus Features, 2006; Joaquin Phoenix in “Two Lovers,” 2929 Productions, 2008]