Finding good actors can be hard, as can working with people you don’t want to punch in the face, which is probably why certain directors find actors they like to return to time and time again. In joy for the return of Martin Scorsese and bestie Robert De Niro, we list the best director-actor collaborations. These are the special collaborations where the actor has been a minimum of three films by the director, not including series of films.
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON & PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), The Master (2012)
Essential Work: The Master, Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd
One of the great actors of the past fifty years had a fruitful relationship with one of cinema’s true artists. Their final collaborations resulted in an Oscar nomination for Hoffman, and cemented him as one of the true greats.
His turn as cultish leader Lancaster Dodd is a performance filled with nuance and tragedy, despite the more sinister elements of his personality. It’s a powerful performance in a film that is given the time to breathe. A masterful work.
WES ANDERSON & BILL MURRAY
Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Isle of Dogs (2018), The French Dispatch (TBA)
Essential Work: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Murray as Steve Zissou
Murray is a notoriously a strange man who doesn’t use an agent only an answerphone that you pitch your role. By this point all Anderson need say is “hey it’s Wes, call me” and he’ll do the movie. Perhaps best of their collaborations is Murray’s leading role in The Life Aquatic as sea faring oceanographer Steve Zissou, filled with the usual humour and heart he can bring to the roles, it also showcases both of their offbeat styles that compliment one another perfectly.
INGMAR BERGMAN & MAX VON SYDOW
The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), Brink of Life (1958), Rabies (1958), The Magician (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), The Touch (1971)
Essential Work: The Seventh Seal, von Sydow as Antonius Black
The first collaboration that spawned some brilliant works happens to be a masterclass in tension, art and how to perfectly tell a story both emotional and metaphysical. A knight who plays a game against Death is both a meditation on life and death but also allows von Sydow to show his prowess as a leading man, phrase his best performance – better even that The Exorcist – von Sydow dominates the screen even against the terrifying spectre of Death.
JOHN CARPENTER & KURT RUSSELL
Elvis (1979), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Escape from L.A. (1996)
Essential Work: The Thing, Russel as R.J. MacReady
So huge and hairy he looks like a bear, Russell is the man in Carpenter’s cult classic masterpiece. A shapeshifting alien could be anyone, but Russell is on the case at an isolated ice station, and when the body horror begins Russell maintains his cool even when the goo goes mad and the fan gets shitty. Perhaps a case of a film people didn’t understand at the time since it flopped, but it’s dark oppressive atmosphere is clearly something that the leading man has no problem navigating. The role that would follow him and director for years.
JOEL & ETHAN COEN & FRANCES MCDORMAND
Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Burn After Reading (2008), Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Essential Work: Fargo, McDormand as Marge Gunderson
Now admittedly this one works because McDormand is married to one of the Brothers Coen (Joel, the older taller one), but she had described how both are two different people who have their own working methodology. In Marge Gunderson McDormand won her first of two Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Gunderson is a pregnant lawman trying to find out what’s going on with these “execution type things”, the film is easily one of the Coen’s best, it’s hilarious and dark at the same time and McDormand has always fit so well in those worlds.
JOEL & ETHAN COEN & JOHN GOODMAN
Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Essential Work: The Big Lebowski, Goodman as Walter Sobchak
A tie between Walter and his not-so nice guy act in Barton Fink but Walter wins because of his quite ability and how great Goodman is in the role. The Big Lebowski is certainly one of the more popular Coen films, filled with bizarre characters and the sight of Goodman who until then essentially traded in playing working class nice guys delivering lines like “shut the fuck up, this isn’t ‘Nam this is bowling there are rules” as well as smashing a car up proclaiming “this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass” are some stand out moments. There was little awards glory from the Academy for Goodman, and this film serves as a prime Supporting Actor role if ever there was one.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO & RON PERLMAN
Cronos (1993), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Pacific Rim (2013)
Essential Work: Hellboy, Perlman as Hellboy / Anung un Rama
The legend goes that when Del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola got together to discuss the movie they both had someone in mind for the lead role, one the count of three they were both to say the name of the actor and both said Ron Perlman. Perlman is perfect as the right hand of doom wielding slacker turned reluctant hero.
Del Toro and Perlman work well because of Perlman’s working man ethic and Del Toro’s realistic take on the fantastical, that in playing Hellboy (beating the studios preferred choice of Vin Diesel) he crafted easily one of Del Toro’s best characters is no small praise considering his line to lover Liz Sherman “i’ll always look this good” was how Del Toro himself courted his wife.
FRANK CAPRA & JAMES STEWART
You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Essential Work: Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart as Jefferson “Jeff” Smith
It’s easy to say It’s a Wonderful Life is perfect – which it is, but the story of a naive man coming face to face with corruption and refusing to let it slide is the perfect encapsulation of what a true American should mean. Stewart is a man who makes movies look annoyingly easy, there’s very little vanity to his work, just an earnest kind of everyman appeal that when it comes to it’s thrilling ending will make you weep. It’s the kind of good of heart stuff that Capra made his name in, showing that he believes in that constitution and so should we – unless you’re not American, then it’s just a good drama film.
AKIRA KUROSAWA & TOSHIRO MIFUNE
Drunken Angel (1948), The Quiet Duel (1949), Stray Dog (1949), Scandal (1950), Rashomon (1950), The Idiot (1951), Seven Samurai (1954), I Live in Fear (1955), Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), Red Beard (1965)
Essential Work: Seven Samurai, Mifune as Kikuchiyo
The amount of influential work Kurosawa did cannot be overstated, he is easily the most important film director of all time, and with Mifune he found an actor who could show the kind of range and stoic brilliance that he needs. Seven Samurai is a perfect film, and Mifune’s turn as a drunken bandit that becomes something a little more noble is one for the ages. Though so many of their collaborations are perfect classics, this is the performance that cements Mifune as one of Asia’s great actors.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN & MICHAEL CAINE
Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), Tenet (2020)
Essential Work: The Prestige, Caine as John Cutter
Nolan calls Caine his lucky charm and has had a role – even a voice cameo ala Dunkirk, in every film since Batman Begins. While Caine provides the heart of the Batman trilogy, there are performances a little more showy or important, but in The Prestige he is the emotional core. The Prestige’s set up about warring magicians sees his engineer John Cutter feel allegiance with Hugh Jackman’s high class showman, though when it comes to the end, his torn anger is brilliant shown. His emotional turn in Interstellar as Professor Brand is also very similar but this one shows a sterner, more interesting side of Caine, and he fits perfectly into Nolan’s world.
MARTIN SCORSESE & ROBERT DE NIRO
Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), The Irishman (2019)
Essential Work: The King of Comedy, De Niro as Rupert Pupkin
Few collaborations have given so many perfect movies (Mifune-Kurosawa notwithstanding), but in The King of Comedy, the idea of taking the unhinged, lonely character that made Travis Bickle so compelling (and scary) and making it slightly comedic made for an even more uncomfortable time. De Niro is perfect in his role as scary wannabe comedian whose obsession turns to criminality there is something utterly transfixing and compelling, while Scorsese has a style and skill that few can argue with. Luckily the are ruining for the first time in nearly twenty five years for a mafia film no less but there no denying the important of Pupkin.
MARTIN SCORSESE & LEONARDO DICAPRIO
Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Killers of the Flower Moon (TBA)
Essential Work: The Aviator, DiCaprio as Howard Hughes
DiCaprio is an actor who matinee idol good looks and perfectionist level professionalism, both play into his portrayal of a man of many talents and mental illness is nuanced and loving, a love that Scorsese clearly has, showing the amount film knowledge he has by staging Old Hollywood scenes with a level of love that can only come from years of yearning.
Hughes is a compelling, emotional figure stricken by Mental Illness at a time when it was brushed off as “eccentric” and DiCaprio never makes him a figure for pity, rather a man that was a pioneer of everything from film, the aviation, and ultimately to an understanding of the mentally ill that has changed the world.
STEVEN SPIELBERG & TOM HANKS
Saving Private Ryan (1998), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Terminal (2004), Bridge of Spies (2015), The Post (2017)
Essential Work: Saving Private Ryan, Hanks as Captain John H. Miller
Every film Hanks and Spielberg have worked on is inspired even if in part a true story. Their first and most influential is war movie Saving Private Ryan, where Hanks portrays a school teacher turned soldier on the hunt for the last remaining Ryan son before the family line is wiped out entirely by World War II. The power of Spielberg’s intense, no messing direction, and Hanks’ very human performance of a man on a mission is one that has proved time and time again that war is hell, and that audiences want a story to be uplifting even in their dark war dramas.
QUENTIN TARANTINO & SAMUEL L. JACKSON
Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012), The Hateful Eight (2015)
Essential Work: Pulp Fiction, Jackson as Jules Winfield
Is there anything more majestic than a well written Tarantino character embodied by an actor at the top of his game. Jules is one of the great QT characters and when Jackson starts spewing the dialogue like a deranged mad man there are few who can compare.
Winfield is the role for which many will return to Pulp Fiction for and while others collaborations have spawned brilliant performances – Django Unchained’s Stephen and The Hateful Eight’s Major Marquis Warren are both great, it’s easily this one that stands the test of time.
JOHN WOO & CHOW YUN-FAT
A Better Tomorrow (1986), A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987), The Killer (1989), Once a Thief (1991), Hard Boiled (1992)
Essential Work: Hard Boiled, Yun-fat as Inspector “Tequila” Yeun Ho-yan
Heroic bloodshed is a sub-category of action movies in which extreme violence emphasis the heroism of the main character. John Wick is a heroic bloodshed film, and the subgenre was started by John Woo in his Hong Kong action films. The mast pierce of the genre is Hard Boiled in which a cop goes up against Triads is spectacular fashion. Tequila is a hero for the ages, gunning down hordes of baddies, while holding a child, including a stand out confrontation in a hospital. They don’t get more stoic than Yun-fat, and Hard Boiled is a breathless action film.
RICHARD LINKLATER & ETHAN HAWKE
Before Sunrise (1995), The Newton Boys (1998), Waking Life (2001), Tape (2001), Before Sunset 92004), Fast Food Nation (2006), Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014)
Essential Work: Boyhood, Hawke as Mason Evans, Sr.
Yes the gimmick of being filmed over some thirteen years is impressive and the commitment is one that should be commended there is very little to fault in the performance of Ethan Hawke as deadbeat dad turned better Mason Sr. Though their collaborations brought the Before trilogy, Hawke and Linklater’s Boyhood shows a mother trying hard to make it work, but even better than that, they show that as people grow they change and none more so than an irresponsible young father becoming a more dependable one years later.
SPIKE LEE & DENZEL WASHINGTON
Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), Inside Man (2006)
Essential Work: Malcolm X, Washington as Malcolm X
Washington is the actor to end all actors, the Sidney Poitier of the modern world, and what works better is that when he teams with Spike Lee they make works that last. Malcolm X is, rather obviously, a film about Malcolm X but it isn’t afraid to show him as a human being, it also helps that Washington looks ridiculously like the man and imbues him with a rage that you can believe brought about a change the world feels today. It’s a personal film for both men, and both are on top form.