Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro
(Credit: Alamy)

The 10 greatest actor-director relationships of all time

“The relationship between an actor and a director is like a love story between a man and a woman. I’m sure sometimes that I’m the woman.” – Gérard Depardieu

One of the very basic things that essentially separates a film from other forms of art is its requirement for teamwork and coordination. An inspired visionary with a pen and paper can write a novel, and a talented kid with a guitar can become a musician. Movies demand much more. Even the simplest home video camera is based on fiendishly complex technology. A major film involves elaborate cameras, lighting equipment, multitrack sound-mixing studios, sophisticated laboratories, and computer-based technology.

However, all of these things seem to be of considerably less importance when compared to that of the film’s cast. The people acting in the picture: the leads, the supporting actors, the cameos can arguably make-or-break the movie. They need to coordinate and communicate continuously with the film’s director and production team to extract the best performance out of them.

In the long and glorious history of cinema, we have come across a relentless stream of talented actors collaborating with genius directors. That said, sometimes, it so happens that both the filmmaker and the actor resonate with each other so well, that the partnership goes beyond the initial few films to that worth an entire career’s lifespan. Their artistic alliance goes on to be one long and fruitful collaboration with symbiotic success for both of the individuals involved.

Some of these partnerships have since become iconic, with few synonymous with cinema itself. We looked for the greatest actor-director relationships of all-time and came back with these ten.

10 greatest actor-director relationships:

10. Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman had enjoyed an immensely successful artistic partnership before Hoffman’s sudden death in 2014. Starting from Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight to his Oscar-nominated performance in The Master, Hoffman appeared in five of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films which included enigmatic turns in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.

Anderson recalls the moment he first saw Hoffman on-screen over twenty years ago. “When I saw him for the first time in Scent of a Woman, I just knew what true love was,” the writer/director said. “I knew what love at first sight was. It was the strangest feeling sitting in a movie theatre and thinking, ‘He’s for me and I’m for him.’ And that was it.”

Remarking on their rather unconventional filmmaker-muse pairing, he added: “Believe me, when I was a kid, you sort of draw out movie cameras and sets, at like eight or nine-years-old, and nowhere in it did I draw anything that looked like [Hoffman], you know. [Laughs] I thought as Cary Grant would be in my movie or Harrison Ford, but something happened when I saw him.”

9. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp

The eccentric duo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have worked with each other for more than thirty years now. Their collaborations began in 1990 when the director cast Depp for the titular role of his quirky film, Edward Scissorhands. In one of the most popular artist-muse pairings of our times, the association now counts to eight feature films including Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows.

Waiting desperately to hear back from Burton regarding whether or not he’d been cast in Edward Scissorhands, Depp recalled the angsty period. In the director’s biography, Burton on Burton, he went into further detail about the experience: “I waited for weeks, not hearing a thing in my favour. All the while, I was still researching the part. It was now not something I merely wanted to do, but something I had to do.”

He continued: “Not for any ambitious, greedy, actor, box-office-draw reason, but because this story had now taken residence in the middle of my heart and refused to be evicted. What could I do? At the point when I was just about to resign myself to the fact that I would always be a TV boy, the phone rang.”

8. Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee

One of the most important and influential filmmakers of all time, Satyajit Ray’s cinematic muse was Soumitra Chatterjee, who starred in fourteen of the auteur’s films. His centrality to Ray’s work is akin to other key collaborations in the history of cinema — Mifune and Kurosawa, Mastroianni and Fellini, De Niro and Scorsese, DiCaprio and Scorsese, Max von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman, Jerzy Stuhr and Kieślowski.

Ray, whose films have been compared to ‘seeing the Sun or Moon’ by Akira Kurosawa, had Chatterjee cast in diverse roles, with some of the stories and screenplays that Ray wrote were said to be written with him in mind. Soumitra featured as Feluda, the famous private investigator from Calcutta in Ray’s Feluda series of books, in two films in the 1970s Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath. He also starred as Apu in the Apu Trilogy.

This is considered to be one of the most enduring artistic collaborations in the history of contemporary cinema. Reminiscing about their artistic partnership, Soumitra says: “Well, every time Manikda made a film, I would have been happy to do it. But that was not possible. I was working in many films. He became my mentor. It is from him that I came to know more about films. I was a keen student of literature. That helped me to converse with him about various things. I used to borrow books, including those about cinema and acting, from him. It was a complex but enjoyable relationship.”

7. The Coen Brothers and Frances McDormand

The Coen Brothers’ long-trusted collaborator Frances McDormand is among the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, in which she is known for her portrayals of unique, quirky, and headstrong characters. The recipient of numerous accolades, including two Academy Awards, two Primetime Emmy Awards, and a Tony Award, making her one of the few performers to achieve the “Triple Crown of Acting.”

She has starred in several films by the Coen brothers, including Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading, and Hail, Caesar!. For playing a police chief in Fargo, McDormand won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Coen has said that when he begins working on a new project, he’s often had his wife in mind as he writes female roles. McDormand says their chemistry and bond makes their working relationship special.

“It was a revelation that I could have a lover who I could also work with and I wasn’t intimidated by the person,” McDormand told on her working relationship with the Coens. “It was: Wow! Really! Oh, my God! I can actually love and live — not subvert anything, not apologize for anything, not hide anything.”

6. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio

Marty’s modern-day muse Leonardo DiCaprio has appeared in five feature films and one short film made by the director since 2002. Discussing his collaborations with the acclaimed filmmaker, he said, “I am almost about to turn 40, and I am looking back at some of the stuff I’ve gotten to do, and at the centre of it is this amazing accidental collaboration that I’ve gotten to have with Marty.”

Scorsese heard about DiCaprio from Robert De Niro, who worked with then 19-year-old DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life, and suggested his work to Scorsese as “impressive”. Since then, they have made Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Audition together, with the duo being awarded the National Board of Review Spotlight Award for their career collaboration.

About the influence Scorsese has had on him, Leo remarked: “As a young actor standing beside him during the creative process of making a movie, I discovered that just like a painting, a sculpture, music or theatre, the film was just as essential, relevant, as a matter of fact, the most integral art form of our time.”

5. Wes Anderson and Bill Murray

The two hipsters of modern-day cinema, Wes Anderson and Bill Murray have enjoyed an immensely successful and rewarding alliance with each other. Starting off with Rushmore, they worked with each other in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel and the recent effort Isle of Dogs.

Wes Anderson clearly thinks about Bill Murray while writing the scripts for his films. “I sent the script to Bill and had no idea what would happen after that,” he once explained. “One day I was in a Disney executive’s office, and they say Bill Murray is on the line; I had no idea how he even knew I was there. The Disney exec then had to leave his own office so that I could have a long conversation with Bill about the role. I remember he wanted to talk about how he related his character — Herman Blume — to Kurosawa.”

Shedding further light on their quirky relationship, he added: ”The only other time I saw him before we started filming in Texas was at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. I needed to get a photo of him so that we could have a painting made for the set. I shot a whole roll of film; the first shot was the best. Then we ended up having some drinks at the bar downstairs, and Bill took the place over and started dancing. That was the first experience I had of how a room could get swept up by him.”

4. Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune

Master director Akira Kurosawa and his favourite actor Toshiro Mifune worked together on sixteen films in as many years, including on works like Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo.

Mifune first encountered director Akira Kurosawa when Toho Studios, the largest film production company in Japan, was conducting a massive talent search, during which hundreds of aspiring actors auditioned before a team of judges. Kurosawa was originally going to skip the event but showed up when Hideko Takamine told him of one actor who seemed especially promising.

Kurosawa later wrote that he entered the audition to see “a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy… it was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed.” When Mifune, exhausted, finished his scene, he sat down and gave the judges an ominous stare. He lost the competition but Kurosawa was impressed. “I am a person rarely impressed by actors,” he later said. “But in the case of Mifune, I was completely overwhelmed.”

On Akira Kurosawa, Mifune said: “I know. I have never as an actor done anything that I am proud of other than with him.”

3. Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina

Anna Karina, the “effervescent free spirit of the French New Wave, with all of the scars that the position entails,” served as a cinematic muse to Godard, appearing in eight of his films, including Alphaville, Bande à part, and Pierrot le Fou, during their five-year marriage and after. With their love and mutual cinematic association, they have forever immortalised each other.

“It was like an understanding between us,” Karina said about her collaboration with Godard, on the occasion of a restoration of their 1965 classic, Pierrot le Fou. “He would say, ‘Anna, a little bit quicker or a little bit slower.’ That was all. We didn’t do a lot of retakes. With some other actors I know he would do a lot of retakes, but not with me.”

Karina liked being the muse. “How could I not be honoured?” she explained. “Maybe it’s too much, it sounds so pompous. But of course, I’m always very touched to hear people say that. Because Jean-Luc gave me a gift to play all of those parts. It was like Pygmalion, you know? I was Eliza Doolittle and he was the teacher.” At this, she briefly channels Henry Higgins. “By Jove,” she says. “I think she’s got it.”

2. Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina, Marcello Mastroianni

Perhaps the greatest Italian actor of all-time, Marcello Mastroianni was the cinematic alter-ego of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Federico Fellini.

While Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife, appears in seven of his films, and four she has the leading role; Marcello Mastroianni appears in six, in four of which he is the protagonist. Masina’s filmography counts 32 films; Mastroianni’s 170.

Yet, it is their work with Fellini that defines them most. Fellini created characters they could interact with and enrich, to the point of becoming almost autonomous from the director’s intentions. The four major Masina characters (Gelsomina, Cabiria, Giulietta, and Ginger) and the four major Mastroianni characters (Marcello, Guido, Snàporaz, Fred) are “metacharacters,” developed over time, film after film.

1. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro

Unquestionably the greatest actor-director collaboration in the history of cinema, Martin Scorsese and American actor Robert De Niro have made nine feature films and one short film together since 1973, many of them including Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bull are often ranked among the greatest films of all time.

Robert De Niro saved Scorsese’s life when he persuaded him to kick his cocaine addiction to make his highly regarded film Raging Bull. Writing for The New Yorker in March 2000, Mark Singer summarised Scorsese’s condition stating: “He (Scorsese) was more than mildly depressed. Drug abuse, and abuse of his body in general, culminated in a terrifying episode of internal bleeding. Robert De Niro came to see him in the hospital and asked, in so many words, whether he wanted to live or die. If you want to live, De Niro proposed, let’s make this picture—referring to Raging Bull, an as-told-to book by Jake La Motta, the former world middleweight boxing champion, that De Niro had given him to read years earlier.”

Convinced that he would never make another movie, he poured his energies into making this violent biopic of middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta, calling it a kamikaze method of film-making.

The rest, as they say, is cinematic history. The film is widely viewed as a masterpiece and was voted the greatest film of the 1980s by Britain’s Sight & Sound magazine. It received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Robert De Niro and Scorsese’s first for Best Director. From this work onwards, Scorsese’s films are always labelled as “A Martin Scorsese Picture” on promotional material.

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