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2013: The Awards Season of the Actor-Director? (Analysis)

An unusually high number of this year's awards season releases were directed by people best known as actors, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Franco, Sarah Polley, Jason Bateman and George Clooney, writes THR's awards analyst.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt on 'Don Jon' Set - H 2013
Relativity Media
Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the set of "Don Jon"

Odd little patterns seem to emerge every awards season, and one that has caught my attention at the outset of this one is that an unusual number of 2013 awards season releases were directed by people who are primarily known to the public as actors -- as was also the case with the last best picture Oscar winner, Ben Affleck's Argo.

Back in January, the Sundance Film Festival hosted the world premieres of three such films: The Way, Way Back, the directorial debut of Nat Faxon (Fox's Ben and Kate) and Jim Rash (NBC's Community) -- who are also Oscar-winning screenwriters -- which Fox Searchlight released July 26; In a World..., the directorial debut of Lake Bell (HBO's How to Make It in America), which Roadside Attractions will release Aug. 9; and Don Jon, the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), which Relativity Media will release Sept. 27. The directors of each of these films wrote and acted in them, as well.

Stories We Tell, an autobiographical documentary from Sarah Polley, the young actress (The Sweet Hereafter)-turned-writer/director (Away From Her), also played at the fest en route to a May 10 limited release via Roadside.

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Then, in late spring, the Cannes Film Festival hosted, as part of its Un Certain Regard competition, the world premiere of As I Lay Dying, James Franco's feature directorial debut, which the Oscar-nominated actor (127 Hours) also adapted into a screenplay from William Faulkner's novel and stars in. Franco had previously directed a number of docs, including Saturday Night (2010), which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival three years ago, and shorts, including Interior. Leather. Bar., which he co-directed with Travis Mathews, and which also premiered at this year's Sundance, as part of the New Frontiers competition. As I Lay Dying will be given a limited release by Millennium Entertainment starting Sept. 27.

Then, as is almost annually the case, the summer brought the release of Woody Allen's latest film. Sony Pictures Classics released Blue Jasmine in New York and Los Angeles on July 26, and it is currently expanding across the country. Allen is best known today as a writer/director, and he doesn't act in this film (unlike most others that he has directed over the years), but he is an Oscar-nominated actor -- scoring a nom 36 years ago for Annie Hall (1977) -- so I'm going to include him for good measure.

This year's upcoming fall fests have selected a striking -- and I believe unprecedented -- number of actors' directorial debuts. The Toronto International Film Festival, in addition to screening Don Jon, will host the world premiere of Jason Bateman's comedy Bad Words, in which he also stars; Mike Myers' doc Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, which focuses on the life of his friend, the eponymous talent manager; and Keanu Reeves' kung fu action flick Man of Tai Chi, which was inspired by his friend Tiger Chen, the stuntman, and in which Reeves stars. The Venice Film Festival, meanwhile, will feature, in competition, the world premiere of yet another film from Franco, Child of God, which Franco and Vince Jolivette co-adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same title, and in which Franco will also star. None of the aforementioned films has secured U.S. distribution yet.

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Toronto will also feature the world premiere of Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman, which is still seeking domestic distribution, and Ron Howard's Rush, which Universal will release on Sept. 27. Fiennes previously directed Coriolanus (2011). And Howard, now an Oscar-winning director (A Beautiful Mind), rarely acts anymore, but I'm including him on this list because he will always be associated by many with the two great TV characters he played for so many years, Opie from The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68) and Richie Cunningham from Happy Days (1974-84), and the film American Graffiti (1973).

Finally, the schedule for the rest of the fall -- primetime for awards hopefuls -- includes a few more entries of this sort. Jayne Mansfield's Car, a period piece dramedy that was co-written, directed by and stars Billy Bob Thornton (who won a screenplay Oscar for Sling Blade), will be released by Anchor Bay Films on Sept. 13. Out of the Furnace, a drama from from actor (Get Low)-turned-writer/director (Crazy Heart) Scott Cooper, will be released by Relativity Media on Dec. 6. The Monuments Men, a World War II thriller which George Clooney -- the Oscar-winning movie star (Syriana) and producer (Argo) -- co-wrote and co-produced with Grant Heslov, and in which he also stars, will be released by Columbia on Dec. 18. And, on Christmas Day, 20th Century Fox will release Ben Stiller's highly-anticipated The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which he also stars.

Is this confluence of actor-directed films a mere coincidence, or part of a growing trend? And will audiences check out a film directed by their favorite A-list movie star even if he or she does not appear in it? We will probably have to monitor things for a few more years before we can really answer the former question. But, as for the latter question, we should get an answer as soon as next year with the release of How to Catch a Monster, the first narrative feature ever produced, written and directed by -- wait for it -- Ryan Gosling.