It takes two to make a dream come true, sang Marvin Gaye. And if you ask any line producer, he will tell you that it takes a hell of a lot more than that to make a good movie. But a good combination of talented actors and right directors can produce a spark that will induce on-screen magic. When the chemistry is profound, the effects are exponential. And the world-famous directors, like Tarantino, Scorsese, and others will tell you the same thing: the right chemistry with an actor can be more important than the script.
In this article a third element—Annie Leibovitz—is added to the most celebrated actor-director couples. As you can see, the result is a photographic distillation of their movie magic. Annie focuses on the bond between actor and director (or director and machine), a bond which sparked so many compelling movies in last few years and generate more than four dozen Oscar nominations.
DANNY BOYLE and DEV PATEL
One film together: Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
In gawky, jug-eared Dev Patel, Boyle found his perfect Jamal. Boyle could have cast a more conventionally handsome kid as Jamal, but in shrewdly anointing the sweet, soulful, British-born Patel, he raised the whole enterprise to a higher plane—a decision affirmed by four Golden Globe Awards and possibly more hardware to come.
DARREN ARONOFSKY and MICKEY ROURKE
One film together: The Wrestler (2008).
The wreck that was the SS Rourke had a perilous journey on its way to Darren Aronofsky’s shores. The director was keen on casting the damaged-goods actor in the title role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler, but when no U.S. studio would finance the film with Rourke attached, Aronofsky turned to Nicolas Cage. Then, at the eleventh hour, an overseas studio agreed to back the picture with Rourke, and Cage graciously bowed out of the project. While the director’s original choice made sense—who better to play a preening grappler who’s seen better days than a preening, pugilistic actor who’s seen better days?—no one foresaw the alchemical result of mixing the brainiac enthusiasm of Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) with the on-the-ropes desperation of Rourke: an unapologetic tearjerker that offers Rourke’s best performance sinceBarfly.
SAM MENDES and KATE WINSLET
One film together:Revolutionary Road(2008).
It’s unfair to Mendes and Winslet to say things have come easily for them, but from the moment she first appeared on-screen, as a sexually confused teen in Heavenly Creatures (1994), and from the moment his deviant reconceptualization ofCabaret skipped the pond from London to Broadway (1998), these two seemed destined for big things. And then, lo, Kate burst through with Titanic (1997). And, lo, Sam moved into feature films with American Beauty (1999) and won an Oscar for best director on his first try. And then they foundeach other. A wedding and a son later, they’ve finally worked together, on Revolutionary Road, a film based on Richard Yates’s troubling 1961 novel, whose very purpose was to indict the concept of “the perfect marriage.”
GUS VAN SANT and SEAN PENN
One film together: Milk (2008).
As Harvey Milk, the gay activist and politician, Penn is disaffected and alienated, to be sure, but he’s an older and more resolute Van Sant protagonist: his shoulders rolled back, his arms outstretched in welcome, his chin up, his smile unwavering. In his most endearing role since—and this is said respectfully—Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Penn captures the phenomenal charisma and inherent warmth that made the real Milk a different kind of outsider: a charmer who charged defiantly into the “inside” world rather than stand shivering on the fringes. And so, together, Penn and Van Sant have pulled off a neat trick. They’ve taken on two very tired genres—the biopic and the triumphant tale of a ragtag band of outsiders—and gently subverted them, with fantastic results.
PENÉLOPE CRUZ and WOODY ALLEN
One film together: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
The archetypal Woody woman might be the over-educated, over-therapized yammerer, but another type of woman has also recurred in his work: the smoldering, emotionally volatile knockout. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cruz takes on this assignment and then some—throwing in bits of Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue and Emmanuelle Seigner in Bitter Moon for good measure. As María Elena, the tousled, pouty, impossibly sexy ex-wife of Javier Bardem’s painter character, Cruz is a whirlwind of carnality and psychosis. “You are de meesing ingredient,” she tells her ex’s new lover, an American naïf played by Johansson. With Allen pulling the strings, you just know it’s not going to end well.
NICOLE KIDMAN and BAZ LUHRMANN
Two films together: Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Australia (2008).
Luhrmanns swooping, sweeping pictures abound with old-style Hollywood theatricality, but his sensibility—cheeky, sweaty, delirium-inducing—is wholly Australian, even when his films aren’t set in Australia. Casting Kidman as the courtesan Satine (“the Sparkling Diamond”) in that movie, Luhrmann recaptured her as an Australian national treasure: the sensual, sensational Saucy Nic, back after a long period away in Kubrickian, Eyes Wide Shut limbo. In Australia, Luhrmann steps back, to some extent, from the heightened artifice of what he calls his “Red Curtain” style of filmmaking, but his ambitions remain epic, and no filmmaker seems more able to set Kidman’s face alight. It’s a serious film, but you get the sense that Luhrmann and Kidman—a conspiratorial partnership between director and actress—had a ball making it.
MERYL STREEP and JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY
One film together: Doubt (2008).
Having spent so much of this decade making us smile—The Devil Wears Prada, A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia!—Streep, in Doubt, has gone back into what might be called her “Meryl being Meryl” mode. Her hair tucked into a bonnet, her face pallid and stony, Streep, as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, is again the grave, icy virtuoso in whose screen presence we trembled as we watched The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And who better to frame Sister Aloysius’s severe worldview than writer-director Shanley, who, since his Off Broadway debut with Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, in 1984, has established himself as the laureate of New York City’s outer boroughs? Drawing upon his own experiences at 1960s Catholic schools, where the nuns were sometimes too harsh and the priests perhaps a tad too friendly, Shanley undermines these feudal loyalties, withholding the comforts of faith and certainty. Streep’s unsettling Sister seems to be a ghost of his past, his own doubt made manifest.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN and the late HEATH LEDGER
One film together: The Dark Knight (2008).
In one of his final TV interviews, viewable online, Heath Ledger can be found refuting any posthumous speculation that the Joker role somehow got inside his head, contributing to the circumstances surrounding his death. He found a worthy fun-mate in Christopher Nolan, a mind-warp specialist who broke through in 2000 withMemento and successfully rebooted the Batman franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins. “My thoughts [for the Joker] were identical to his,” Ledger said of his director, and the result—a barmy, creepy hybrid of Beetlejuice and Ratso Rizzo—is compellingly odd and worlds apart from Jack Nicholson’s hammy 1989 version. “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you,” Ledger’s Joker says, in a killer entrance line, “simply makes you … stranger.” Hunched and stringy-haired, slathered in Robert Smith–like makeup gone horribly wrong, Ledger is unrecognizable as the man who played Ennis Del Mar inBrokeback Mountain or as the handsome, deep-voiced, Australian-accented 28-year-old he was in real life.
Composite photo: Christopher Nolan photographed in Los Angeles, 2008; Heath Ledger photographed in New York City, 2005.
Twenty-two films as director-star, among them two that received Oscars for both best picture and best director: Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).
“But what I really want to do is direct.” Has any actor fulfilled this wish more brilliantly and prolifically than our Clint? In the 1970s, Eastwood-the-star proved himself worthy of his mentors (Dirty Harry’s Don Siegel, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s Sergio Leone) by working both sides of the camera inHigh Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Since then, he has completely shattered any preconceptions that he’s strictly a genre-Western guy, taking on taut drama (Million Dollar Baby,last year’s Changeling), slush for the ladies (The Bridges of Madison County, 1995), the musical biopic (Bird, 1988), and the war epic (2006’s Iwo Jima twofer, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). In his 29th feature as a director, Gran Torino, he delivers what he has hinted is likely his final film performance, as Walt Kowalski, a white-ethnic remnant of a working-class Detroit neighborhood now given over to Hmong immigrants. It’s a measure of Eastwood’s comfort with himself that he doesn’t approach the role with valedictory pompousness; rather, he plays Walt broadly, for laughs—growling, squinting, and spitting like a crotchety C.G.I. creature in a George Lucas film. But Eastwood-the-director still manages to take Walt to some deep, dark places, as only he can. The performing Eastwood will be missed, if this is indeed his last role, but the filmmaker, 78 years old, marches onward: The Human Factor, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, is due later this year.
JAMES CAMERON with FUSION 3-D CAMERA
One Film Together: Avatar (2009).
In the decade-long preparation for his billion-dollar-grossing sci-fi epic, Avatar, Cameron and a team led by his director of photography, Vince Pace, developed what Cameron has called the “holy grail” camera: a digital system with adjustable lenses that functions much like two eyes connected to a single brain. (An earlier generation of the camera allowed him to film his 2003 underwater documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss.) After that, the once unfilmable-seeming Avatar became a go project, and the rest is movie history. Like most blockbusters, Avatar is a grand spectacle with great special effects, but it became a global sensation because of its director’s command of the traditional virtues of storytelling and filmmaking.
KATHRYN BIGELOW and JEREMY RENNER
One film together: The Hurt Locker (2009).
The Hurt Locker is a clear-eyed depiction of the everyday tensions faced by U.S. soldiers during the uneasy American occupation of Iraq. Bigelow establishes an elegiac tone while filling the frame with one intense sequence after another. Playing Staff Sergeant William James, the leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit who may or may not have a death wish, Renner leaps out of a journeyman’s career to establish himself as a genuine star. At first, his character is unflappable to an almost comic degree—a jaunty rebel in the mold of countless cocky heroes of previous American war films. But his protective strategies fail to hold up under the strain of his work. The Hurt Locker’s sympathies lie entirely with the soldiers who must take the physical, emotional, and moral risks necessary to accomplish a difficult and dirty job. But the experience of Bigelow’s charming-at-first protagonist seems to mirror the larger experience of the country as a whole: We got more than we bargained for.
PEDRO ALMODOVAR and PENELOPE CRUZ
Four films together: Live Flesh (1997), All About My Mother (1999), Volver(2006), and Broken Embraces (2009).
Broken Embraces has a valedictory feel to it, or at least it conveys a sense that the 60-year-old Almodóvar—a man for whom it was once compulsory to use the words enfant terrible—is taking stock of his life. The movie is about a filmmaker, cruelly robbed of sight, who recounts to a young man the tragic story of his greatest love: a stunning beauty he rescued from the gilded clutches of kept-womanhood. There are stylistic nods to the 1950s weepie-meister Douglas Sirk and to Michael Powell’s sick-joke movie Peeping Tom.There are glimpses of the movie that the director made with his doomed love, a Day-Glo bauble that harkens back to Almodóvar’s youthful 1980s “wacky” period. And there is Cruz. Almodóvar uses his fractured narrative to frame her in all manner of looks and ways: in a Marilyn wig, in drab secretarial gear, in the Chuck Close–like pixelation of enlarged, super-slo-mo playback … all in the cause of proving that the camera loves her as much as ol’ Pedro does.
LEE DANIELS and MO’NIQUE and GABOUREY SIDIBE
One film together: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009).
Daniels may be the best thing that has happened to actors since Robert Altman. His unforgettablePrecious, a harrowing but ultimately hopeful domestic drama, gets its power, in large part, from the brave performances turned in by newcomer Sidibe and the multi-talented writer-comedian-actress Mo’Nique. Sidibe plays the title character—so beaten down at the start of the film—in a blunt, forthright, almost uninflected manner that works nicely against the story’s moments of high drama. As the girl’s abusive mother, Mo’Nique pulls off something equally astounding: she brings a monster to life and then, without winking at the audience, she stirs our compassion as she shows how that monster came to be. Together Daniels, Sidibe, and Mo’Nique have given voice and form to characters who might otherwise be invisible.
SCOTT COOPER and JEFF BRIDGES
One film together: Crazy Heart (2009).
Anyone who falls under the spell of Crazy Heart, a boozy, all-American story set beneath bright southwestern skies, is likely to hold the opinion that it contains the best Jeff Bridges performance. He so easily embodies down-on-his-luck, whiskey-swilling country-music legend Bad Blake that moviegoers may suspect the film is a documentary-like rec¬ord of the veteran actor’s secret life. But then you recall all the sneakily great work Bridges has done over the years in movies such as The Last Picture Show, Starman, Jagged Edge, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Big Lebowski, and Iron Man and you realize his shamblingly natural and pitch-perfect work in Crazy Heart is all of a piece with just about everything else in his glorious and underappreciated career. Still, a lot of credit must go to first-time director Cooper, who worked hard to get Bridges to say yes to the part before he could begin to create the conditions that would allow his leading man to do his thing before the camera. Anyone who loves movies is happy these two were able to get together.