The highlight of the new movie Jack Reacher isn’t Tom Cruise. It’s Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker, playing The Zec, a hired assassin.
Don’t believe us? Look at the movie’s trailer, in which Herzog appears for only a few seconds but manages to put the fear of the Almighty deep into the soul merely by tilting his head a few degrees.
Okay, so we are exaggerating. But Herzog is as riveting a presence in front of the camera as he is behind it. The brilliant and tireless filmmaker has made the time over the years to occasionally act in movies, among them Harmony Korine’s beguiling Mister Lonely. Korine, one of America’s genuine mavericks, is friends with other like-minded
mavericks like Herzog and Leos Carax, so it’s not surprising to see Herzog playing a harried priest in charge of a convent of flying nuns in Mister Lonely. Korine’s typically kooky tribute to lookalikes features Diego Luna as a Michael Jackson imitator, Samantha Morton as Marilyn Monroe, and Dennis Lavant as a nasty Charlie Chaplin. Herzog appears in a surreal parallel track concerning a bunch of nuns who, following the miraculous unharmed descent of a nun from the sky to the earth, decide to dive off planes and float among the clouds. Herzog plays the high-strung priest who keeps the flock together – the perfect role for a master chronicler of the absurdities and magic of everyday life.
Why should actors have all the fun? Directors often make watchable actors, especially in other people’s movies. They often appear in their friends’ projects as a favour or an in-joke. B-movie producer Roger Corman is one of the senators who interrogates Michael Corleone at a Congressional hearing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II. David Cronenberg makes a short and sinister appearance in Gus Van Sant’s brilliant satire To Die For.
(Cronenberg’s alleged talent scout has nefarious designs on Nicole Kidman’s ambitious anchor woman).
However, it’s not always true that if directors can direct actors, they can also
take direction as actors. Filmmaker Farah Khan bumbles her way through Shirin Farhad Ki To Nikal Padi, never once losing her self-consciousness.
Anurag Kashyap, on the other hand, is, confidence itself in Onir’s I Am, in which he plays a man who sexually abuses his step-son. Kashyap, who has previously acted in plays, also appears in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Shagird in 2011. Kashyap returned the favour by casting Dhulia as Ramadhir Singh, the scheming politician and arch-enemy of the Khan brood in Gangs of Wasseypur. The two-part movie would had one more filmmaker in its list of credits if Anurag Basu had agreed to play the part of the gun supplier who betrays Shahid Khan and gets his comeuppance from Shahid’s grandson Faizal. (The role eventually went to Harish Khanna.)
Why is it that directors can safely be cast as villains? The venerable filmmaker John Huston, who acted in several roles alongside directing American classics like The Asphalt Jungle and The African Queen, is the epitome of evilness in Chinatown.
Nothing is what it seems in Roman Polanski’s twisted noir, least of all Huston’s property developer whose interests in the case being pursued by Jack Nicholson’s clueless detective are both financial and personal.
American independent director John Cassavetes acted in films and television serials to fund his movies. He wasn’t just going through the motions, though, as is evident from another Polanski shocker, Rosemary’s Baby. Is Cassavetes’s caring husband a member of a Satanic cult or is Mia Farrow having the worst
possible case of pre-partum anxiety?
Further proof that men who spend their lives ordering others around make convincing antagonists can be found in Mani Ratnam’s under-rated Aaytha Ezhuthu. The 2004 movie, which was made as Yuva in Hindi with a different cast and setting, asks whether young people should wade into the muck of electoral politics. The contest is between Tamil director P Bharathiraja’s provincial, wheeling-dealing Selvanayagam and Suriya’s bright, Left-leaning professor Michael. Bharathiraja’s realistic rural melodramas took several generations of Tamil film watchers back to the folk idioms of the state. In Aaytha Ezhuthu, Bharathiraja is superb as a political veteran who
recommends (wrongly for the purposes of the plot but quite correctly for the purposes of reality) that educated youngsters like Michael are better off migrating to America. Om Puri, who plays the same part in the Hindi version, comes off as loud and hammy in contrast. A kind-hearted pirate soul has posted the movie online with English subtitles, but Flipkart has a legitimate copy for all of Rs.99.
(This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.)