In “Live by Night,” Ben Affleck plays the sleepiest gangster in gangster movie history. As Joe Coughlin, a World War I vet-turned-bootlegger, he trods about as if on powerful painkillers, and he whispers through the narration track with less enthusiasm, somehow, than Harrison Ford’s studio-enforced muttering over the theatrical cut of “Blade Runner.” What director is to blame for a performance this wooden? Ben Affleck, as it turns out. Ben Affleck the actor is even more dull and distant in Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night” than he was in “Argo” and “The Town” — both, not coincidentally, also directed by Ben Affleck.
Affleck only has himself to blame, but he probably doesn’t “blame” himself at all. These are the Ben Affleck performances Ben Affleck wants to give the world. When an actor directs him or herself — especially someone as powerful as Affleck is right now — they show moviegoers how they see themselves. More accurately, they show the world how they want to be seen. Affleck is only the thousandth or so actor who thought to themselves, ‘But what I really want to do is direct.’ It’s an act whose results vary wildly in quality and intent, but which is always a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of a celebrity.
In Affleck’s case, what you learn is that he wants to be taken seriously as someone hurting on the inside. He clearly thinks the Ben Affleck characters in Ben Affleck-helmed films aren’t boring; they’re soulful, anguished, moving. (In “Argo” he even sports a sad beard, which he’d only busted out during the unintentionally funny final shot of “The Town.”) Worth noting is all three of these films de Ben Affleck (the fourth, “Gone Baby Gone,” starred his brother Casey, and is by a wide margin his best) are rip-roaring genre pieces, with him as the still, brooding center. He even gifts the meatier roles to other actors: Jeremy Renner in “The Town,” Chris Messina in “Live by Night,” as if to stress that he's not there to chew scenery. Instead, he wants to show you his heart.
Ben Affleck the director of Ben Affleck is spiritually similar to Kevin Costner the director of Kevin Costner: both fundamentally don’t understand their own strengths. Costner is actually at his best when charismatic and rascally (“Bull Durham,” “Tin Cup”) or simply grouchy (“Hidden Figures”). He’s at his least engaging when he’s noble, sincere, blandly heroic. That’s what you get in the likes of “The Untouchables,” “JFK” and his Yank-accented “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” And it’s that side you get with the films directed by and starring Costner.
But Costner goes farther than Affleck, who tends to show himself working as a part of teams, suffering and brooding but rarely, save for "Argo," trying to better the world.In “Dances with Wolves” and “The Postman,” Costner is the savior of, respectively, Native Americans and the entire planet. The end of “The Postman” even boasts a bronze statue built in his likeness, so the future will never forget his greatness. When Costner isn’t worshipping himself as a champion to the masses, he’s granting viewers shots of his bare butt. (“Open Range,” Costner’s third directorial outing, is a more modest Western, but as a friend said, you can still tell that whoever filmed Costner was in love with him.)
Contrast this with Denzel Washington. In “Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters,” he’s the teacher coaxing greatness out of, respectively, a troubled young man (Derek Luke) and Jim Crow-plagued black pupils. You could accuse Washington the director of selling himself as a Costnerian savior — except the films are equally, if not moreso, about the people being taught and saved. He’s a generous filmmaker who doesn’t make a meal out of his generosity. He just does it. In the new “Fences,” he’s bringing his Tony-winning turn in August Wilson’s play — a tyrannical and self-destructive father — to the screen. But he’s also giving the other actors, and not just Viola Davis, room to kick ass, too. And he’s using his clout to bring Wilson to the screen, to sneak legendary theater into our blockbuster-drenched multiplexes. It’d hard to be cynical about Washington’s intentions; more movie gods should cash in on their name to make things, like the black experience, part of the cultural conversation.
Among the most fascinating breed of actor-directors is the one working through their own flailing neuroses while audiences watch. Of this strain, Woody Allen is the gold standard. His was a career that started like any classic screen comic, like Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton: He protected his brand of funny. Soon, though, his work blossomed into something more complicated, confessional. He pushed himself and became an artist, even if the typically self-effacing Woody has always insisted he has nothing on the likes of Akira Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman. (Though some of us may prefer 1975’s “Love and Death” to the majority of the Bergman catalog.)
In that way, if no other, Woody’s not that different from Mel Gibson. The actor/director/hellion is nowhere to be seen in “Hacksaw Ridge,” which quietly raked in upward of $70 million in a country that seemed to have confined him to oblivion over his, well, you know, problems. But the movie is Gibson’s id as pure heroin: A vomit-y, hyperviolent ode to a pacifist, it’s some of that old time religion mixed with suffering that often makes “The Passion of the Christ” look like “What Women Want.” Mad Mel is using the public space to work through some stuff he’ll never conquer, just as he was when he had himself gorily executed in “Braveheart” or when he insisted his recut of 1999’s “Payback” include a brand new scene where the baddies smash his toes to make him talk.
A side bit about Jodie Foster, who's directed three films, the most relevant to this piece being 2011's "The Beaver," starring Mel Gibson as a fallen, self-loathing man who becomes popular when he starts speaking through a beaver puppet. "Little Man Tate" speaks a little to childhood, from a former child star, while "Home for the Holidays" seems to be a bittersweet ode to the type of normal dysfunctional suburban family she escaped with fame. But "The Beaver" is a celebrity using her name to come to the rescue of a dear friend at his lowest ebb. Even if you don't ignore what he said and did to get there, it's very moving.
Clint Eastwood is working through some stuff, too. Don’t worry: Eastwood’s not as messed up as Gibson. He’s simply stoically wrestling with ideas of heroism, of professionalism, and of what a career made up of playing righteous vigilantes and mavericks means. “Unforgiven” wasn’t the first time he grappled with the ghosts of all those he’s murdered onscreen. It was 1983’s “Sudden Impact,” his fourth go as Dirty Harry and the series’ most thoughtful and unnerving episode. The film ends (spoiler, we guess) with Harry Callahan identifying more with the vengeful murderer played by Sondra Locke than anyone else he’d run across over four entries. He understands her anguish, her need for bloodshed, and this realization disturbs him.
“Sudden Death”’s finale seems to haunt every Eastwood film made after, few of which can be read as black-or-white, as liberal or conservative, even as down-the-line libertarian. “I don’t know what I am,” he told Esquire last year about his politics. “I’m a little of everything.” Anyone who’s paid close scrutiny to what’s being said in his films — even, in fact especially, in “American Sniper” — could already tell.
Good to segue from Clint Eastwood to Vincent Gallo? Because a therapist would have a field day with the maker of “Buffalo ’66” and “The Brown Bunny,” with their mix of self-hatred and unbridled narcissism. Both are deeply personal, uncompromising art films whose eccentricity has been (unfairly) written off as egotistical. They also, the both of them, include his wang, in one form or the other: A stranger complimenting its size in a bathroom in “Buffalo ’66,” and then the potentially-fake monster itself getting mouthed in the climax of “The Brown Bunny.” Like Gibson, he’s putting it all out there — only moreso — and their power lies in him being TMI.
Other star-directors are harder to read, at least autobiographically. The cinema of George Clooney is upfront about simply concerning things Clooney likes: a free press taking down demagogues (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), old-timey football (“Leatherheads”), art salvaging during World War II (“The Monuments Men”). Kenneth Branagh shuffles between letting himself loose on Shakespeare and being an old-fashioned workhorse like Michael Curtiz, who flitted from genre to genre — from twisty mystery (“Dead Again”) to Universal horror (“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”) to attempted franchise blockbusters (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”), all of which also star or feature him in very different roles.
Orson Welles was among the most elusive when it came to making cryptic autobiographies. “Citizen Kane” may have been an attack on William Randolph Hearst, but you can sense him worrying that he may too age into a lonely megalomaniac and tyrant. He didn’t; he spent much of his remaining decades struggling to get projects off the ground, selling himself out to the occasional booze ad or Pia Zadora vehicle or children's cartoon. You can sense this anxiety in all of his films, and in all of the performances within them.
Still, the closest Welles came to a confessional was 1966's “Chimes at Midnight,” in which he came to see himself as Falstaff, the shambling fool whose best days were behind him, who realized he no longer mattered in a world that had passed him by. It’s a deeply moving performance in one of his finest films, and one which grants viewers a pipeline, however indirect, into his brain. And it’s the opposite of “Live by Night,” which is neither a good film nor one that tells us anything interesting about Ben Affleck other than he likes gangster movies, he wields a lot of power in Hollywood and he wants you to take him more seriously than he deserves.