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A star is reborn: what we can learn from actor turned director debuts

As Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill step behind the camera for A Star is Born and Mid90s, how do their films benefit from their A-list status?

A critic will often watch a directors first film with one eye on what is and one on what might be. For novice feature film-makers, a debut doubles as a diagnostic, an opportunity to show potential as much as present skill. Because first-timers often have to work within constricting parameters a finite budget, a caliber of actors commensurate with that budget, limited access to the resources of a studio viewers will give a little leeway in the understanding that theyre watching the film the director was able to make until he or she gets the green light to make the film they truly wantto.

Such is not the case with a pair of new releases from untested talents in theaters this month. Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill have both made new forays into feature directing with the latest remake of A Star Is Born and the coming-of-age drama Mid90s, respectively, and their celebrity affords them luxuries unavailable to most film-makers starting out. While shooting, Cooper leveraged his profile and connections to sneak onstage at the Coachella and Glastonbury music festivals, infiltrate the Grammys, and poke around Saturday Night Lives studio with guest host Alec Baldwin. Hill licensed a treasure trove of music that cant have come cheap, from Herbie Hancocks funk standard Watermelon Man to the Pixies alt-classic Wave of Mutilation to the Smiths cut pre-approved by his pal Morrissey. In either case, the production was the realization of a dream long held by its creator, a true passion project straight out of the gate.

A still from Mid90s. Photograph: A24

Its a curious phenomenon, when resources and permissions usually reserved for seasoned pros are afforded to artists at the novice level. (Both Hill and Cooper give the Steadicam a workout, but dont quite know where to take it.) The resultant odd pairing of highly professional polish with developing ability is just one of the qualities of the beginner actor-director, a specific breed of cineaste with a consistent set of virtues of weaknesses. A handful of recent efforts have brought the type into sharper relief, and started to chip away at though by no means completely overwriting the image of the preening thespian who utters those dreaded words: But what I really want to do is direct.

The public presumes a certain measure of vanity when an actor gets behind the camera, a belief proven wrong as frequently as its proven right. In some instances, the whiff of ego isnt quite so faint; Ewan McGregor must have been feeling pretty good when he offered to not only dip his toe into film-making with an adaptation of heavy literary hitter Philip Roth, but to assay a neurotic Jewish businessman as a born-and-bred Scotsman. After years of salty-mouthed comedy, Hill is on a crusade to be taken seriously, donning the artistes de facto uniform of blocky glasses and all-black ensemble. Many critics scoffed at Coopers decision to cast himself as a rock star who romances a girl played by worlds second-biggest pop star because the biggest pop star was busy.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born. Photograph: Lilo/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

On the flip side, actors arent afraid to put their own skin in the game. They tend to counteract charges of narcissism by splaying their innermost vulnerabilities onscreen for public perusal, whether thats Cooper reckoning with his own demons in a scene of no-punches-pulled humiliation or Hill putting together an extra-textual zine to nurture his wounded inner child. Jordan Peeles feature debut Get Out (which sidestepped many pitfalls of the actor-directed project, due perhaps to Peeles time spent honing his craft on the set of his television show with Keegan-Michael Key) inflated the social hazards of interracial relationships to B-movie mayhem.

Its not for nothing that the long take, a medium-to-close shot holding on a performers face and letting them do their stuff, is the favored implement in any multi-hyphenates toolbox. From Hill and Cooper to the more accomplished ranks of Paul Dano (who shows tremendous promise with this years Wildlife) and Angelina Jolie, actors place a lot of trust in actors, sometimes to a fault. Not everyone has the chops to hold their own while delivering a monologue without anyone or any edits to hide behind, but the actor-directors code states that everyone at least deserves a chance to try. Cooper and Hill care about their characters more than any audience could possibly hope to, and the open-hearted empathy can be a wonder all its own.

What these films sometimes lack in technical proficiency, they attempt to make up in passion, the result being occasionally amateurish work with a titanic emotional scale and the industry firepower to back it up. Like actors themselves, they want nothing more than to be loved.

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