Considering the Actor as Auteur

For the film scholars and avid readers of film theory among you, the mention of the film auteur is likely one of two things: either the marker of high-art film, of directors who are dedicated to their craft and likely, as the first filmic term you learned that made you feel like you knew what you were talking about. Or, its mere mention is painfully eye-roll inducing, the most oversaturated discussion point in film theory and the most basic line of film critique. Auteur theory, truly, has been talked about extensively, in every capacity. For those of you who have managed to avoid the discussion, theories of auteurship refer to the weight given to a particular director, who’s artistic and authorial vision is evident in his work, often maintaining a consistent or recurring style and whose work is therefore recognisable and distinct. An auteur’s name carries meaning, and prestige. Consider Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and perhaps most obvious in recent times, Quentin Tarantino; even cinema-goers who go more for the popcorn than the film will recognise his name.

While the notion of a cinematic auteur typically refers to directors, in a move to update the theory, it is perhaps more interesting to consider actors whose names might carry a similar auterial weight. Consider actors who are known for their intense acting practices, for their meticulous choice of roles and for their intensely close working relationship with the directors with whom they chose to work. Actors which come to mind are the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, particularly known for his working relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Day-Lewis, before the release of his last film Phantom Thread, had repeatedly declared that he wished to retire from acting, yet made an exception for Phantom Thread. His auteur status, coupled with Paul Thomas Anderson’s own auteurism, lends itself to a perception of artistry and prestige. Before working on Phantom Thread, in which the central character is a dressmaker, Day-Lewis studying with the textiles department of the Victoria and Albert. He ordered his own shoes and had his own clothes tailored, even choosing the colour of the socks that his character, Reynolds Woodcock, would wear. Everything which came to define Reynolds on screen was under the influence of Day-Lewis’ own hand. He even went so far as to choose the breed of dogs which Reynolds own, and which style of notebooks Reynolds would use. Of course, Day-Lewis is widely known for his meticulousness and his method-acting; he learned to speak Czech for The Unbearable Lightness of Being and learned to make his own canoe for The Last of the Mohicans. With three Academy Awards for Best Actor under his belt, Day-Lewis’ reputation precedes him, and despite his currently retired status, were he ever to make a return to our screens, he would likely be treated with reverence and awe.

In an era which is saturated with celebrity culture, perhaps it makes more sense that we give the artistic prestige to our well-known actors, rather than our directors. After all, it is their faces we see on screen; they are recognisable, and are our point of identification. However, it is hard to deny the fact that in the contemporary film industry, auteurism is as much a tool of marketing as it is a factor of artistic status. Large names attached to a film help to sell the film, and names which are associated with a particular artistic merit, as auteurs often are, help to cultivate an impression of a given film as artistic. It is therefore perhaps more interesting to consider actors who chose to work outside of the mainstream. Robert Pattinson recent role in Clare Denis’ High Life, for example, pushes the actor outside of the mainstream and is consistent with his work in recent years. Like Day-Lewis, Pattinson makes careful choices regarding the directors he works with. In recent years, Pattinson has worked with directors including Werner Herzog, the Safdie Brothers, and renowned horror director, David Cronenberg. As such, his deliberate cultivation of a career which consistently collaborates with high-art, but non-mainstream directors, has essentially re-constructed Pattinson as an auteur-actor, and thus corrected the Twilight induced travesty that was his early career.

An inverse of Pattinson is Brad Pitt; Pitt’s lengthy and widely known career has in recent years, moved him beyond acting and into producing. He is credited as a producer on more than fifty films, including Moonlight, Beautiful Boy, and If Beale Street Could Talk; all films which garnered reasonable amounts of award-season buzz. Of course, that is not to say that Pitt’s attachment to these films is responsible for their relative success, but to say that Pitt has used his name recognition in order to transverse his role in the film industry.

Ultimately, the actor-as-auteur is really about name recognition. Whether we are to assert that auteurism is a genuine maker of artistry or simply name recognition, it is worth considering the ways in which this mode of investigating film still bears weight in the era of celebrity.