The Ten Greatest Cinematic Collaborations of All-Time

Here’s a Top Ten list for you to chew on, dear reader:

As 2009 draws to a close, the chic thing to do is to create a Top Ten list for the decade.  Here at Bacon Makes It Better, we are more concerned with the larger scope of things;  how about an all-time list about one of our favorite subjects?  Hoo-ray for cinema!

No other artistic medium requires more collaboration than cinema.  Where an author needs only a pen and a page (and a good agent), a filmmaker enlists the efforts of a small army:  writers for a script, a cinematographer for his visuals, a production assistant to fetch his BLT, etc.

In the process of making movies, no other relationship is more critical than the director and his lead actor.  Most times, the relationship is merely a working arrangement.   For the duration of the shoot, the director and his lead talent merely co-exist.  They tolerate each others’ egos with the comforting knowledge that after six more weeks of shooting, they’ll be vacationing at separate Caribbean destinations.

Other times, the relationship becomes volatile; like the time that George Clooney and Director David O. Russell got into a fist fight on the set of Three Kings.

But sometimes– and this is more the exception than the rule– great miracles occur.

Cinema history is full of these wonderful moments when space and time grind to a resounding halt; when the cosmos aligns perfectly to allow a director and his lead actor to produce an amazing movie with an unforgettable performance.  And when the chemistry is good, the final product shows.  Lucky for us– the movie-going fan– when a director finds this connection, he usually works with the lead actor again.  The result is a series of work that defines careers and elevates reputations to legendary status.

That is the service of this post; to recognize the Top 10 All-Time Cinematic Collaborations between a Director and a Lead Actor:

10.  John Woo & Chow Yun Fat (A Better Tomorrow, A Better Tomorrow II, Hard Boiled, The Killer)

Woo created the template for the modern action film.  The requisite ingredient?  An unapologetic, bad ass male lead.  Chow Yun Fat was that guy.  Who knew bullets and blood in hyper slow-mo could be so beautiful?

9.  Frank Capra & James Stewart (Mr. Deeds Goes To Washington, It’s A Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take It With You)

Capra had a knack for stories about the principled, every-day man overcoming long odds.  Stewart was the man who made us believe, even when all hope seemed lost.  Together, they combined for such classics as It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Deeds Goes To Washington.  The filibuster scene in Mr. Deeds validates their position on this list.

8.  Spike Lee & Denzel Washington (Mo’ Betta Blues, He Got Game, Malcolm X)

Before Washington became seduced by the action blockbuster genre, he made some really great movies!  Under Lee’s actor-friendly direction, Washington’s performances flourished.  Malcolm X is the best work of either artist.

7.  Elia Kazan & Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, On The Waterfront)

Post World War II movie audiences universally rejected the idealism that popularized the musicals and comedies of earlier times.  They craved qualities in movies that were more identifiable to their daily struggles.  Kazan and Brando collaborated to provide the grit and realism they sought.  And in the process, the two artists pushed cinema into a brave new direction.

6.  Woody Allen & Diane Keaton (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Interiors, Play It Again, Sam, Love And Death, Sleeper, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Radio Days)

It still seems that after all these years– and a thousand movies later– Allen is still trying to recapture the magic of his earlier successes.  The same can be said of Keaton.  And why not?  The chemistry of these two talents working in the same movie is a delight to behold.  Every romantic comedy made after 1979– to a greater or lesser degree– has a bit of Annie Hall in it.

5. Billy Wider & Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Erma La Douce, Avanti!)

Watching these two cinematic luminaries collaborate was like watching Magic dish to Kareem, McMahon feed Carson or Robin carry Batman’s utility belt.

4.  Francis Ford Coppola & Al Pacino (The Godfather; The Godfather, Part II;  The Godfather, Part III)

Proof that even the most combustible of relationships can yield high quality cinema.  Coppola and Pacino may have teamed up only three times for one role– but what a role it was!  Without Michael Corleone there is no modern mobster genre.  Tony Soprano had better kneel down and start kissing ring fingers.

3.  Tim Burton & Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, The Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

A bold visual style and fearless acting.  When combined, as in the case of Burton and Depp, the results can be both haunting and memorable.  Actors give their best performance when they are free from constraints.  Burton provides the environment for Depp’s talent to roam free.

2.  Akira Kurosawa & Toshiro Mifune (Yojimbo, Sichinin no Samurai, Rashomon)

Only Mifune– with his silent restraint or his over-the-top Kabuki style– could project the meticulous vision of Kurosawa, the undisputed sinsei of cinema.  Said the great Kurosawa of Mifune, “I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him.”

1.  Martin Scorsese & Robert DeNiro (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, King Of Comedy, Casino)

Their careers followed the same arc; first as struggling amateurs, then as rising stars, appropriately as Oscar winners, ultimately as the greatest creative force to collaborate in cinema.  Always trusting each other, never compromising on passion and intensity.  Nine times they have worked together; each film an undeniable classic.

Just Missed The Cut:

John Hughes & Molly Ringwald (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink)

Joel and Ethan Coen & John Goodman (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Orson Welles & Himself (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil)

Agree?  Disagree?  Agree to disagree?  Tell me about it!

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