A conversation (read: argument) with a friend (read: person I have to pretend to get along with for the sake of work) a few days ago left me Googling lists of the greatest American directors of all time. As I scrolled through them, I was struck by the fact that there was an almost unnatural homogeny amongst the various sources.
As I see it, there are two ways this could come about: The first is that there truly is an objective means of measuring the quality and influence of a director and a general consensus has arisen as to the relative contribution of each artist. This would be a valid hypothesis if it didn’t also require accepting that I was incorrect in the aforementioned argument. The other explanation is that everybody is wrong except me.
So, in order to deceptively win an argument with someone who insisted that I couldn’t find a single online list that ranked Steven Spielberg over Stanley Kubrik, I present you my personal list of the most influential American directors of all time.
#8) Michael Curtiz
If you’re not a movie buff and you’re under the age of 73, you’ve probably never heard the name before, but in his 50-year career, Curtiz directed over 150 films in the US and Europe. He was a visionary director that helped to legitimize the artistic scope of film in its early years. His career began shortly after Eadweard Muybridge first made his little horsie-flipbook and people discovered the art of filmmaking. His earliest known work dates back to 1912 and he continued releasing films until his death in 1962.
With such a prolific career it is inevitable that many of his titles would be less than brilliant. The twilight of his career was marked with a number of mediocre works, but of course, when you release Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy in the same year, you have to figure it’s okay to rest on your laurels for the next couple of decades.
He also directed The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn marking him as the only director to ever make a good Robin Hood movie. And he did it with 1938 film technology and rubber swords. Kind of explains how Ridley Scott didn’t make this list…
#7) Joel and Ethan Coen
Right, right, I know they’re two people, but I’m not wasting two spots on them regardless of how often I quote The Big Lebowski. These brothers direct together and they’re so prolific and so consistently brilliant that it’s hard to imagine any single person putting out such a fantastic library of films.
Their tendency to push the envelope of art in comedy, their brilliant use of cinematography and soundtrack and their mistaken belief that the term “surprise ending” means that the audience will be surprised that the movie is over have built them an enormous fan base as well as mountains of critical acclaim. Films like O Brother Where Art Thou, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona and No Country For Old Men have proven them to be beyond genre.
Incidentally, I reserve the right to move all of the living guys up the list based on future works. After watching the trailers for True Grit, I feel like I might be bumping them up sooner than later.
#6) William Wyler
Another name not on the tip of the average tongue, William Wyler was a pioneer that helped to develop the scaffolding that virtually every future film would come to hang upon. He was perhaps the second most decorated director of all time, garnering 12 Academy Award nominations for best director and winning three. His magnum opus, the epic Ben Hur was the only film to ever win 11 Oscars until Wyler’s memory was heinously desecrated by giving the same honor to Titanic and the worst of the three Hobbit movies.
Wyler’s career spanned almost 45 years and at his death he was almost universally considered the second best American director of all time. This was, of course, a time when the field was a lot less crowded, but the influences of Wyler’s work can still be felt today. Roman Holiday seems to presage virtually every modern romantic comedy, Mrs. Miniver proves that you can construct a spectacular film without paying the slightest attention to historical detail and Ben-Hur paved the way for marketing tie-ins for the rest of time by selling (I swear I’m not making this up) “Ben-His” and “Ben-Hers” towels during the run up to the movie's release.
#5) Stanley Kubrik
Depending on whom you ask, Kubrik either stands in the pantheon of the greatest directors of all time or is the most overrated artist in human history. Even those who would claim the latter (myself included) cannot deny the profound influence his films had on the future of movie making.
Characterized by pioneering special effects, unrivalled attention to detail and a complete disinterest in whether or not anyone actually enjoyed his stuff, Kubrik’s career was marked by controversy. Critics either loved or hated his movies and often did both at the same time. An early review for 2001: A Space Odyssey called it a “Big, beautiful but plodding scifi epic,” adding that the superb cinematography was overshadowed by a “confusing, long-unfolding plot.” The New York Times called it “Somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.”
The master of the “what the hell was that last shot about?” ending, Kubrik spent his entire career proving that he could excel in any genre. Whether scifi (2001: A Space Odyssey), horror (The Shining), war (Full Metal Jacket), bad soft-core porn (Eyes Wide Shut) or extraordinarily creepy and disturbing (A Clockwork Orange), his movies were cerebral and extraordinary. He made only a dozen movies in his 45-year career and, with the exception of Eyes Wide Shut, managed to outdo himself with each successive release.
#4) Steven Spielberg
Unlike many of the names on this list, Spielberg had the advantage of having grown up loving movies. He came into his first directorial position with an almost unrivaled understanding of suspense, pacing and story arc. Unfortunately, all the directorial talent in the world wasn’t going to make The Sugarland Express a box office success. Luckily for the entire movie going world, the studio saw enough promise in young Spielberg to essentially bank the entire future of Universal Studios on his next project.
The filming of Jaws was both comic and tragic by all accounts. The filming ran more than 100 days over. The script was being written on the fly, often the day before scenes were being shot. The shark-bot worked about once every forty three times they needed it to. By the time they wrapped, Spielberg’s career hung in a precarious balance. The movie would have to be more profitable than any that came before it to save him. And, of course, it was.
Most significantly, Spielberg proved that you could make an ingenious film without confusing the crap out of your audience a la Kubrik. Where Kubrik showed that an artistic film could be commercially viable, Spielberg proved that a commercial film could be a work of art.
#3) John Ford
John Ford spent his career defining, both through his work and his personality, what it meant to be a director. With a still unrivaled four Academy Awards for Best Director, Ford is perhaps best known now as the guy who stole Orson Well’s Oscar for Citizen Kane. If this were a list of the greatest directors in American history, I would have reserved the top-spot for him. Remember when I said that Wyler was universally accepted to be the second best director of his day? John Ford is almost universally recognized to hold the ultimate place.
A reasonable argument can be made that he was the most influential director as well. He more or less invented the genre of the American Western, guiding John Wayne through the best films of his career including The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stagecoach and the greatest movie to ever begin with a Q, The Quiet Man.
John Ford was the Spielberg of his day, capable of churning out commercial action flicks right alongside the most sophisticated dramas. Films like The Grapes of Wrath, How Green was My Valley and The Informer challenge audiences without frustrating them and remain significant and infinitely entertaining even six decades after their release.
#2) Alfred Hitchcock
It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Hitchcock invented cinematic suspense. He was a virtuoso in the art of manipulating the audience and pioneered many of the standards of tension building that are used today. There are few American films that do not owe some credit to Hitchcock’s brilliance. The humor of North by Northwest, the suspense of Notorious, the horror of Psycho, the visual perfection of Rear Window, the jaw dropping reveal of Vertigo and the unbridled fun of The Birds are still valid metrics by which to measure modern films.
Hitchcock surrounded himself with brilliance and managed to wrestle career-defining performances out of some of the best actors of his day. Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, James Stewart and Leo G. Carroll all exhibited their greatest work in Hitchcock films. Ingrid Bergman also exhibited her 2nd and 3rd best work for Sir Alfred.
On a personal level, Hitchcock was a labyrinth of childhood issues and strange phobias, which likely explain his knowledge of how to invoke fear in his audiences. His genius was recognized early in his career and though he never earned the respect owed him in terms of Academy Awards, he remains one of the most recognizable figures in Hollywood even 30 years after his death.
#1) Buster Keaton
In his radiant and often tragic career Keaton worked in virtually every type of entertainment known to man. He began in Vaudeville, worked in film both before and after the advent of the soundtrack, worked in television, radio and on stage as well. He was a consummate entertainer and perfectionist whose brilliance becomes more and more apparent as the art of filmmaking evolves.
Keaton is best known, of course, as the star of farcical silent films like The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Sherlock, Jr as well as a litany of some of the best comic-shorts of the silent era. Many mistake him for a mere slapstick virtuoso, but the revolutionary nature of his work as a director cannot be overstated.
When Buster Keaton entered the world of film it was in it’s infancy and the comic genre was buried under uninspired, low budget nonsense. Keaton recognized the size and scope of movie making better than any director of his day. He not only knew what was funny and entertaining, he also knew how best to present it in the cinematic medium. A master of large props, use of space, special effects, stunt work, shot-framing and pacing, Keaton managed to create some of the greatest works of art ever captured on film despite the fact that he relegated himself strictly to the comic genre. It is hard to imagine that any of the films of today will prove as timeless as the works of Buster Keaton.
Notables Not Mentioned:
Orson Wells – While he tops many lists and might well have directed the single greatest example of American film, a single great movie does not equal a great director. His career essentially ended with Citizen Kane and thus, despite the unparalleled genius of this work, he doesn’t make my cut as one of the most influential directors of all time.
DW Griffith – I hesitantly admit that I’m simply not familiar enough with his work to know where he would properly fall on my list. He consistently ranks near the top of other “most influential” and “greatest” director lists and thus I feel obligated to research him further. I reserve the right to stick him in somewhere as a something-point-five at a later date.
Martin Scorcese – If I were making a list of the 9 most influential American directors, he’d have made the list, so I would feel bad not including him here.
Tim Burton – My wife wanted me to mention Tim Burton, though I don’t really think he belongs anywhere near my list. But she’s my wife and I love her so I at least gave him an honorable mention.
Daren Aronofsky – While it is too early in his career to list him alongside John Ford, Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock, he is clearly one of the most promising and trend setting directors working in Hollywood today. His dazzling (if wholly depressing) works challenge the limitations of film and it seems likely that someday he will work his way onto not only my list, but every rational ranking of history’s best directors.
A Single Woman – I’m troubled by the fact that even after noticing this discrepancy and scrounging to find a female director worthy of mention, I could not. The Academy Awards were almost 100 years old when they finally got around to awarding a woman the best director Oscar. It remains one of the most sexist positions in entertainment.
While there are plenty of female directors working now, often times they are relegated to doing “chick flicks” and fluff pieces. Few studios are willing to trust female directors with their big money franchises despite the brilliant works of directors like Michel Gondry, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow (even though Tarantino should have gotten her Oscar).