ByJon Miller, writer at
A caffeinated commentator obsessed with political pop culture and then writing about it. "Don't talk unless you can improve the silence."
Jon Miller

A film requires the collaboration of more than one set of minds, for a successful film, the requirement includes the minds of geniuses. This list will go through the top director/actor collaborations and the best that the duets have had to offer in their long list of partnerships. For the sake of clarity and appropriations we will include only directors and actors who have worked with each other on four or more films. With the likes of comedies, dramas, and horrors these partnerships have paved a way for any form of partnerships, be it colleagues or marriages. A foundation built on support and fearlessness, the signatures of these 10 collaborations offer an insightful look at a filmmaking as well as bringing out the best of each entertainer.

10. Pedro Almodóvar / Penelope Cruz

If there was ever a collaboration between an acclaimed director and actress, look no further and take note on the collaborative relationship of Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz for four features and a fifth film cameo. From their first turn in the erotic drama Trembling Flesh to the comedy/drama All About My Mother, both exemplified Almodovar’s perceptive ear for dialogue in a perceptively well-written screenplay, as well as Cruz’s scene-stealing supporting turns. But it was two films that solidified an archetype partnership between a woman and her director. Broken Embraces resulted in a successful film that tackled issues on death and the past. But their earlier film which tackled similar themes, Volver was a much different beast for the duo, a smaller and more intimate film with a grand scope which delved into even more themes such as fantasy, loneliness, abuse, and with a perfect amount of satire on similar melodramatic genres. Cruz was justly acknowledged by the Academy Awards with a nomination for her performance, but the film was wrongfully discarded in the Foreign Film canister.

9. Tim Burton / Johnny Depp

How could these two not make the list? The two almost go hand-in-hand when thinking of each other. Burton will forever be synonymous with Depp, Depp will forever be synonymous with Burton. As of recently, their last couple of efforts have been less than stellar, and most people seem to have caught on with Burton’s formulaic idiosyncrasies (Depp is in white make-up, Depp has blood splashed onto his face, Depp stars opposite Helena Bonham-Carter, Depp feels like an outcast, Depp lives in the evil suburbs) the list can go on and on from here. However, it won’t be the overly budgeted Alice in Wonderland that will define the duo, but rather their much earlier successful outings, at least in the minds of cinephiles. Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, both represent why the Burton/Depp collaboration was so perfect in the first place. Their uncanny association came off as such because they chose to make imperfect movies set in a perfect world. This is more than evident in their first collaboration, Edward Scissorhands. If you thought you felt like you didn’t belong, than Edward really felt like he didn’t belong. In doing so, Burton creates a character that is so different than the others that he creates a symbolic portrayal of teenage years through the use of an absurd character. And Depp is more than game to march along Burton’s beat. Making an unrealistic character realistic, making unrealistic situations comical and sincere, and making an unrealistic romance seem more tragic than when Rose let Jack sink to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

8. Blake Edwards / Peter Sellers

Have you ever tried telling jokes to several people on several different occasions, but absolutely none of them were laughing? It could be that you are just not as funny as you think, or you are just on another wave length of comic humor. After years of telling jokes to brick walls you meet someone that seems to be on the same page when it comes to humor, that person is probably destined to be your spouse or best friend. That’s kind of how it feels with, ahead of his time, comic genius Peter Sellers and his equally funny partnership with Blake Edwards. Of course, both men have created comedy gold in their respective films, however, there are times when some of those jokes fall flat. Both of their absolute best movies did not even involve one another. Sellers’ several turns in Dr. Strangelove will forever be the prime example of top class acting in strategic comedic timing and reaction. While Edward’s best feature, Days of Wine and Roses, is in its own right, a prime example of staging a scene and allowing the actors to do their own thing in the director’s predetermined ring. However, as exemplary as those features maybe, there are minor moments of jokes falling flat. But together, the two have a full understanding of the moment and almost know exactly what to do, even when they’ve not discussed it in advance. The Pink Panther series, yes even the bad ones have moments of comedy gold that not even Steve Martin can surpass, are prime examples of a director and actor on the same wave length in comedic humor.

7. Quentin Tarantino / Samuel L. Jackson

By far, the most quotable of the director/actor collaborations. It’s like Tarantino takes months to write the script and the dialogue for all of the other characters, than goes back and spends months on just Jackson’s dialogue. From his acrimonious rant on religious vengeance in Pulp Fiction to his persuasively, sharp-tongued sales pitch on the art of guns in Jackie Brown. Even his image-filled The Hateful Eight speech about “dinguses” and murdering Confederates is likely to remain in your brain matter long after the last syllable is said. Christoph Waltz has a way with Tarantino words, making him the Paul McCartney of it, which would, in turn, make Jackson the John Lennon. And although I would love to see the two of them battle it out for three hours in Tarantino’s remaining few movies, we all know what happened when Paul McCartney and John Lennon spent too much time together. However, the best Tarantino/Jackson collaboration would have to go to their first outing, Pulp Fiction. A film whose poster was on everyone’s wall at some point in their lives— carrying just the right amount of humor, threat, and rage— all in a matter of one character’s words.

6. Martin Scorsese / Leonardo DiCaprio

Branded as the De Niro of his generation, it is the De Niro movies that are directed by Martin Scorsese that they are usually referring to. It is probably fitting for the man who helped create the De Niro that we all know and love, now help create the Leonardo DiCaprio that we all know and love. After the troubling shoot of Scorsese’s passion project, Gangs of New York, DiCaprio convinced Scorsese to jump onto The Aviator, probably DiCaprio’s best performance, than they came across some remake of Infernal Affairs called The Departed and than Shutter Island. DiCaprio finally convinced Scorsese to get onboard with the comedy that they both needed on their already flourishing filmography of drama, The Wolf of Wall Street. Not only have they both showed that they can portray different genres from the ganger genre to horror, but this is a collaboration that people hope will never end. Although a controversial decision since everyone seems pretty adamant on either The Departed or The Aviator as their best, I think their first partnership for Gangs of New York is a searing achievement in cinematic allure. It’s original storyline, seriously 19th century GoodFellas...(what took so long?), its incredible production and costume design, beautifully shaped editing, and powerhouse performances from everyone— Daniel Day-Lewis, DiCaprio, and Cameron Diaz (that’s right I said it).

5. Ingmar Bergman / Max von Sydow

Who? What? When? It’s quite difficult as a self-proclaimed cinephile to imagine anyone not even being remotely aware of Ingmar Bergman. Or even Max Von Sydow for that matter, although once I say it’s the priest from The Exorcist, than they know who the hell I’m talking about. But these two made a whopping 12 features together in the 50’s and 60’s. From films about knights to family drama films, these two are the perfect combo of mustard and ketchup. Two condiments that can take any food and make it taste miraculous. Although, admittedly, Bergman’s films are not for the faint of heart. In fact, pretty much most of the two’s movies require more than one viewing in order to fully digest the condiments. There will never be a shortage of symbolism in their films that reflect the era or human nature. The mirror in the woods from Wild Strawberries. The eye in The Magician. And, of course, the iconic chess board in The Seventh Seal. However, just like with Gangs of New York, there is also an under appreciated gem in the cannon of Bergman/Von Sydow. Hour of the Wolf, a psychologically surrealist view that bathes itself in bleak foreboding, which is not saying anything at all for an Ingmar Bergman film. The film follows a married couple that may or may not be haunted by a cult on the other side of their remote island.

4. Wes Anderson / Bill Murray

I know, I know, I know— I chose this collaboration over the likes of Scorsese and DiCaprio and Bergman and Von Sydow. And I know Wes Anderson has probably made more movies with Owen Wilson, but come on. Is there an actor who is more tailor-made for Wes Anderson’s deadpan quirkiness. From his leading roles in Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to his supporting turns in The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson always seems to find some room for Murray to shine. Even Scorsese has proclaimed Anderson to be his generation’s Scorsese. However, choosing their best collaboration is a little more arduous. You won’t have to look too far for Anderson’s best and most personal film which is Moonrise Kingdom. A 60’s set Romeo and Juliet love letter to youthful love and the adults who intend to ruin it. Choosing charm and wit to take over any doubts the film may have with itself, it certainly the kind of Wes Anderson film we hope to keep seeing from him. Although, Murray is phenomenal in the film as the fathering Fulgencio Capulet to Juliet, he is never center to the film even though he does have his moments (I still can’t keep a straight face whenever I watch him flipping over that tent). It is Steve Zissou that gives Murray the most to do. Displaying both his comedic persona as well as the sentimentality in his tragic character. Only Murray can create a character that you both love and hate at the same time.

3. Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro

As written earlier, when people often refer to De Niro as being one of the best actors of all time, they are referring to a multitude of his performances. Most of those performances, however, must be attributed to another man. Scorsese and De Niro are an example of a right partnership at the right time. Growing up in the same neighborhood, both maintain a strong infatuation with film, and both want to tell the same stories. From the gritty neighborhood chaos of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to the violent nature of gangsters in GoodFellas and Casino to the exhibition of a determined man consumed by his own faults and ego in Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. Both have had a fearless approach when delving into different genres depicting the dark side of human nature. It’s hard to pick their best movies since they’ve never made a bad movie, even Cape Fear has its followers. But it’s Taxi Driver that will forever be remembered since it remains relevant even today, not only as a way to look back at what New York City was really like in the 70’s, but as an examination of the human psyche— Does everyone have a breaking point? If so, when do we finally break? The iconic Travis Bickle is a man who has far reached his breaking point and resorts to his own brand of vigilantism, something that apparently many people were feeling since the film influenced very similar actions. It is a strong and resonant feature from a quintessential duo who have gone on to leave their imprint in the film industry as we know it.

2. Akira Kurosawa / Toshiro Mifune

From 1947 to 1965— Akira Kurosawa and his go-to actor, Toshiro Mifune made a whopping 18 movies. No small feat especially since their work have now been regarded as some of the greatest and most historically significant films that Japanese cinema has to offer. True, most of their respective outings are samurai centered features about code and conduct, vengeance, and politics, but it’s those variety of themes incorporated into a samurai culture that make each one different from the other, even if Mifune is swinging a sword in all of them. Both similarly and dissimilarly to the Anderson/Murray dilemma; there’s no gold, silver, or bronze to choose from. Both men are brilliant in all of their collaborations, but it’s the difference in the kind of complexity and a smooth shift into different territory that makes both Throne of Blood and The Bad Sleep Well a difficult choice. Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s usual blood and guts samurai saga, influenced by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, about the path to glory and power. While one of Kurosawa’s few forays into a different genre, influenced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, finds Mifune trading in his sword and kimono for a suit and tie in the economic drama The Bad Sleep Well. Both films could not be any more different in terms of the location and era, but could not be more similar in terms of corrupt motivations and resulting retribution.

1. Federico Fellini / Marcello Mastroianni

If Bergman and Von Sydow are mustard and ketchup, than Fellini and Mastroianni are mustard and mustard, or ketchup and ketchup— depending on the substance of the film. Never has there been a duo more adept to one another. Fellini has always had a fascination with depicting his childhood experiences in semi-autobiographical features as well as his fascination with media as an art— both motifs always end up with a recurring theme of self doubt in identity. In their first collaboration, La Dolce Vita, we follow a gossip writer who explores the fruitful and erratic life of Rome for seven days and nights. Fellini’s obsession with identity and the pursuit of happiness is something that he often inquires into his work, and he needs an actor who can portray both the side of guilt and insecurity and the side of hope and achievement. Mastroianni is more than suitable to convey this. Something about the features of his face display a beaten man with a whole bunch of mileage on him, but the physicality of him is equivalent to that of a newborn doing backstrokes in the fountain of youth. This is something that Fellini must have picked up on since all of the features that they have collaborated on have only expressed the gift of Fellini’s cinematic alter ego. This is never more evident than in their idealistic film 8 1/2. By far, that greatest movie ever made about making movies, Mastroianni stars as a film director who’s losing his focus on his next film because his imagination is far too occupied with reminding him of his past.

Which actor/director team do you like best?


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