A-list meets arthouse: when megastar actors work for auteurs

She’s an Oscar winner and fashion icon, but Marion Cotillard’s new film finds her in the urgent, unvarnished world of master filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. As Two Days, One Night comes out on the BFI Player, we look at 10 other times when A-list stars went arthouse.

Michael Brooke

Two Days, One Night (2014)

Two Days, One Night (2014)

Legend has it that Cary Grant was once considered for the leading role in Bicycle Thieves before Vittorio de Sica went to the opposite extreme and cast unknown beginner Lamberto Maggiorani. That was unquestionably the right decision, but A-list stars have occasionally made surprise appearances in films far removed from their usual fare in terms of budget, nationality or artistic aspiration. Sometimes this can be distracting – at the start of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996), it’s impossible to take your eyes off Jack Lemmon in an insignificantly minor role – but it can just as often be exhilarating.

Take the case of Marion Cotillard, an Oscar winner whose films normally cost far more than the comparatively meagre €7m spent on Two Days, One Night – the film’s directors, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, had never worked with established stars or even non-Belgian performers before. A long-term Dardenne fan, Cotillard agreed to do it before reading the script, and was half expecting it to be a substantial departure from their usual ultra-realism. But no: the film’s luckless protagonist Sandra (who spends a weekend desperately convincing colleagues to forego their bonuses in order to prevent her threatened redundancy) could have featured in any of the Dardennes’ earlier films.

It seems to have been a completely symbiotic relationship: the Dardennes (and their backers) got a highly marketable star, and Cotillard was given the opportunity to be really pushed by filmmakers who were more interested in her considerable technical skills. They didn’t defer to her fame: if a lengthy scene required 82 takes (Cotillard photographed the slate after the Dardennes finally pronounced themselves satisfied), then so be it. But the results more than justified the effort: Cotillard completely disappears into the role, never once looking as though she’s slumming it for the sake of art. And the same is true of most of the examples below.

Ingrid Bergman meets Roberto Rossellini – Stromboli (1950)

“Dear Mr Rossellini, I saw your films Open City and Paisan, and enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only “ti amo”, I am ready to come and make a film with you.”

So read the fan letter written by Ingrid Bergman, one of the biggest female stars of the era – and director Roberto Rossellini gladly accepted the offer, sending her the synopsis of Stromboli.  This would star Bergman as a Lithuanian woman who marries an Italian to escape an internment camp, only to find his home life on the eponymous island in the shadow of its active volcano to be harsh and alien, an effective metaphor for her fish-out-of-water experience making an Italian neorealist film after a decade in Hollywood. But for all the film’s considerable merits (the tuna-fishing sequence in particular is regarded as a classic), most of the media coverage revolved around the scandalous affair between Rossellini and Bergman (both married to others), the virulent reaction to which nearly torpedoed her career.

Burt Lancaster meets Luchino Visconti – The Leopard (1963)

Burt Lancaster was one of the biggest stars in the world when he agreed to play the lead in Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s bestselling novel – although he was originally cast by the producers against Visconti’s wishes. However, the two then got on well, and worked together again in 1974’s Conversation Piece.

Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, proved to be one of Lancaster’s finest performances. Although normally an intensely physical actor, here he was able to convincingly convey an aristocrat who believes more in reflection than potentially rash action, realising that his time as both man and emblem of an ancient dynasty is drawing to a close as the Risorgimento of the 1860s gathers pace. That he was able to convey so much through his bearing alone is doubly impressive given that he was unavoidably dubbed into Italian in the more familiar version of the film – there’s an English cut featuring his own voice, but it’s considerably shorter and has inferior colour. 

Terence Stamp meets Pier Paolo Pasolini – Theorem (1968)

Terence Stamp’s first foray into Italian cinema was for Federico Fellini in his ‘Toby Dammit’ section of the portmanteau film Histoires extraordinaires (1967), by all accounts a blissful experience – Fellini affectionately called him ‘Terencino Francobollo’.  In sharp contrast, Stamp found his experience playing the mysterious stranger at the heart of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s equally mysterious cinematic conundrum to be alienating and enervating, not least because Pasolini barely spoke to him during production.

But there may have been method in this apparent madness, because it’s Stamp’s eerie otherness that makes the film so peculiarly potent, exacerbated by the manner of his arrival and departure: he turns up, seduces all the members of a bourgeois household (regardless of age or sex) and then departs, leaving them with a gaping void in their lives of which they had hitherto been unaware. Might the film have worked with an Italian unknown? Possibly (the film has many other virtues besides casting, after all) but the fact that the stranger is played by one of the decade’s defining sex symbols turbo-charges each encounter in a way that was presumably fully intentional on Pasolini’s part.

Marlon Brando meets Bernardo Bertolucci – Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Immediately after a triumphant return to Hollywood with The Godfather (1972), Marlon Brando teamed up with Bernardo Bertolucci for one of his greatest screen roles, albeit one so physically and emotionally demanding that Brando would later tell the director: “I was completely and utterly violated by you. I will never make another film like that.” 

Few actors ever did – Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant 20 years later springs to mind, but not many others. Obsessed with Brando’s “strange and infernal plasticity”, which he likened to the figures in the Francis Bacon paintings that adorned the opening credits, and taking full advantage of a dramatic relaxation in censorship laws, Bertolucci staged a series of anonymous couplings between Brando’s middle-aged American widower and Maria Schneider’s much younger Frenchwoman, both in search of something that neither can articulate either to themselves or each other. This most vividly comes to a head in the searing monologue that Brando delivers over his wife’s corpse, a blurting-out of grief and anger that seems to turn both him and the film inside out. 

Jack Nicholson meets Michelangelo Antonioni – The Passenger (1974)

With the bookending Chinatown (1974) and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Jack Nicholson worked with European directors in a familiar Hollywood context, but with The Passenger he moved firmly into arthouse territory, crossing the Atlantic to make a film with Michelangelo Antonioni that was co-scripted by pioneering film theorist Peter Wollen. Originally titled Profession: Reporter, it cast Nicholson as a journalist who is already attempting to wipe the slate of his life clean when he spontaneously decides to steal the identity of a now-dead acquaintance in a Chad hotel, unaware that he is actually an arms dealer. This could have fuelled a pacy thriller, but Antonioni’s interest in action is of a quite different kind, the virtuoso camerawork (by Luciano Tovoli) and the desert locations as eloquent as any of the human characters.

The film was famously unavailable for a great many years, not through distributor disinterest but because Nicholson decided to purchase it outright, to own the film as though one might own an original canvas, letting existing distribution agreements expire before its restoration and revival in 2005.

Richard Gere meets Akira Kurosawa – Rhapsody in August (1991)

In the mid-1960s, Akira Kurosawa tried to make Runaway Train with Lee Marvin and Henry Fonda, but the project stalled. Unless you count a bizarre cameo from Martin Scorsese in Dreams (1990), he wouldn’t work with an American star until his penultimate film, which features Richard Gere in a small but memorable supporting role alongside an otherwise all-Japanese cast and speaking their language. (Then at the peak of his post-Pretty Woman bankability, Gere took a huge cut in salary for the honour of working with the Japanese master.)

Gere plays Clark, an American of partially Japanese descent, whose visit to his ancestral homeland in the latter part of the film proves both cathartic and healing, especially when he encounters the family matriarch (the octogenarian Sachiko Murase), whose life was permanently scarred in 1945 by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Gere learned his dialogue phonetically, but his evident awkwardness with its pronunciation humanises the character in a way that Kurosawa may well have intended.

Harvey Keitel meets Theo Angelopoulos – Ulysees’ Gaze (1995)

Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos had worked with major stars before, including Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, but his nearly three-hour elegy to the Balkans and the region’s early cinema was the first to feature an American. Harvey Keitel plays a Greek filmmaker, known only as A, long resident in the US (hence his speaking English) who returns home notionally to attend a festival screening but actually to pursue a private passion – tracking down the first reels of film shot by the Manaki brothers, real-life film pioneers who depicted life in the Balkans at the turn of the 20th century. 

As the title implies, it’s a modern Odyssey, with Angelopoulos’s characteristically long and meticulous shots turning A’s journey into a slow and sombre reflection on the state of south-east Europe (then ravaged by war) and of its people – not least A himself as a long-term exile. In this respect Keitel is perfectly cast precisely because he doesn’t fit in, and is all too conscious of this.

Nicole Kidman meets Lars von Trier – Dogville (2003)

One of the most bizarrely memorable fusions of A-list stars and avant-garde treatment, Lars von Trier’s film features the highest-profile cast that he ever worked with (Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Chloë Sevigny, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier, Ben Gazzara and James Caan), performing on ‘sets’ that consist of little more than white outlines on a bare stage, with doors conveyed purely through mime and sound effects. 

Kidman headlines the film as a woman on the run from gangsters who hides out in a Colorado town whose inhabitants are anything but welcoming – her willing cooperation in exchange for tolerance gradually turns into naked exploitation culminating in total enslavement. The despairing drama is leavened only by the emotional and moral force of her performance (very much in the manner of predecessors Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves and Björk in Dancer in the Dark), which is accentuated by the absence of conventional film trappings – with everything exposed, there’s nowhere to hide when things turn seriously nasty.

Bill Murray meets Jim Jarmusch – Broken Flowers (2005)

By 2005, Jim Jarmusch was no stranger to working with name actors – he’d already collaborated with Johnny Depp, Robert Mitchum, Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder and Forest Whitaker, while Roberto Benigni was already a megastar in Italy. But when Bill Murray agreed to star in Broken Flowers as a middle-aged man who revisits former lovers to try to identify the mother of his alleged son, he was by far the biggest star to appear in a Jarmusch film, but also a perfect fit.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Even in raucous early films like Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981), Murray was the deadpan linchpin around which the rest of the action swirled: think of his great Ghost Busters (1984) lines and they’re as likely to be a near-muttered “he slimed me” as anything else. Jarmusch merely pushed his amply demonstrated talent for understatement to the logical limit – an early shot features a silent, near-expressionless Murray contemplating a glass of champagne for almost a minute, and he somehow makes it utterly spellbinding. 

Brad Pitt meets Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life (2010)

It seems odd to describe a $32 million film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as “arthouse”, but no other word will do for Terrence Malick’s elliptical portrait of a family growing up in 1950s Texas, against a backdrop of Creation itself, the latter realised by special-effects legend Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters). Indeed, it’s not the only Malick film that could be cited here.

As co-producer, Pitt played a major part in getting it made in the first place, but what’s most remarkable is the subtlety of his performance as the patriarch, a stern martinet with his children, but a deeply sensitive individual when the mask slips, torn between his genuine but non-lucrative musical talent and his thwarted desire to achieve success as an inventor. The closest that Malick ever came to autobiography, it’s both an ecstatic paean to childhood and a sombre reflection on life’s fragility, and while Penn’s role confused many (not least the actor himself), Pitt keeps Malick’s regular flights of fancy firmly anchored to recognisable emotional reality.

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