If you think of the movies most often listed as the best of all time – The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Psycho – among many, many more – they are usually by filmmakers who have made at least one other “great” film. Coppola had Apocalypse Now, Welles had Touch of Evil, Hitchcock had, well, if you’re reading this, you already know. Their talent transcended any one project. They had hits already in their pockets, and often still to come, too.
This is a list about the opposite of that scenario. Here are five filmmakers for whom inspiration struck, and then, for one reason or another, promptly vamoosed – and the stories behind their greatest works.
1. Roberto Benigni – Life is Beautiful
Begnini was well known as an actor, director, writer, and comedian in his native Italy before striking gold, and finding worldwide fame, with this story of a father using the power of humour and imagination to shield his young son from the horrors of a World War II concentration camp. The Academy felt that the film found the right balance between comedy and solemnity for its difficult subject matter, awarding it three Oscars including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor for Begnini. Yet it has not escaped critical controversy, with many feeling that its mawkish treatment belittled the suffering of the Holocaust. The film is perhaps best remembered today for its star’s flamboyant celebrations at the 1999 Oscars. Begnini’s next film, a disastrous adaptation of Pinocchio in 2002, signalled his sharp fall from grace as a director.
2. Charles Laughton – Night of the Hunter
As a film actor, Charles Laughton enjoyed an illustrious career that spanned over 30 years and included roles as Gracchus in Kubrick’s Spartacus, Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His only venture behind the camera came in 1955, and what a debut it was. The Night of the Hunter is remembered, with hindsight, as a sublime example of American film noir, crafting a surreal expressionistic world that was unique in Hollywood at the time. Robert Mitchum starred as a murderous reverend whose tattooed knuckles found their way into cinematic folklore. The film, though, was a critical and commercial failure, clearly ahead of its time, and Laughton never directed again – which makes one wonder what other treats we might have missed out on.
3. Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
You probably remember the hype surrounding The Artist – a silent love letter to Hollywood’s early years – when it was released back in 2011. The novelty of its silence in a world of brash action blockbusters, and the fact that proved to be charming and compelling in its own right, sent waves through the film industry that culminated in a raft of awards, including three Golden Globes, six BAFTAs, and five Oscars – among them Best Director, Best Actor, and the coveted Best Picture. Back then, its director was known chiefly for helming two spy movie parodies, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and its sequel, Lost in Rio, in his native France. His two features since have failed to match its triumph. The film wasn’t short of beneficiaries, however: its canine star, Uggie, went on to Twitter fame, was the subject of an Oscar campaign, and even published a memoir in 2012.
4. Michael Cimino – The Deer Hunter
Perhaps no other filmmaker has suffered a fall from grace quite as severe as Michael Cimino. After modest success with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in 1974, he saw out the 1970s in style by winning the 1979 Best Director gong for The Deer Hunter, which also won Best Picture, cementing Cimino’s reputation as a rising star in Hollywood. His next film, Heaven’s Gate, is considered to be one of the biggest disasters in the history of cinema. Blighted by a massive budget overrun (from an initial $7.5m to $44m), accusations of on-set animal cruelty, and the cast’s resentment of Cimino’s domineering style, the movie was much maligned by critics and bombed at the box office, causing the collapse of its parent studio, United Artists. The Deer Hunter is considered one of the finest films of its or any generation, and while Heaven’s Gate has enjoyed a recent critical reappraisal, Cimino’s career as a director never recovered from the catastrophe.
5. John Carney – Once
Carney struck a chord (so to speak) with this next-to-no-budget musical. Set in Dublin and with a mostly amateur cast, audiences were captivated by the simple humanity of its melancholy romance between a busker and Czech immigrant who connect over their love of music. And it’s the music that steals the show: the reason the film became one of the most talked about of 2007, culminating in an Oscar for Best Original Song. A successful stage adaptation opened on Broadway in 2011, and although Carney has had commercial success in reprising the “movie about music” formula with Begin Again and Sing Street, the magic of Once was just that – once in a lifetime.