By Alan Hurst

I don’t like using the descriptor “muse” to describe the inspired partnerships between a film director (for the purposes of this article all men) and his female lead when they’ve enjoyed a series of films together. Each of the directors on this list have enjoyed spectacular success with other leading actresses and actors, and each of the actresses have triumphed with other directors. But there is no denying that something clicked when these directors established a rapport with these actresses – in some cases they may have started out as a father figure, there might have been a physical attraction, or they might have just enjoyed mutual artistic respect.

Whatever the nature of the relationship there definitely was an emotional attraction, supported by significant trust that allowed each of them to stretch artistically. In every one of these examples, these directors knew what the actress was capable of and the actresses, in turn, knew they were going to be pushed out of their comfort zone, but that’s easier when there’s trust and you know you’re not going to be left hanging.

My criteria here is simple: the director and actress had to have worked together a minimum of four times (which is why William Wyler and Bette Davis didn’t make the cut despite making three classic films together) and the films needed to be of some artistic merit. As with most of our articles for Foote and Friends on Film, once you determine a topic the best part of the process is the research. This forced me to finally get back to watching some classic Ingmar Bergman for the first time, and it also encouraged me to expand my exposure to John Cassavetes. There are some terrific films here that are worth a look if you haven’t seen them – or a second look if you have.


Joseph von Sternberg had enjoyed considerable acclaim at Paramount during the last years of silent films when he went back to Germany to join forces with Marlene Dietrich for The Blue Angel (1929), a story about the downfall of a professor at the hands of a seductive cabaret star (Dietrich). The film enjoyed international success and made a star of Dietrich, who was summoned to America for a series of films with von Sternberg. The films were visually spectacular, with von Sternberg handling his star in a way no director ever had before or after – thanks to von Sternberg’s technical skills and artistic eye Dietrich became the epitome of screen glamour and by the mid 1930’s her legend was secure. Not all of the films were successful at the box office or with critics, but they certainly are something to see. The duo made seven films together between 1929 and 1935: The Blue Angel (1929), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlett Empress (1934) and The Devil is a Woman (1935). The case could be made that Morocco or The Scarlett Empress are the peak of their partnership, but for me it’s Shanghai Express, the best film of 1932 and Dietrich’s best performance.


Without Frank Capra, Barbara Stanwyck’s rise as one of the major actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age would have probably played out quite differently. And without Stanwyck, Capra’s trajectory as the chronicler of American ideals may have taken a little longer. But after a bit of initial reluctance on Capra’s part, the two joined forces for five hard hitting, socially relevant films between 1930 and 1941. Although relatively new to movies at the start of their collaboration, Stanwyck’s work in these five Capra films helped position her as one of the most intense and interesting actresses of the sound era. Norma Shearer may have had the genteel market at MGM, but something much more interesting was happening at Columbia with the gritty, tough yet vulnerable characters Stanwyck and Capra were fashioning. Their first four films saw Stanwyck dealing with class struggles in Ladies of Leisure (1930), corrupt evangelism in the still relevant The Miracle Woman (1931), adultery and an out of wedlock child in Forbidden (1932), and interracial romance in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932). These are four strong films and with each one you can see Stanwyck’s rapid development as one of the top actresses of the decade. Although her first Oscar nomination was still a few years away (for Stella Dallas in 1937), she deserved consideration for both Ladies of Leisure and The Miracle Woman. Nine years later Stanwyck and Capra worked together again in the cynical Meet John Doe (1941) which re-teamed her with Gary Cooper. She had also filmed Ball of Fire with him that same year, one of the screen’s great comedies. Meet John Doe has some terrific moments, but there’s something about the electricity that Stanwyck and Capra achieved with their earlier work. Definitely worth the time to search them out.


The first film collaboration of director George Cukor and actress Katharine Hepburn was in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and it served as Hepburn’s film debut. It was the first of 10 collaborations between the two, including two acclaimed television films from the 1970’s. Their films spanned both drama and comedy, but there was something about their comedies that has truly stood the test time. Their four biggest artistic successes were probably Holiday (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), each of which are near perfect comedies from their respective eras and still eminently watchable today. For me it doesn’t get much better than the visual sophistication Cukor gives The Philadelphia Story with Hepburn in one of her definitive, archly perfect performances. I’m also a big fan of Adam’s Rib, a fast paced and very funny battle of the sexes comedy which also represent the peak of all the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn films. Cukor had a reputation for working well with his leading ladies and it was Hepburn who helped burnish that reputation – he was able to highlight Hepburn’s flair for independence and intelligence, without making her cold or unsympathetic. A Bill of Divorcement was their first film success together, and it was followed by a much bigger success with Little Women (1933), for many still the definitive version of that much-filmed book. There was a miss with the poorly received Sylvia Scarlet (1936), but back to form with Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. Keeper of the Flame (1942), a second pairing of Hepburn and Tracy, was an oddly engrossing look at fascism. Adams’s Rib and Pat and Mike were two more successful collaborations with Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy, and then nothing until 1975 when Cukor directed both Hepburn and Laurence Olivier to Emmys in the TV movie Love Among the Ruins (Cukor also won an Emmy for directing). A remake The Corn is Green in 1979 was their final film, a beautifully filmed TV version of the classic play, with a lovely performance from Hepburn as a school teacher in a Welsh mining town.


Sophia Loren had been working in films for a few years when Vittorio de Sica cast her as a pizza seller in one of the many segments in the anthology The Gold of Naples (1954) and she very quickly became one of the hottest things in international cinema. de Sica himself had already enjoyed considerable success in Italian films with Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952). The two teamed up again a few years later for Two Women (1961), an incredibly heart wrenching story about a mother and daughter enduring the brutality of war in World War II Italy, which won Loren her Oscar for Best Actress. These were followed very quickly by Boccaccio ’70 (1962), Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and the wonderful Marriage, Italian Style (1964), all of them a mixture of comedy and drama that showed Loren to envious advantage. Watch Loren in Marriage, Italian Style and you’ll see one of the great performances of the decade. Their partnership would see two more films – the moving war drama Sunflower (1970) with Marcello Mastroianni, and The Voyage (1974), an unfortunate and dull pairing with Richard Burton. With the exception of her superb work in A Special Day (1977) and last year’s Netflix drama The Life Ahead (2020), Loren did her best work for de Sica. Always an intuitive and emotional actress, de Sica was able to harness that and ensured Loren would emerge as one of the great screen actresses of the 1960’s. The fact that she was stunningly gorgeous didn’t hurt, but she also had the talent to back it up. And de Sica helped her tap into that.


I will readily admit that I haven’t gotten through all nine films that teamed director Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. My first exposure to Bergman and Ullmann was in 1980 in university at a screening of Persona (1966). I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until years later that I watched the film again, and suddenly got it. At least I think I did. At the very least I was riveted by what I was watching. With the exception of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Fanny and Alexander (1983), Ingmar Bergman’s film never engender a warm feeling. For me Bergman’s films inevitably feel stark yet dreamlike and you know they’re working on multiple levels. This is particularly true of his films with Ullmann. I think their finest film together (of those that I’ve seen) is Scenes from a Marriage (1974), which was a mini-series and then edited down to three hours for theatrical release. It’s a raw, emotional look at marriage with a superb performance from Ullmann. Psychological turmoil is a theme through all of their films together – whether it be the result of marriage, family, illness, or personal demons. Through a combination of intricate, memorable visuals and intelligent, sole baring performances form his leading lady, Bergman and Ullmann proved to be an intense and fascinating director-actress duo. In addition to Persona and Scenes from a Marriage, their other films include Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), Cries and Whispers (1972), Face to Face (1976), The Serpent’s Egg (1977) and Autumn Sonata (1978). I have seen Autumn Sonata and most of Cries and Whispers, but I’m going to work my way through all of their films from the beginning. It’s going to take a while, but I’m game.


They became the King and Queen of independent film in the late 1960’s and into the 1980’s through a series of six loosely structured, personal and sometimes difficult films. He loved getting his actors to dig into their characters and improvise thoughts and dialogue, often incorporating those into the final scripts. And Rowlands turned out to be the ideal interpreter of Cassavetes’ art. Cassavetes and Rowlands married in 1954 and remained married until his death in 1989. He died of cirrhosis of the liver after years of alcoholism, something that permeated many of his characters. There’s a very masculine, messy feel to Cassavetes scripts and directing style. His films and characters feel quite raw. But it’s interesting that he achieved his biggest success with the films centered around a female character, always played with virtuoso skill by his wife, Gena Rowlands. Rowlands was – is – a superb actress: beautiful, classy, but able to let a character’s demons come through with a true lack of vanity. Their biggest success was A Woman Under the Influence (1984), a film about a troubled marriage and specifically about the wife’s mental illness. It’s a fascinating film that earned Oscar nominations for both of them – Rowlands for Best Actress and Cassavetes for Best Direction. They first teamed up for Faces (1968), a film about a disintegrating marriage. Next up was Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), a romantic comedy that received decent reviews (and is in need of a Criterion Blu Ray release). Opening Night (1977) focused on an actress whose life is out of control, again with a superb Rowlands performance and a wonderful supporting turn from veteran Joan Blondell. Gloria (1980) was a more mainstream effort from Cassavetes, a crime drama about a gangster’s moll which netted Rowlands another Oscar nomination. Love Streams (1984) was their final collaboration, a well-reviewed look at a complicated brother/sister relationship.


I don’t think Julie Andrews necessarily did her best film work with director/writer husband Blake Edwards. Her film career peak will always be the 1-2-3 punch of Mary Poppins (1964), The Americanization of Emily (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) which were released within a seven-month period. However I do think there’s a definite case to be made that Andrews’ seven collaborations with Edwards expanded her range as an actress and made her a more contemporary film figure. The first film together was the World War I musical comedy Darling Lili (1970), which saw Andrews as a Mata Hari-like spy. It was one of those big-budget, over produced failures that were common in the period, but it has some gorgeous visual and musical moments. After some television work, they were back in 1974 with The Tamarind Seed, a decent cold war espionage drama. But it was the movie 10 (1979) where the pair started hitting their stride. Andrews’ role in the comedy about male mid-life crisis was secondary, but she provided the voice of reason amid the chaos. She was one of the expert ensemble cast in Edwards’ acerbic and very funny swipe at Hollywood, S.O.B (1981), and the following year Edwards and Andrews hit their peak together with the classic Victor/Victoria (1982), his best film and one of her best performances. There was a bit of a miss with an unnecessary remake of The Man Who Loved Women (1983), but Edwards provided a nice role for Andrews in the autobiographical That’s Life (1986), where she delivered another warm and expert performance.


Woody Allen and Diane Keaton first worked together in the Broadway production of Allen’s play Play it Again, Sam in the late 1960’s. They became a couple a little later and worked together again in 1972 in the film version of the play but it was directed by Herbert Ross, not Allen. The two appeared in Sleeper (1973) the following year. This time Allen was both co-star and director, and one of the great cinema partnerships was born. Sleeper was a very funny and slapstick look at life in the future with Keaton proving to be the perfect foil for Allen and a wonderful comedienne. Allen next fashioned a script satirizing Russian literature with Love and Death (1975), again with Keaton and himself in the leads, and he directed. It was one of the funniest films of the year. Even though romantically things had ended between the two, their screen partnership ascended to mythical status with Annie Hall (1977), the decade’s defining romantic comedy and an Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. Stretching themselves, there was a semi-successful attempt at drama with Interiors (1978), but things were back on firmer ground with the near perfect Manhattan (1979) which reunited the two onscreen as a pair of neurotic lovers in a bittersweet valentine to New York. After that, professionally they went in other directions, although they remained friends. In 1987 Keaton was lured back for a beautiful cameo in Allen’s nostalgic Radio Days (1987). Keaton appeared near the end of the film, singing Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” on New Year’s Eve. Six years later she was a last-minute replacement for Mia Farrow in Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), a very funny farce about a pair of amateur sleuths. It was great to see Allen and Keaton working together again – and so effortlessly.


I mentioned above that Diane Keaton was a last-minute replacement for Mia Farrow in Manhattan Murder Mystery. For the bulk of the 1980’s up until 1992 – when things ended very badly – Allen and Mia Farrow were the screen’s preeminent director-actress combo. They first teamed up in the lightweight but magical A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1882). Allen the writer and director ultimately provided Farrow the actresses with some of the best roles and opportunities she would ever have – 13 films in all. They weren’t all home runs, but any list of Allen’s best films as a director usually include four or five that starred Farrow. Personally, the relationship may have been a disaster with a capital “D”, but professionally it was magic time. After A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, it was usually one or two films a year for them: Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), September (1987), Another Women (1988), New York Stories (1989), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Alice (1990), Shadows and Fog (1992), and Husbands and Wives (1992). Quite a list. I think their best work together would include Broadway Danny Rose, a perfect pairing with Farrow surprising everyone with her tough accented gangster’s moll; The Purple Rose of Cairo, a fantasy about movies and reality; the near-perfect Hannah and Her Sisters; the wonderfully nostalgic Radio Days; and the light but very funny Alice, which in retrospect ended up being Allen’s valentine to Farrow since she’s basically the entire movie in his modern day tweaking of “Alice in Wonderland”.


I wish this director and actress had worked together more often. Nichols directed Streep in a stage production of The Seagull in 2001 but we only have the benefit of four films, even though one of those films is an epic six-part, 352-minute TV production. There were other times when they were supposed to have teamed up, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen. And now that Mike Nichols is no longer with us, we just get to imagine “what if?”. Their first film together was Silkwood (1983), an excellent look at the flawed life of Karen Silkwood with Streep surprising us again as blue-collar worker form the south. The film is a tense, emotional telling of the nuclear whistle blower. A great script and one of the best films of Nichols’ career. Heartburn (1986) was based on an autobiographical book by Nora Ephron (who had co-authored the script for Silkwood) and told the romance, marriage and eventual divorce of two well known people (the thinly disguised Ephron and Carl Bernstein). Jack Nicholson co-starred and he and Streep worked well together and the film is both funny and somewhat bruising. At the time it received mixed reviews but watching it again years later it holds up very well as a biting, episodic look at doomed marriage. Postcards from the Edge (1990) was next, an excellent look at mothers and daughters, drug and alcohol addiction, and the movies. Based on Carrie Fisher’s best-selling book, it was one of the best films of 1990 – smart, funny, a little nasty and very well cast with Streep and Shirley MacLaine as the fascinatingly codependent mother-daughter. The television production of the mammoth Broadway play Angels in America was the final Nichols-Streep collaboration and it proved to be groundbreaking. The story of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on a group of individuals, everyone was at the top of their game. Streep had multiple roles and expertly disappeared behind each of them. The production remains one of Nichols’ significant achievements as a director and it won 11 Emmys, including statues for Streep, Nichols and co-star Al Pacino.

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