Nine Directors Who Wasted Their Great Potential

Tobe Hooper

When you think about it, a feature film director is a very, very rare animal. Out of over 10 billion souls who have lived and died on this planet since the dawn of cinema, it's likely that no more than 100,000 of them have ever helmed a feature - and I'm including all those who made no-budget, unreleased indies that were seen only by their friends. Of that select few, a tiny percentage of them ever directed a "well-regarded" film - perhaps just 3,000. And of that elite group, surely no more than 500 of those men and women managed to sustain a decent output throughout their careers. Here are nine who might have joined those ranks - some of them might still - but for the time being, they're in the doghouse:

  1. M. Night Shyamalan. The poster boy for wasted potential. The biggest "twist" Shyamalan revealed to his audiences after the sensational success of his third (not first) feature The Sixth Sense was that he had superhuman levels of vanity and self-delusion. He kept his fans' good will going through his next two films, Unbreakable and Signs, but The Village's limp ending squandered that good will, and Lady in the Water (a showcase for Shyamalan's limited acting skills) killed it for good. Let's not even discuss The Happening and The Last Airbender. Incredibly, all but Lady were massively profitable, so it looks as though Night will be sticking around.
  2. Penny Marshall. The former sitcom actress escaped the shackles of "Laverne"-dom and went on to helm a trio of critical and box office hits: Big, Awakenings, A League of Their Own. Then it was as though she just stopped trying: witness the forgettable comedies Renaissance Man and The Preacher's Wife. Marshall hasn't directed a feature since 2001's Riding in Cars with Boys. Only recently has she returned to directing at all - for TV. (Another contender for this list: Marshall's ex-husband Rob Reiner.)
  3. John Singleton. At 43, Singleton has a Hollywood career that many would kill for. Not only does he keep working, which is enviable enough, but most of his recent films have made money (including a Shaft remake and a Fast and Furious installment). But this is the man who, at just 23, directed the critically adored Boyz N the Hood and became the first African American ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar. (Even Spike Lee hasn't yet accomplished this.) But the entitled young Singleton exhausted his Boyz momentum with several pretentious, unsatisfying follow-ups: Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, and the nearly career-killing Rosewood. Shaft marked the moment when Singleton abandoned his dreams of becoming America's Greatest Black Filmmaker and retreated to safe, studio-sanctioned action flicks.
  4. Roland Joffe. Joffe's first two features were The Killing Fields and The Mission. Wow! After that double whammy, there was nowhere to go but down. He kept his career afloat with his next release, Fat Man and Little Boy, a Paul Newman vehicle about the atomic bomb. But Joffe hit a brick wall with 1992's City of Joy. It was another serious, Joffe-style epic, but its star, poor Patrick Swayze, was in over his head. The movie tanked, and today Joffe's career is respectable only in the sense that people keep paying him to direct. But stinkers like the torture porn Captivity and the straight-to-cable You and I (starring Mischa Barton!) are a long, long way from The Mission.
  5. Alex Cox. Oh, Alex Cox. What happened? For a while, you were the great punk rock hope for cinema, with the one-two punch of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. But you were simultaneously overly ambitious and overly silly. After the jokey curio Straight to Hell and the bizarre anti-imperialist Walker, you made yourself irrelevant. What followed was an assortment of indies of variable quality that never caught fire. The very title of your most recent release, Repo Chick, tells your whole pitiful saga, Alex Cox.
  6. Tobe Hooper. Life is hard when your first great movie is a horror flick. You become pigeonholed quickly, and good horror is a tough thing to pull off. Just ask Tobe Hooper, who directed the original 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film that still amazes decades later. He had his ups and downs for a few years - the ups being the 1979 miniseries Salem's Lot (popular at the time, but now badly dated) and 1982's Poltergeist (where, as in several of Hooper's other movies, directorial control was wrested away from him - in this case, by first-time producer Steven Spielberg), the downs being too numerous to count. He manages to keep directing - mostly in TV - but I sense he's still coasting on his one great triumph from nearly 30 years ago.
  7. Michael Cimino. Few filmmakers have risen to prominence so quickly. Few have suffered such catastrophic downfalls. Michael Cimino's career can be summed up by two films: the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter and the infamous bomb Heaven's Gate, released just two years apart. In the 30+ years since Heaven's Gate derailed his career and even killed the studio that made it, Cimino has only directed four middling features, the last of which came out in 1996. It was called The Sun Chaser and it grossed a pathetic $23,508 at the box office.
  8. William Friedkin. Friedkin has helmed 20 features as of this writing. But after hitting the A-list big time with his back-to-back classics The French Connection (for which he won an Oscar) and The Exorcist, things went downhill fast. Blame the usual suspects: an overly ambitious, time-consuming flop (Sorcerer), then a critically derided attempt at "edginess" (Cruising). By 1983, a decade after peaking with The Exorcist, Friedkin was overseeing the Chevy Chase comedy Deal of the Century. Though he briefly regained acclaim with To Live and Die in L.A. in 1985, everything Friedkin has made since can be safely categorized as "programmers": disposable studio B movies.
  9. George Lucas. Hasn't produced or directed a good movie in 30 years.