Akira Kurosawa directing Toshiro Mifune on The Bad Sleep Well

Akira Kurosawa directing Toshiro Mifune on The Bad Sleep Well

You always hear the names linked together: John Ford and John Wayne, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. But who really are the best combinations in film history. What are the DVD box sets that really should be released? I’m glad you asked. I have the answers.

The first thing that may surprise you (because it surprised me) is which combinations get left off the top 10 list. My list depends only partially on the number of films they made together, and much more on the quality of acting that came out of the films. Robert Redford made a lot of films with Sydney Pollack, but wasn’t all that great in several of them (not on the list). Diane Keaton was great in Annie Hall, but not as memorable in the other Woody Allen films she’s in (not on the list). Hitchcock had a lot of great actors, but none who stuck around long enough. Jimmy Stewart is always thought of with Frank Capra, but he did two great performances (Life and Mr. Smith) and that was pretty much it. And the Ford/Wayne combo doesn’t make the list, because as I said, it’s the strength of the acting. Make your own conclusions.

Now, here’s the list:

first, we have two runner ups who probably will make the list in the future:

12 – Johnny Depp and Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands / Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow / Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Corpse Bride / Sweeney Todd)

Johnny was nominated (and deserved it) for Sweeney and should have won the Oscar for Ed Wood, but their other collaborations are more strange than brilliant. But they are a potent team and 2010 should bring us their Dark Shadows and might push them fully on the list.

11 – Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York / The Aviator / The Departed)

Talk about home runs. Three films. Three Best Picture and Director nominations. Leo wasn’t so great in Gangs (way overshadowed by Daniel Day-Lewis), but deserved the Oscar for Aviator and should have been nominated for Departed rather than Blood Diamond. Plus, they are already making a fourth film (which the IMDB still calls Shutter Island, the title of the novel, but everyone in Boston knows they’re calling Ashcliffe). Anywhere in the ballpark with the first three combos will put them on the list.

Quick aside: The goal of this list is the 10 best collaborations. You can not collaborate with yourself. Therefore, the following director / actors don’t count: Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin and Clint Eastwood. I listed them in the order they would have appeared (Clint would have been third on this list). Olivier is only as low as he is because he only directed four films. Branagh is still likely to move up the list. Welles was the best actor (and director) of the six, but only really proved it four times (Kane / Othello / Touch of Evil / Chimes).

Now, the actual top 10:

10 – Diane Wiest / Woody Allen (Purple Rose of Cairo / Hannah and Her Sisters / September / Radio Days / Bullets over Broadway)

Only five films together, but two Oscars. She is the most touching character in September and the funniest in Radio Days. She’s brilliant as the messed up sister in Hannah and her performance as Helen Sinclair in Bullets over Broadway made my top 10 Supporting Actress list for all of film history.

9 – Karl Malden / Elia Kazan (Boomerang / A Streetcar Named Desire / On the Waterfront / Baby Doll)

Short resume, but big on performance. People forget today that Karl Malden was one of the best actors of the 50’s, and it was Elia Kazan (who had directed him in Streetcar on Broadway first) who helped make him so. He won the Oscar for Streetcar, should have won for Waterfront and should have been nominated for Baby Doll.

8 – Alec Guinness and David Lean (Great Expectations / Oliver Twist / Bridge on the River Kwai / Lawrence of Arabia / Dr. Zhivago / A Passage to India)

Their team would be higher if Lean had made more use of Guinness in his later films. His performance in Bridge would be enough for anyone, but to add his youthful exuberance in Great Expectations, his twisted Fagin in Oliver Twist and his great supporting roles in the later films, and you have a masterful team.

Tensions on set between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog

Tensions on set between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog

7 – Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God / Woyzeck / Nosferatu / Fitzcarraldo / Cobra Verde)

Their team was so amazing, Herzog made a documentary about it (My Best Fiend). They raged and battled with each other, threatened each other with violence and death. But Kinski made numerous films and I haven’t found any of his other performances to be even half as interesting as when Herzog was directing him.

6 – Humphrey Bogart and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon / Across the Pacific / Key Largo / Treasure of the Sierra Madre / The African Queen / Beat the Devil)

Bogart will always be remembered for Casablanca but most of his best work was with his buddy, John Huston. Huston directed him to his Oscar (African Queen), and two even better performances (Falcon and Treasure). And then they finished it off with a strange offbeat comedy that again reunited him with Falcon‘s Peter Lorre. It’s just too bad that Huston didn’t get to make Man Who Would Be King until long after Bogie had died, instead of together as they had planned.

5 – Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot / The Apartment / Irma La Douce / The Fortune Cookie / Avanti / The Front Page / Buddy Buddy)

There’s the famous story of Lemmon continually doing a scene and Wilder saying “Less, less,” until Lemmon shouted “What do you want? Nothing?” “God, please,” Wilder replied. Even though Lemmon already had an Oscar (for Mr. Roberts), it was really Wilder who made him an actor and a true star, first teaming him with the young and beautiful Shirley MacLaine, and then turning him into the straight man for Walter Matthau.

4 – Henry Fonda and John Ford (Young Mr. Lincoln / Drums Along the Mohawk / The Grapes of Wrath / My Darling Clementine / The Fugitive / Fort Apache / Mr. Roberts / How the West Was Won)

They were such a great team that Ford even had Fonda narrate his documentary The Battle of Midway. He helped mold a young Fonda, directed him to his best performance as Tom Joad in Grapes, brought him to the west for three classic westerns, then years later directed him to another of his greatest performances in Mr. Roberts. Ford made far more films with Wayne than with Fonda, but Fonda was the one who gave the great performances.

3 – Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets / Taxi Driver / New York, New York / Raging Bull / The King of Comedy / GoodFellas / Cape Fear / Casino)

Eight performances. An Oscar (Raging Bull) for one of the greatest performances ever put on film. Two more nominations (Taxi Driver and Cape Fear). A brilliant star turn to first get him noticed (Mean Streets). And a great underrated truly odd performance (The King of Comedy). If only De Niro would go back to making films with Scorsese instead of dumb comedies.

Through a Glass Darkly  (Max Von Sydow, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand)

Through a Glass Darkly (Max Von Sydow, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand)

2 – The Ingmar Bergman troupe (Gunnar Bjornstrand, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Max Von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Liv UIlmann, Erland Josephson)

Bergman was the best director for getting great performances out of his actors. His films are master classes for acting and he did it through continually the same group of actors, but in vastly different ways. He allowed them to explore interpersonal relationships (all seven of them played one half of a married couple with one of the other seven at least once). People generally only remember Von Sydow and Ullmann because they became international stars, but the other five were just as important. If I had used my original version of this list, Ullmann would have been second, three of the others would be in the top 10 and all would be in the top 20. It just seemed more right to group them all together. It’s ridiculous that the seven of them have more Oscar nominations in non-Bergman Swedish films (Ullmann in The Emigrants and Von Sydow in Pelle the Conqueror) than for actual Bergman films (Ullmann in Face to Face). Individually, I would say the best performances are Winter Light (Bjornstrand), Smiles of a Summer Night (H. Andersson), Persona (B. Andersson), Hour of the Wolf (Von Sydow), The Silence (Thulin), Cries and Whispers (Ullmann) and Scenes from a Marriage (Josephson).

1 – Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa (Drunken Angel / A Quiet Duel / Stray Dog / Scandal / Rashomon / The Idiot / The Seven Samurai / I Live in Fear / Throne of Blood / The Lower Depths / The Hidden Fortress / The Bad Sleep Well / Yojimbo / Sanjuro / High and Low / Red Beard)

I telegraphed this with the picture at the start of the post. From 1948 to 1965, they made 16 films together. Their lives were so linked there is a dual biography (The Emperor and the Wolf). It traces their remarkable collaboration and the sad arc of their lives after 1965. Kurosawa, like Bergman, had a regular group of actors. But Mifune was the star (Takashi Shimura was very good, but Ikiru is his only truly great performance, ironically, the one film during that period Mifune isn’t in). Mifune never again achieved great success, and Kurosawa went through failure and a suicide attempt before the hero worship of Lucas, Coppolla and Spielberg helped him to reach a new artistic peak in the 80’s. People always remember Mifune as a samurai, but some of his best performances are the modern days films he made with Kurosawa (notably Stray Dog, but also I Live in Fear and High and Low). Theirs is a remarkable film team, the best the screen has ever had to offer, and if you never seen any of those 16 films, you had best start watching now.

later this week: More lists! (as if you couldn’t have guessed that). The 25 Best Novels of the 21st Century. And a film list I haven’t decided on yet. Plus, more pictures of the cutest little boy ever!