The Embarrassing Early Films of Oscar-Winning Directors

Argo, Ben Affleck’s third feature film, is looking more and more like a lock for the Best Picture prize at Sunday’s Oscars, and even if the man himself didn’t get a Best Director nomination, it’s still a remarkable culmination of one of the most fascinating second acts in Hollywood. The actor-turned-director seemed shockingly confident and assured in his first feature, 2007’s marvelous Gone Baby Gone, but as The Playlist reminded us this week, his first film (pre-Good Will Hunting, even) was a 1993 short inventively titled I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Ηung Ηer on a Μeathook & Νow I Have a Three-Picture Deal with Disney. It is, as is often the case with these things, not very good, and (to his credit) Affleck is the first one to admit it: “It’s horrible. It’s atrocious. I knew I wanted to be a director, and I did a couple of short films, and this is the only one that haunts me. I’m not proud of it. It looks like it was made by someone who has no prospects, no promise.” But Affleck can take comfort in the fact that he’s not the only filmmaker with a cinematic skeleton in his closet: we found eight auteurs who rose to the Best Director Oscar from rather humble cinematic beginnings.


Francis Ford Coppola

Oscar for: The Godfather, Part II (1974)

Early efforts: Tonight for Sure (1962), The Bellboy and the Playgirls (1962)

The story: Many a struggling young filmmaker has taken advantage of the quick money and relative anonymity of, um, adult entertainment early in their career. Wes Craven and Barry Sonnenfeld worked on porn sets to pay the bills, and future Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola’s first two directorial efforts, from 1962, were in the “nudie cutie” vein — softcore movies, from back when naked flesh on-screen was still a big deal. According to Jami Bernard’s invaluable book First Films, Coppola directed a short called “The Peeper” while still at UCLA film school; it concerned a bumbling peeping Tom trying to catch a glimpse of skin during a photo shoot. “The Peeper” was joined with another short by another young filmmaker and released as Tonight for Sure. He was then hired to add new, nudity-and-slapstick material to a 1958 German movie, which was re-titled The Bellboy and the Playgirls. But Coppola discovered he was too soft-hearted for the nudie racket: “There was a 3-D scene where we had to have five girls sitting at their dressers,” he recalled, “and they were hired and paid to do this. One of the girls came to me and said, ‘I’m only seventeen and my father is going to kill me.’ So I said, ‘Well, okay, leave your brassiere on.’ So there were these four girls, plus one who has a bra on, and I got fired because they were complaining they paid the girls five hundred dollars. So this has been one of the themes in my life. Maybe when I’m eighty I’ll break through the nudity barrier.”

Hints of things to come: The themes of voyeurism in “The Peeper” would return in one of Coppola’s finest films, 1974’s The Conversation. And Coppola’s 1996 film Jack would confirm what The Bellboy hinted: that his gifts are not in the realm of comedy.