Like M. Night Shyamalan, some film directors started strong, but then lost sense of direction

Some filmmakers have creative flames that burn eternally: directors like Hitchcock, Scorsese, Spielberg and Eastwood.

Other careers blast off like rockets before sputtering on fluky fumes.

Whether they hit early with an artistic gem, a box office smash or films that manage to be both, Hollywood history is dotted with directors whose later efforts don't measure up to that first big bang.

Larry and Andy Wachowski took a steep fall from The Matrix to Speed Racer, with only V for Vendetta slowing the descent. Elaine May was Hollywood's leading female director after A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, until the reviled Ishtar ended her directing dreams.

Jim Sharman turned The Rocky Horror Picture Show into a cult phenomenon. Then his quasi-sequel Shock Treatment flopped, banishing him to Australian stage work. The esteemed actor Charles Laughton crafted 1954's classic The Night of the Hunter, and never directed again.

But our list includes seven shooting stars (including two teams) who rose even faster and crashed even more spectacularly. Our inspiration: the once-promising M. Night Shyamalan and his current cinematic awfulness, The Happening.

Fans of the directors on our list should consider their inclusion in the most positive way: How many people do something so special that they're remembered for never doing it again?

Orson Welles

Announcing his first movie project, the brash radio theater producer boasted that he would show Hollywood how films should be directed. Welles backed it up with Citizen Kane (above), widely regarded 67 years later as the greatest film ever.

Welles never approached such posterity again, although Touch of Evil (1958) is a fine example of the then-fading film noir genre. Most of Welles' creations — particularly The Lady from Shanghai and The Magnificent Ambersons are relegated to cinema classes and stuffy revivals. Other projects flopped, or were shelved before completion.

Welles assumed the role of misunderstood artiste, with a cultured, jovial arrogance to match. He died in 1985, known as a wine pitchman and talk show raconteur as much as Citizen Kane's creator.

Michael Cimino

In 1979, Cimino was the toast of Hollywood, after his second film, The Deer Hunter (above), won five Academy Awards including best picture and director.

The next year, Cimino was roasted for killing a movie studio.

Buoyed by Oscar glory, Cimino persuaded United Artists to spend $11-million — hefty for the era — on a Western, Heaven's Gate. By the time it was completed that figure nearly quadrupled, making it the costliest film production to date.

Two hours were trimmed from Cimino's original 5 ½-hour version before premiering in New York, where it was savaged by critics and scant audiences. Heaven's Gate closed after one week. Six months later, it resurfaced yet another hour shorter, only to flop again.

Facing bankruptcy, United Artists was sold to MGM. The brand disappeared for decades until it was revived by MGM as a subsidiary, now partly controlled by Tom Cruise.

Cimino made four films since Heaven's Gate without recapturing respect or audiences. He's currently trying again with Man's Fate, set in 1923 China.

'The Blair Witch Project' guys

University of Central Florida graduates Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez pulled cinema into the video age in 1999, with a scary yarn about amateur filmmakers chasing a grisly legend. But after making a big splash, Myrick and Sanchez, like their movie's characters, practically disappeared.

The Blair Witch Project (below) thrilled fans and exasperated others with jittery, monochromatic images and a narrative that commenced by pushing the record button. The home video motif is a YouTube era cliche now, in such films as Cloverfield and Vantage Point.

Lionsgate distributed The Blair Witch Project and pioneered online movie marketing, leading to an astounding $140-million box office performance for a $60,000 production. Every movie has an Internet ad campaign today.

Myrick and Sanchez sold title rights, enabling a 2000 sequel with them graciously credited as executive producers. After a six-year layoff, they retreated to making straight-to-video horror movies.

Kevin Costner

Already a movie star, Costner won an Oscar for directing Dances With Wolves (above). The movie also won best picture, resurrected the epic Western and presented American Indians in uncommonly accurate fashion.

This apparently convinced Costner that every movie he made should be an epic, directed by him. Although he was only supposed to star in it, Costner hijacked directing duties on Waterworld from Kevin Reynolds, except for the screen credit/blame. The Postman was Costner's project and performed worse. Open Range (2003) was solid but suffered at the box office from his reputation by then for overlong ego trips. He hasn't directed since.

Costner still acts, with his best reviews lately for decidedly non-heroic characters (Mr. Brooks, The Upside of Anger). He goes the Gary Cooper route again in Swing Vote, opening Aug. 1.

M. Night Shyamalan

The inspiration for this list of underachievers, after The Happening (above) proved Shyamalan hasn't regained the touch he displayed with The Sixth Sense.

That 1999 release knocked viewers for a loop with its relentlessly creepy vibe and a twist Rod Serling would have loved. The Sixth Sense earned six Academy Award nominations and, for Shyamalan, a massive fan base salivating for another supernatural classic. Five movies later, the cheering has dwindled.

Shyamalan once made us see dead people. Now we see a career on life support.

Hugh Hudson

This British director was a victim of fortune, with only a short film and documentary to his credit when he was hired for 1981's modest Chariots of Fire (above). Then Hudson and the movie were Oscar-nominated along with films from Hollywood's old guard (On Golden Pond, Atlantic City) and younger turks (Reds, Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Votes were split among the Hollywood flicks, and Chariots of Fire won best picture, one of Oscars' most shocking upsets ever. Hudson lost the directing Oscar to Warren Beatty (Reds) but his resume was gilded.

Within four years, Hudson converted that clout into the dull Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes and Revolution, starring Al Pacino of all people as a colonial patriot. Hudson mostly laid low afterward, until 2000's I Dreamed of Africa put the 27 people who saw it to sleep.

The Hughes Brothers

Twin siblings Allen and Albert Hughes stuck a match in a powder keg with 1993's Menace II Society (above), a fierce slice of inner-city life that ignited a new era in African-American filmmaking. The progression of artistic defiance from Shaft to Spike Lee to Boyz N the Hood appeared to be in young, capable hands.

Then the brothers stopped trying to inspire or inform. Their followup film Dead Presidents was a disposable caper, the documentary American Pimp only glamorized the mack lifestyle, and — in an ambitious tonal shift — From Hell (2001) starred Johnny Depp as an inspector chasing Jack the Ripper in 19th century London.

If you can't impress audiences and critics with Depp on your side, something's wrong, indeed.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Like M. Night Shyamalan, some film directors started strong, but then lost sense of direction 06/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 12:59pm]

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