[Book Review] TCM’s ‘THE ESSENTIAL DIRECTORS’ is debatable, but personal favorites and new discoveries will delight movie buffs

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

The Essential Directors: The Art and Impact of Cinema’s Most Influential Filmmakers


By Sloan De Forest
Forwards by Peter Bogdanovich and Jacqueline Stewart

Can the terms essential and quintessential be used interchangeably in describing directors? Does tacking “quint” to the front of essential really make a difference? On the one hand, the first is of absolute importance. For the other, it is a merit badge of quality and class – whatever the hell that means when trying to untangle the art from the artist.

Come to think of it, influential, a term found in the subtitle heading for THE ESSENTIAL DIRECTORS, is the better identifier. For each one Sloan De Forest and Turner Classic Movies has selected and profiled, said filmmaker has in some form inspired or affected future generations of directors. Some have even paid homage and then seen themselves become influencers. A great example is Brian De Palma mimicking Alfred Hitchcock to become a film-making iconoclast in his own right.             

De Forest’s page-turning movie guide is split into six chapters as it chronicles cinema’s evolution from silent pictures up until Hollywood lost its classic sheen and moved on to something new. Containing 56 filmmaker profiles and more than 200 vibrant photographs taken from cinema classics and from behind the scenes, De Forest turns the camera around on those who yell “Action!” as she journeys through a fifty-year period and looks at the artists and the influence they have had.

Pouring through the contents, the book becomes an enlightening experience with each filmmaker. The familiar names are present: Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, and the Johns – Ford and Huston. But most significant are the unfamiliar film-making pioneers from cinema’s infancy. Oscar Micheaux was Hollywood’s first major director of color. He was a multi-hyphenate talent making movies for Black audiences in the early 1920s through the 1940s. Most of Micheaux’s work has been lost forever and was largely dismissed by critics of the day; they found little artistry among productions shot fast and on the fly with little money. A generation later, new critics would praise low-budget, independent cinema from Hollywood outsiders like Gordon Parks Jr. and Melvin Van Peebles. Their early works got the attention of Tinseltown, and together they would help jumpstart a new type of genre: blaxploitation.

In his forward, director Peter Bogdanovich writes, “When the work is brilliant and also personal, we as the audience feel connected to the person who made it.” This is true. Then again, brilliance and personal are not always intertwined. Michael Curtiz, overshadowed by other directing stars of the studio era, was a journeyman who was established under contract at Warner. He didn’t have a distinct style, but he was so great in so many different genres. Ford had his westerns and Hitchcock may be the master of suspense. Still, neither can say they made stars out of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, introduced audiences to Doris Day, or directed legends James Cagney and Joan Crawford to Academy Awards. Oh, he also did a little film called CASABLANCA.   

Flipping through chapters titled “The Studio as Auteur” and “The Director as Star,” the reader can grasp the changes occurring within Hollywood. The stranglehold studios had become less constrictive, and filmmakers were a commodity on the open market; signature names audiences would flock to theaters just because of them. Nowadays, few directors command such attention on a national scale. Their essentials would look a whole different than those spotlighted here.

If there are any faults to be found in De Forest’s guide, it may be a lack of diversity and where it ends. Sadly, diversity is small when auteurs call the shots on set. THE ESSENTIAL DIRECTORS inherently shows the business of showbiz to be a white man’s affair. Micheaux rightfully gets deserved attention, as do four female directors, but that’s it. This isn’t a knock against De Forest and those she and TCM have selected. It’s reality. Though it is odd seeing Spike Lee praise Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT and Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS only to have him omitted. Concluding with the 1970s and New Hollywood seems like a disservice to those who would have likely been featured. For starters: The Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan), Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, John Hughes, Denis Villenueve, Damien Chazelle, Edgar Wright, Kathryn Bigelow, Penny Marshall, and the Andersons – Wes and Paul Thomas.  

Perhaps, THE ESSENTIAL DIRECTORS is borrowing from Hollywood’s playbook. If this resource guide is a hit, a sequel is almost guaranteed.

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