Prior to the death of Sam Shepard last week, it was easy to gloss over the vast depths of the artist’s work. In recent years, he was best known as a reliable supporting player, the go-to actor for noble lawmen, stubborn soldiers, and bitter patriarchs. His skill on screen almost overshadowed the fact that his career started behind the scenes and on the page. Shepard was the rare playwright and actor, a category strangely uncommon in the history of cinema.
It’s worth distinguishing between the actor-writer and the much more common actor-director. Artists like Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin were the archetypes for the actor who also directs, but they took this multihyphenate creative approach to extremes. In addition to writing his own films, Welles was deeply involved with the cinematography of his movies; Chaplin controlled every aspect of them, even writing his own scores.
More recent actor-directors tend to take a measured approach to creation. Unless you’re Steven Soderbergh, who edits and shoots his films under pseudonyms, it’s enough just to write, direct, and act. With the exception of a few actor-directors who can helm big budget pictures (Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Ben Affleck), most create smaller, more intimate films. Whether it’s Spike Lee, Lena Dunham, or Woody Allen, these filmmakers are creating deeply personal movies, and it’s necessary to control the major aspects of production to ensure that their stories are told properly. If there’s an outlier among actor-directors, it’s Allen; although his work as an actor and director is what he is best known for, his plays, short stories, and humor pieces are respected as meaningful works of art, not just indulgent diversions from his true profession.
All this brings us back to Sam Shepard, and his status outside the canon of actor-directors. He could have fit among their ranks – he directed two films, Far North (1988) and Silent Tongue (1994). However, both films are clumsy and forgettable. They lack the poetry of Shepard’s plays and screenplays, and neither features a performance quite as electrifying as he was capable of giving himself.
Shepard’s abilities as a writer and an actor were compartmentalized, never bleeding over onto each other like they have for other artists. He had been writing surrealistic one-act plays for years before ever stepping in front of a camera (although he had acted in his own plays), and his career as a playwright had already been cemented prior to his first major film role, the nameless farmer tragically duped into a sham marriage in Days of Heaven (1978). He would win the Pulitzer a year later for his play The Buried Child, with another one of his masterpieces, True West (1980), following shortly behind.
Two of Shepard’s greatest film successes came in the middle of the 1980s. In 1983, he played test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. It’s a remarkable performance in a film sporting a large ensemble of great actors. Shepard’s Yeager is the heart of the film; his early accomplishments imbue the movie with a sense of infectious joy and wonder, but his failure to join the nascent astronaut program weighs heavily on him. Shepard was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award that year.
A year later, Shepard wrote the screenplay for Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Technically, the script was a collaboration between Shepard and the actor L. M. Kit Carson, but it is filled with the hallmarks of Shepard’s most famous works for the stage. The mostly mute Harry Dean Stanton wanders through desolate western landscapes, a standard setting for Shepard. There are also questions of identity, similar to the earlier play, True West. In Paris, Texas, Stanton has lost his wife and abandoned his son; he’s an empty person, and his family was all that made him whole. When he strolls aimlessly through the desert, he is as empty as a ball of tumbleweed endlessly rolling. By rejoining his son and tracking down his missing wife, Stanton’s character begins the first steps to reclaiming the soul he had detached.
Paris, Texas is a masterful and heartbreaking revision to the Western genre. Elements of the film resemble The Searchers (1956), but there is no gun fighting and no noble mission. Ethan Edwards sacrifices his soul-searching for a lost person in that earlier movie, but we start to wonder if the character in Paris, Texas ever had one to begin with. The movie owes much to Shepard’s collaborators, but his screenplay carries most of the emotional weight of the picture. It’s a work that stands with the best of his writing for the theater.
Shepard’s career didn’t end in the mid-‘80s after the twin triumphs of The Right Stuff and Paris, Texas. There would be other excellent roles, other fine screenplays, other important plays. So why is it so easy to forget Shepard the multihyphenate, even as we celebrate other Hollywood multitaskers? Part of it has to do with the importance cinephiles attach to the role of the director.
In a post-auteur theory world, we’ve been taught that the primary creative voice on a film is the director. This is often true, especially in the case of directors who also write their screenplays. However, the theory does Shepard a disservice. He only directed films as a lark, so his real status is as the actor-writer, and his voice is so unique and powerful that it’s not accurate to push him to the background. Wim Wenders is a masterful director, and his style imbues Paris, Texas, yet the most memorable elements of the film are the result of Shepard’s pen. There aren’t many examples of the actor-writer to influence our thinking – Justin Theroux of the dearly departed The Leftovers has also written a fair number of films without transitioning to directing, but he’s one of a rare group that we haven’t learned how to talk about and contextualize.
The actor-director is also just a more heroic and dynamic figure to many. From the director’s chair, they can control every aspect of the production in clearly visible ways. But the screenwriter works in the shadows. His or her work is done before production starts, and they may not even be invited on set once filming begins. It’s easy for us to ignore the person who isn’t there.
Sam Shepard was not a commercial figure – his plays were done off-Broadway (though they were critically acclaimed and award-winning), and his best work on screen is more recognized by lovers of film than the average moviegoer, but he is as much a dominant artist as the artists who also direct, whom we admire and put on a pedestal. He deserves the same respect we afford to those venerated actor-directors.
– Brian Marks