Reconsidering Ron Howard: Is He Actually a Good Director?

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

It starts with how we still haven’t cured ourselves of calling him Opie. At age 59, Ron Howard has directed 30 or so feature films. Some of them — Splash, Apollo 13 — have earned permanent shelf lives in the great American public’s esteem. He has won enough awards to teach an octopus to juggle. Yet we life members of the Snotty Critics’ Club have remained unmoved. We love to signal how trivial we think he is by referencing his now ancient past as sitcomland’s answer to Tom Sawyer.

That’s especially true for those of us who grew up with Howard the actor and can’t help thinking of him as a quasi-sibling. Because our acquaintance with him predated our ability to form opinions about anything except Gerber, the bond is more or less involuntary, which helps explain the snottiness. All the same, only a crackpot would devote valuable brain cells to hating Ron Howard. So far as we know, he’s never been anywhere near that nasty about anything or anyone, making hating him a loser’s game by definition.

As Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show and then Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, Howard was even more wholesome than the sum of his parts. He was also often undervalued for how likable and convincing he was at the job, since selling apple-pie innocence week in and week out must make playing Macbeth look like a breeze sometimes. As if he’s preserving a public trust, his persona in adulthood has never violated those memories — well, unless you count producing and narrating TV’s Arrested Development, the nearest audiences will ever come to encountering Howard’s secret porn stash.

Whether or not this is the deliberate choice that I suspect it is — and my hunch is that he’d have made a very good politician — the idea of Howard having a dark, disturbing side is inherently comical to Americans. I can remember actor Brian Dennehy, promoting Cocoon back in the day, getting huge laughs on David Letterman’s Late Night (I think it was Letterman, anyway) with a deadpan routine about Howard’s on-set bondage fetish.

Perhaps more cruelly, I also recall a press-packet quote from the lead actress in Lars von Trier’s notoriously perverse Manderlay to the effect that nice-guy directors seldom make interesting movies, but crazies like Lars flirt with greatness. Actress’s name: Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron’s daughter. Don’t you wonder how the reunion went when she got home from Cannes?

But that’s between them. Considering how capable Howard is — I may not be crazy about his work, but with 2000’s grotesque How the Grinch Stole Christmas as the foremost exception, his movies seldom look as though he’s made a botch of the job — treating him as if he’s Shirley Temple turned movie director is patently unfair. We know it. Our sick way of punishing Eisenhower-era America for what it did to us — and even him — is to relish it. Besides calling him Opie, we also have a habit of treating “un film de Ron Howard” as if it’s the funniest phrase since French got invented.

Because I’m only inhuman, I did both in my review from the Toronto film festival of Howard’s latest, Rush. The bizarre thing was that my piece was a rave. Starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl as real-life 1970s Formula One racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, Rush is a blast from start to finish. Juicy and often sexy, it’s also ingeniously structured to maximize the audience’s delight in the dueling pair’s oil-and-water antagonism. Then the movie flips the switch on our preconceptions about which of them is the jerk and which one’s the hero.

Between the bold performances and the confident filmmaking chops, it’s good the way The Great Escape was good 50 years ago — that is, when Hollywood still knew how to get the most out of an irresistible story for sheer pleasure’s sake without undue fretting about either profundity or art. I was smitten enough to wonder whether Howard’s real value might be as our last non-ironic link to how the people he grew up around did it back then. Skipping over that kind of rationalizing analysis, I’d never had a better time at a Ron Howard movie in my life.

But once I schlepped back to my hotel and got busy on my laptop for GQ, there I was, instinctively patronizing him again even as I praised Rush sky-high. Unexpectedly, I got called on it as soon as the piece went live. One colleague I’d always thought outranked me in the Snotty Critics’ Club jumped on me for hedging my bets just to retain my membership. Another reported that she’d enjoyed many a Howard flick over the years and only a snob would give a flying toot whether that qualifies him as an au-TOOR or not.

Standing firmly on the other side of the fence, a third online correspondent wearily wondered how many “reconsiderations” of Howard’s career we’d be subjected to because of everybody babbling about how good Rush is. Not long afterward, Grantland asked me to reconsider Howard’s career because of everybody babbling about how good Rush is, so here we are.

It could be they asked the wrong guy. High on Rush though I was, I hadn’t come out of the screening wanting to punch out a mirror because of how I’d underrated Howard all these years. Nor was I panting to plow back through his mostly bland filmography in search of all the revelatory stuff I’d missed the first time around. For the record, there are also titles of his I’ve never seen at all — never did get around to 1992’s Far and Away, for instance, among others. So feel free to take my generalizations with a king-size bag of salt.

As potentially beneficial as it is to be obliged to think harder about Ron Fucking Howard than the likes of me usually do — and even granting up front that he deserves it — I’m pretty sure Rush is a fluke, not a game-changer. Most of its virtues aren’t noticeably at odds with those of a lot of Ron Howard movies I’ve watched with no pain but no excitement either. That is, it’s proficient, alert to the particular values and crowd-pleasing highlights of the story at hand, and always ready to showcase what a well-chosen cast can do.

His combined generosity and intelligence in handling actors is one virtue of his that genuinely is underrated, I suspect. Usually reliable, never immodest, his level of craftsmanship undoubtedly deserves more praise — or notice, at least — than it has gotten. But that’s about as far as my revisionism goes, even though I solemnly vow never to call him Opie again. Without something extra that would galvanize those qualities — passion, say, or a distinctive point of view about how the world works, or just the kind of cinematic brio that transcends competence — Howard’s m.o. is never going to turn me on.

If Rush is an exception, the nature of its something extra isn’t easy to pin down. That is, beyond its un-Howard-like visual kineticism, which may be courtesy of new-to-Ron cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionare, 127 Hours, and — wait for it — Manderlay). Is it just that the script by Peter Morgan, who did The Queen and Howard’s own Frost/Nixon, is as clever as, but brawnier than, Morgan’s norm? Is it that Hemsworth and Brühl are so much sheer fun to watch and the director knows how to use them? Or did doing right by James Hunt’s hedonism and sexual buccaneering — not behavior usually seen in a Howard movie, but vital to this one — push Howard into going rowdy and lubricious on us for practically the first time since Night Shift more than 30 years ago?

Because it’s so unlikely, the most tantalizing explanation is that Howard might actually identify with the material, intensifying his commitment to it. This is, after all, a fable of the grasshopper and the ant vying for fame and trophies. Cocky, charismatic, improvident Hunt is the one fans dote on, while unflashy, methodical Lauda — as glamour-challenged as he is hardworking — has to struggle to win so much as their reluctant respect.

Could it possibly be that Howard is channeling his own irritation at being dismissed by film cognoscenti even when his fershlugginer movies win Oscars up the caboose? With his enormous investment in being a nice guy, he has never waxed peevish in public about plying his old-school commercial craft while others reap fashionability’s baubles. But substituting his name for Lauda’s — and, oh, “Quentin Tarantino” for Hunt’s — does give Rush considerable added piquancy.

What makes that notion both tempting and far-fetched is that such private goads seem so out of character for him. Whatever motivates Howard to make movies, self-expression plainly ranks low on the menu. Compared to him, Steven Spielberg is an extravagant mare’s nest of wayward obsessions on public display.

Then again, that’s actually true of Spielberg — who’s no less “personal” a filmmaker than Woody Allen, just one who needs a bigger boat to cart his audience around. Spielberg’s real genius is that he has made his neuroses (Daddy, where art thou?) and paradoxically practical-minded version of transcendence part of the average moviegoer’s comfort zone, obviously not the case with Howard. Like Spielberg, Howard has directed movies in all sorts of genres. But unlike Spielberg, he doesn’t enrich — let alone renew — them with a detectable perspective of his own.

The ability to rip the mass audience a new comfort zone is one definition of mainstream greatness, from Walt Disney and Frank Capra to Unka Steven himself. Howard, by contrast, just abides by existing formulas and does a better carpentry job than most. A poet he isn’t, although he did well enough by whimsy — poetry’s crowd-pleasing kid brother — in Splash.

Of course, though, he doesn’t often make movies as lighthearted as Splash anymore. By and large, he has long since graduated to bigger canvases, more gravitas and “For Your Consideration” Academy Award potential. The pivotal title here is 1995’s Apollo 13, still his most impressive movie.

Calling it The Right Stuff for squares, which it is, doesn’t alter the fact that Apollo 13 is the better movie of the two. It’s not just that Howard’s usual finesse with actors is in A-plus form. (Has there ever been a screen astronaut more convincing than Tom Hanks’s Jim Lovell?) The concentration on subsidiary psychological observations — the astronauts’ competitiveness, Mission Control’s duels between emotion and expertise — add bite and depth in a way that keeps the story’s “failure is not an option” inspirational side from turning sappy.

Otherwise, Howard in his Oscar-hunting mode is a mixed bag. A Beautiful Mind had lots of good things in it, from a nice rendition of 1950s Ivy League life to Russell Crowe’s, Jennifer Connelly’s, and Paul Bettany’s performances. Yet Howard was the wrong director to take us inside the terrors of John Nash’s schizophrenia. Once Bettany’s character, among others, was revealed as a phantasm of Nash’s fevered imagination, the movie played less like the hallucinatory trip that David Cronenberg or Nicolas Roeg could have made of it than like a Cold War thriller starring multiple iterations of the invisible rabbit in Harvey.

Similarly — not, lord knows, that I’d have preferred Oliver Stone — Howard wasn’t the right director to give us Richard Nixon in all his maggoty glory in the entertaining but glib Frost/Nixon. (While it’s a minority view, I’m not even sure Frank Langella was the right actor to play Tricky Dick; he had too much confidence to convey Nixon’s insecurities.) The peculiarity is that Howard is of an age to have vivid memories of Watergate and the real Nixon, and can’t have felt neutral about either at the time — no one did. Yet his screen treatment of the man was as bland and unopinionated as if he’d learned everything he knew from Wikipedia.

And that, I think, is the real reason Howard bugs critics. He’s been making movies for four decades, and we still don’t have a clue what he really cares about. When he and his longtime business partner Brian Grazer launched their A-list careers with Night Shift — starring Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton, both very funny, as a couple of morgue attendants blithely running a call-girl ring — were they anticipating their eventual place in movie history?

Howard’s noncommittal attitude toward his material isn’t always such a detriment. But it’s no easy task to try fathoming what drew him to this or that project in creative terms, either. My best guess is that, as a filmmaker, what he most identifies with — and what provides the meaning and continuity of his otherwise almost eerily impersonal career — is simply Hollywood itself.

A place whose values he’s been more saturated in than most, it’s also one whose best traditions he no doubt — and not unreasonably — believes he’s carrying on. One of the most powerful people in the biz, he’s in a position to do pretty much whatever he wants. Yet his filmography most resembles that of a competent-plus director for hire under the old studio system. We’ve all got dreams we want to live out, and maybe that one’s his.

In fact, rewatching Apollo 13 not long ago, it struck me that one explanation for the movie’s authority is that NASA isn’t that different from the industry Howard has spent his life in. Not only did the technical and logistical challenges of a moon shot suddenly look similar to those of getting a movie into production, the astronauts’ chagrin when they lose out on the big prize reminded me of actors’ reactions to being passed over for a part they were born to play. If there’s one thing Howard understands in his bones, it’s actors.

That may not be the only way his background intrudes on his work more than we recognize. As my colleague Carrie Rickey recently nudged me to notice, one relative constant of Howard’s career is an unusual interest in workplace settings, and why not? They were formative for him in a way they aren’t for most people, since he got his first TV acting job before first grade and his first gig as a sitcom regular at age 6.

Because he’s so obtrusively “normal” — whatever that means, I know — it’s easy to forget how peculiar a way that must be to grow up. Rush or no Rush, most of Howard’s movies don’t interest me any more than they ever did. I just think we’d be missing a bet if we didn’t realize that, at some level, he’s a weirder figure in film history than David Lynch could ever hope to be.

Tom Carson is GQ’s movie reviewer and the author of Gilligan’s Wake and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter.

Filed Under: Movies, Ron Howard, Rush, Splash