Directors’ Trademarks: Ron Howard

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Ron Howard is an atypical Hollywood success story. Starting his career as a child actor, Howard became a star as an adult and then a consistent producer and director. Few child actors before or since have been able to maintain the type of career that Ron Howard did. He grew up in a family that wasn’t new to Hollywood and the way it treats its actors. For that reason, Howard’s parents controlled a lot of his professional career and helped to guide him to become the success he is today. His fascination with film is what allowed him to leap from child actor to successful film director. While there may be more successful or more critically acclaimed directors, Ron Howard’s career has been long and his films have been of consistent quality. As an actor himself, he is able to connect with the stars of his movies and for this reason he has gotten the opportunity to work with many big-name movie stars.

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Ron Howard started off his career in Hollywood as a TV child actor. His roles in The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days would define him for much of his life. Howard transitioned to his adult career by contributing to film both in front of and behind the camera. He got to show off some of the things he learned while acting in American Grafitti when he made his feature length directorial debut with Grand Theft Auto (1977). He made a few TV movies before directing a series of comedies and family films in the 1980’s. This period of his career culminated in the well-received film Parenthood (1989) starring Steve Martin. The 1990’s saw Ron Howard turn to more serious films, starting in 1991 with Back Draft. He directed Apollo 13 in 1995 to critical and commercial success, and is probably what he is most known for. In the 2000’s, Ron Howard returned to his comedic/family film roots with films such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) before turning back to serious films. He directed A Beautiful Mind (2001), The Da Vinci Code (2006), and the critically acclaimed Frost/Nixon (2008). Ron Howard’s last film was a comedy, 2011’s The Dilemna. His newest film, Rush, releases in theaters this week. 

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Ron Howard film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Ron Howard’s trademarks as director, in no particular order.


History Lives Again

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While Ron Howard has jumped around from genre to genre as director, a majority of his films either take place in the past or tell a historically significant story. More specifically, he has chosen to make films that retell historic events that have happened in his own life time. Howard likes to take his own perspective of having lived through these events, and use it to make his films more realistic. Similarly, this technique helps to place them in the correct context so that his films are exciting to an audience with many members who may not have been alive to witness these events. His historical films include Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon, and Rush. One could argue that Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and even How the Grinch Stole Christmas,are all somewhat historical in nature and approached with the same sort of first-person perspective that Howard is known for.


Man and Machine

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A consistent theme in many of Howard’s films are the relationships between his characters and machines designed for personal transport. Perhaps he gained his fascination with transportation on set while working as an actor in American Grafitti. That film helped to influence his car-focused debut, Grand Theft Auto. And while Rush is the first film he has done since then focusing heavily on cars, his other films have shown similar devotions to cars and other machines. 1986’s Gung Ho takes place in a car factory, Parenthood features a drag racing scene, Backdraft includes plenty of fire trucks, Apollo 13 includes both a rocket and a Corvette, Mel Gibson’s character in Ransom is an airline owner, How The Grinch Stole Christmas is full of wacky Dr. Seuss contraptions, and The Da Vinci Code features a car chase sequence.


Water Everywhere

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Ron Howard’s films often feature water as an important element. It could be rain falling from the sky, the water that firefighters use to put out flames, the ocean, or even a glass of water as a symbolic element in Frost/Nixon. Stylistically, Ron Howard likes to use a shot where the camera is submerged in water looking out at a character or an event taking place.


All In the Family

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Ron Howard’s parents played an influential role in shaping his career. His father, Rance Howard, was an actor and director himself. Ron pays back his family for their support by casting them in his movies. Rance Howard plays a very minor or supporting role in nearly all of Ron Howard’s films. Ron Howard has cast his mother Jean Speegle Howard twice. His brother, Clint Howard, has been cast in a variety of supporting roles in 16 of Ron Howard’s films. Ron Howard’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, has been cast minor roles in 3 of his films, and his wife, Cheryl Howard, has walk-on roles in 6 of his films.


A-List Actors

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Ron Howard has formed many working relationships with big-name movie stars. Sometimes he does not work with his leading actor just once. Perhaps it is because of his background as an actor, that other actors feel comfortable working with him, and are confident that he can get them to produce the best performances possible. That is why he has had 8 actors nominated for best actor when working in a film that he has directed. He has worked with Michael Keaton twice, Russel Crowe twice, Gary Sinse three times and Tom Hanks four times. 


Previously: Directors’ Trademarks: Edgar Wright