10 Directors Who Have Killed Their Wives…On Screen

Directors Who Kill Their Wives Velvet Buzzsaw
Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ (Photo by Claudette Barius / Netflix)

Anyone who has been married has probably at some point, however briefly, thought about killing his/her spouse whether it’s because of something petty like incessant snoring that makes the windows rattle or something serious like betrayal. But people generally don’t act on such fleeting impulses. Unless you happen to be a film director married to an actress then you have the unique opportunity to kill your wife with absolutely no legal consequences.

Here are 10 directors who have gotten away with murder…so to speak…and not all the deaths are murder. Some of the ways these wives die in films might make for some interesting therapy sessions and might actually say something about the passionate affection these men felt for their muses.

As far as I could find though, it’s been all male directors killing off their wives. I am not aware of any female directors killing off their actor husbands but I imagine that will start happening soon as more women helm feature films.

WARNING: Because we are dealing with how characters die, there are spoilers here.

  1. The Lady From Shanghai (1947)
    Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, married 1943-47

    Let’s start with the best and most interesting. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth make a striking couple in so many ways – they were both at the peak of their talent and glamor in the ’40s, and both were dynamic personalities on screen and off. Actor Joseph Cotton was the best man at their wedding, which was a civil ceremony.

    The Lady From Shanghai comes at a point when they were separated but decided to make the film together perhaps hoping that a satisfying creative collaboration could save the marriage or maybe as a final attempt to deal with their passions through a fictional outlet. Although Hayworth reportedly said she divorced Welles because “I can’t take his genius any more,” she also called him the love of her life.

    In the film Welles (who also plays the character Michael) gave her a drastic makeover, in terms of appearance. She was famous for her long red hair and he had her cut it to a bob and dye it blonde. She also played the femme fatale of the film, Elsa, who ruthlessly uses men, including Welles’ Michael, to get what she wants. She is riveting in the film and delivers one of the most memorable femme fatales of all time.

    Welles was in top form directing and the climactic shootout in the funhouse Magic Mirror Maze is spectacularly flamboyant in the way only he could be. On screen they were perfection but apparently that did not carry over into real life and they were divorced on Nov. 10, 1947.

    Welles’ Michael does not actually kill Elsa but he does nothing to prevent her from being shot by the husband she has been deceiving. But the cuckolded husband confesses how difficult killing her will be because “killing you is killing myself.”

    The film ends with the mortally wounded Elsa lying on the ground and crawling toward Michael. As she crawls she says, “I made a lot of mistakes.” Then she tries one last time to manipulate Michael, telling him she is afraid, and scared of dying. But he does not come back to comfort her but rather coldly walks away. If you want to be mean, you could imagine Welles directing the scene and making his estranged wife crawl repeatedly to deliver the line about making mistakes. But I think through the film Welles also acknowledges the love he had for Hayworth both on screen and off when his character says, “Maybe I’d forget her. Maybe I’d die trying.”

  2. Directors Who Kill Their Wives Adrienne Barbeau
    Kurt Russell and Adrienne Barbeau in a scene from ‘Escape from New York.’
  3. Escape From New York (1981)
    John Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau, married 1979-84

    John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau had a far less tumultuous marriage. They met on the set of Carpenter’s TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! that was made just before Halloween made him famous.

    She appeared in key roles in two of his films, The Fog and Escape From New York, and provided a computer voice in The Thing.

    In Escape From New York Barbeau plays Maggie, Brain’s girlfriend. When Brain gets killed as they are trying to escape the maximum-security prison that Manhattan has been turned into, Maggie decides to sacrifice her life in order to allow Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken to escape. The death reveals a few things: Maggie is deeply loyal, devoted, and brave. Her love for Brain never wavers and when he’s gone she goes down guns blazing, killing off the main bad guy. If I were to psychoanalyze the couple’s relationship based on this film, I’d say Carpenter had a lot of respect for his wife and thought she was one helluva a kick ass heroine. In this film and The Fog, Carpenter also showcases just how hot his wife also was. In The Fog it was her sexy voice as a late night DJ and in Escape it was more about how she looked.

    The two did, however, get divorced in 1984.

  4. Blow Out (1981)
    Brian DePalma, Nancy Allen, married 1979-83

    Brian DePalma and Nancy Allen met on the set of his film Carrie (1976) and he got to kill her before they even married. In Carrie, based on the Stephen King story, she played a nasty teen who deservedly dies in a horrible way at the hands of the title character played by Sissy Spacek. Allen and DePalma would marry in 1979 and then two years later DePalma would kill her again in Blow Out.

    But before that, he sort of tried a test run murder of her in Dressed to Kill. He wrote the part of Liz – a prostitute who witnesses the horrific murder of Angie Dickinson’s character in an elevator and then can’t get any help from the cops to help track down the killer – specifically for Allen. Now technically she doesn’t die in the film but there is a vivid, surreal nightmare sequence where DePalma has the camera and the killer stalk Liz and slit her throat with a straight razor. Liz gets to wake up alive but terrified. So call that a first stab at killing his charming wife on screen.

    He did not write the role of Sally in Blow Out for Allen (in fact other actresses like Julie Christie had been considered for the role first) but she ended up starring in the film and reuniting with her Carrie co-star John Travolta.

    Travolta plays Jack, a movie sound effects man working on a horror film. While he is out recording sounds a car drives off a bridge and he saves Sally from drowning. The incident proves to be part of a larger conspiracy puzzle that ultimately ends with Sally being killed. Her murder is one of those DePalma set pieces where Jack has Sally wired for sound as John Lithgow’s killer Burke drags her through a parade and to her death with the fireworks display as the backdrop. Jack gets to Sally too late but the sounds of her screams that he recorded end up in the horror film he is working on to give an extra sting to her death.

    The film is a tribute from DePalma to Michelangelo Antonioni and Alfred Hitchcock. And while DePalma is always praised for his technical prowess, he is often criticized for not showing much humanity to his characters. But Sally’s death reverberates with a greater sense of tragedy and emotion than DePalma usually allows, and maybe that’s a reflection of his real feeling for his actress-wife.

  5. La Strada (1954)
    Federico Fellini, Giulietta Masina, married 1943-93

    Giulietta Masina was truly a muse for her husband and frequent director Federico Fellini. She starred in his two films that won best foreign language film Oscars, La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). Fellini credited her humanity as the inspiration for both films.

    Masina and Fellini met when they both were working in radio. They made their first film together in 1951 called Variety Lights.

    In La Strada, Masina plays the simple-minded Gelsomina who is sold to strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) who takes her on the road to perform at villages. Gelsomina is a sweet spirit but Zampanò is a brute. One day she witnesses him killing a man and she never recovers from the shock of his brutality. She grows apathetic and can no longer perform in the shows so Zampanò simply abandons her. Later, he discovers that she had wasted away and died. Zampanò reacts by getting drunk and breaking down in tears on a beach.

    The film is heartbreaking and Masina is mesmerizing. The actress and director seemed to inspire the best in each other. Here the creative result is an aching tragedy, but their creative partnership would allow Masina a less tragic fate in Nights of Cabiria.

  6. Directors Who Kill Their Wives Sheri Moon Zombie
    Sheri Moon Zombie stars in ‘The Devil’s Rejects.’
  7. The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
    Rob Zombie, Sherrie Moon Zombie, married 2002-present

    Born Sheri Lyn Skurkis, Sheri Moon went on tour with Rob Zombie’s band White Zombie and when the group disbanded she stayed on as a dancer. She appeared in a number of his music videos and the two were married in 2002. The following year Moon co-starred in Zombie’s first feature film, House of 1000 Corpses. In 2005 she starred in Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, a sequel of sorts to House of 1000 Corpses.

    Both films look to the Firefly family and their penchant for violence and total disregard for the law and any kind of authority. However, the law, represented by William Forsythe’s sheriff, doesn’t come across as any more humane. After fleeing authorities for the bulk of the film, the battered family members are finally cornered by the police. Otis (Bill Moseley) wakes up the injured Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and Vera-Ellen “Baby” Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) to give them guns so they can go out in a blaze. The family speeds toward the police barricade and goes down in a Bonnie and Clyde-like death ballet.

    Zombie enjoys on screen gore and violence, and gives his wife a beautifully brutal death.

  8. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
    Luc Besson, Milla Jovovich, married 1997-99

    Luc Besson and Milla Jovovich met on the 1997 movie he directed, The Fifth Element, and they immediately got married. He was 38, she was 22, and the marriage lasted two years. But not before he had a chance to try and make a serious film in which he cast his wife as Joan of Arc, the 15th century French war heroine and religious martyr. If you know your history you know that Joan did not face a pretty end. She was charged with heresy and burned at the stake. But a post-script on the film reminds us that she was eventually canonized as a saint. So there’s that. Not sure if Besson saw his wife as the fierce fighter, visionary or martyred saint, or maybe all three.

  9. Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
    Dan Gilroy, Renee Russo, married 1992-present

    A number of the films on this list are from husbands and wives who had short marriages, but Renee Russo and Dan Gilroy have been together for more than two decades. The two met in 1992 on Freejack, on which he was one of the writers. Gilroy has worked primarily as a writer but made his directing debut with Nightcrawler, which gave a juicy role to his wife.

    In 2019 he cast her again this time as Rhodora Haze, owner of an upscale art gallery in L.A. and the former member of the rock band Velvet Buzzsaw. The film begins as a satire on the pretentious L.A. art scene. But then it takes a turn toward horror and the surreal as works of art begin to turn on those who possess it. Rhodora happens to have an artful tattoo on her neck of the velvet buzzsaw logo of her band. And the buzzsaw emerges from her neck to behead her. The violence all has a certain gleeful quality. I doubt it reflects Gilroy’s secret desire to off his wife, but I can imagine there might have been some fun on the set doing this scene.

  10. Revolutionary Road
    Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in ‘Revolutionary Road’
  11. Revolutionary Road (2008)
    Sam Mendes, Kate Winslet, married 2003-11

    This marriage starts with rejection. Apparently Sam Mendes tried to cast Kate Winslet in a play he was directing in London and she turned him down. Maybe the rejection sparked his interest but within a few years the two were married.

    Mendes reunited Winslet with her Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio for the film Revolutionary Road, but a couple years later the real life couple were divorced.

    In the film, Winslet and DiCaprio play April and Frank Wheeler, who seem to be the perfect suburban American couple. But, the happiness is all on the surface. She is disappointed that she never made a career of acting and he is bored with his job and the routine of their lives. After much melodrama involving affairs, a miscarriage, lost hope, and more, April reveals that she is pregnant again. April tries to abort the baby at home and ends up dying of blood loss in the hospital.

    The film is a grueling emotional tale about failed lives and failed marriages. Maybe working on such a harsh and depressing look at marriage colored their lives.

  12. Les Biches (1968)
    Claude Chabrol, Stéphane Audran, married 1964-80

    French director Claude Chabrol met actress Stéphane Audran on the 1963 film Landru about the French serial killer known as “The Bluebeard of Gambais” because he killed women he courted like the infamous Bluebeard killer of legend. The next year Chabrol and Audran were married. Romantic? Perhaps.

    I have not seen all the films this couple made together but let me just run through her roles in these: she was the killer in The Champagne Murders (1967) and the film ends with a struggle over a gun so she might have died; in Les Biches (1968) she gets stabbed with a poisoned knife at the hands of her lesbian lover; in La Rupture (1970) she is targeted in a murder plot by a man hired by her in-laws; in Blood Wedding (1973) she plays a remorseless killer and although we don’t see her die she is caught by the police and could have been executed; and in Violette (1978) her daughter poisons her and she barely survives.

    Chabrol has made his wife both the killer and the victim, and the creative duo seem to inspire each other to go to dark places with fascinating results on screen.

  13. Directors Who Kill Their Wives Kate Beckinsale
    Kate Beckinsale stars in ‘Total Recall’ (Photo by Michael Gibson © 2012 Columbia Pictures)
  14. Total Recall (2012)
    Len Wiseman, Kate Beckinsale, married 2004-16

    While the bulk of these films have been good and most could even be called great, this married couple has never risen to any high art… not even close. Len Wiseman and Kate Beckinsale met while working on Underworld, which co-starred Michael Sheen, Beckinsale’s then boyfriend and father of her daughter. Beckinsale ended that relationship and married Wiseman in 2004, and the married couple went on to make more Underworld films where she played a vampire.

    She might have been undead in those films but Wiseman got to kill her off in more human fashion in his lame remake of Total Recall where she played the villain. She got to engage in some fun action scenes but she didn’t get to survive the sci-fi tale. But in a certain sense no one did. The film died a pathetic death at the box office.

A quick note about two more couples:

Producer and occasional director David O. Selznick married Jennifer Jones in 1949 (it lasted until 1965). He took over directing Jones in Duel in the Sun (1946, before they were married), where she has a prolonged death scene crawling across the desert, and then he produced Portrait of Jennie (1948, again before they were married) in which she is a dead woman who comes back from the grave to haunt a painter.

Darren Aronofsky and Rachel Weisz were never married. They were cited as a couple as early as 2001 and were reportedly engaged from 2005 to 2010. They did make the epic sci-fi film The Fountain, which at its core is about a man trying to prevent the death of his wife from cancer but he can’t.

So there you have it: husbands and the wives they got to see die on screen.