Jim Sheridan directed Daniel Day-Lewis in three very vulnerable roles: In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, and My Left Foot.
Frank Darabont directed Morgan Freeman in Shawshank and Michael Clarke Duncan in Green Mile.
Jonathan Demme directed Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia—risk-taking vulnerable roles at the time, and also Jeff Daniels in Something Wild.
Jane Campion directed Harvey Keitel in The Piano and Ben Wishaw in Bright Star.
The German film Mostly Martha (or Bella Martha, 2001) is one of my favorites, directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. Sergio Castellitto is perfect in balancing the tough and vulnerable with Martina Gedeck, who is initially tougher than him, but his unabashed vulnerability eventually draws out her own and wins her over.
Shona Auerbach directed Gerard Butler in a masterful balance of strong, vulnerable and more vulnerable in Dear Frankie. And whoever directed Butler in the UK miniseries The Jury gets kudos.
Alfred Hitchcock was a master of this. Maybe, partly, because he usually picked leading men who could pull it off—and no doubt knew enough to choose those men. His everyman could almost always play believable vulnerability, like Gregory Peck in Spellbound, Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window or Cary Grant in North by Northwest and Notorious, or Laurence Olivier in Rebecca. Hitchcock got it, and I think that was a large part of his success.
Frank Capra had it with Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Howard Hawks directed Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. William Wyler had it with Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. And then there’s Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
Michael Mann directed three strong/sensitive male performances in Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means and Eric Schwieg.
Peter Weir comes to mind with films like Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, Green Card, Fearless. His films almost inevitably show us strong leading men of heart/heartbreak.
Spielberg gets special mention, mainly for the Indiana Jones series. Harrison Ford became the quintessential tough & vulnerable leading man, full of humorous self-deprecation and fully in touch with his doubts and fears.
I’m a fan of Mike Nichols, who directed Harrison Ford in Working Girl, my favorite role for him – he strikes the perfect balance between strong and sensitive in this role. But then there’s Nichols’ Regarding Henry, which was vying for vulnerable/naive and went overboard, which is unusual both for Nichols and Harrison Ford.
Likewise, Werner Herzog filmed one of the most touching documentaries I’ve ever seen in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about the former Vietnam POW, Dieter Dengler, yet in Rescue Dawn somehow missed capturing the man’s enormous fragility and a sense of a heart not walled off, but broken open and rising above it and surviving anyway. Isn’t that the very essence of true courage and strength?
When I think of Terence Malick’s Thin Red Line, the entire film strikes me as vulnerable—partly in innocence and partly in the way that General Patton said ‘Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.’ Maybe that innocence and fear moving towards courage is the vulnerability we admire in real men such as Dieter Dengler, and in those rare moments on the screen when actors can offer us that.