By John H. Foote
Had anyone in the seventies suggested to me that one day Clint Eastwood would be a two-time Academy Award Best Director winner, with two more nominations and two nominations for Best Actor, I would have thought them insane and laughed in their face. Eastwood an artist? Stone faced Dirty Harry (1971)? The tough guy that partnered with an ape in the late seventies as Ronald Reagan did Bonzo? That guy would be an award-winning director, making some of the finest films of the later century??
Nope, never happen, I arrogantly would have said. Yet it most certainly did.
While writing my book “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” I learned so much about Eastwood and his long-range plan, and he always had a plan.
With age came greater depth, a natural approach to acting few have, and an understanding of character even fewer can comprehend. Eastwood had a great deal with Warner Brothers. He would make a sequel to the Dirty Harry films, or an action flick made to make money, and they would give him a small budget to make a film he was truly interested in making. After he had success with Play Misty for Me (1971), Breezy (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), critics began taking Eastwood seriously as a director. He directed himself in films such as Bronco Billy (1980), Honky Tonk Man (1982), Pale Rider (1985) right through to his marvelous work as a John Huston-esque director in the superb and daring White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) which will gets its own study of a great performance down the road.
But with Unforgiven he knew he had lightning in a bottle, having first read the screenplay in 1982. Knowing he was not old enough to play the part, he put it away, always intending to pull it out when he felt ready to do justice to the script. When he did, he had grown as an actor, becoming deeper, more authentic and iconic when on screen. He was no longer the one note actor of the seventies, he now possessed greater depth both as actor and director.
As William Munny, the first time we see him he is not what we expect. Farming pigs and failing with his two young children after the death of his beloved wife, he is looking for a way to feed his children, to give them a better life. When a young man visits him, he talks about a bounty placed on a couple of cowboys for cutting up a prostitute and asks Will to go with him, they can split the money. He talks about Munny being a killer of men, women and just about everything that ever walked, and his children are stunned, never seeing their “Pa” as anything other than a farmer. But Munny was once one of the most feared men in the west, leaving folks trembling by his mere presence, and ready to kill for no given reason other than he felt like it. The two men journey to Big Whiskey along with Ned (Morgan Freeman), a friend of Will’s hoping to collect the bounty, but after wounding one of the men, Ned backs away, just not able to kill anymore. He is taken in by Little Bill (Gene Hackman), the sadistic Marshall who has a thing for torturing the men he does not like. He tortures Ned to death and puts him outside the bar in a coffin for the town to see.
When Bill finds out, he unleashes his rage and when he walks into the bar, we know we are finally going to see the real William Munny. Everything we have heard is manifested in the flesh, he is indeed a killer, without remorse, without thought. In seconds he slaughters six men, and kills the Marshall with a shotgun, blowing his head off. As he rides out of the town, reward money with him, he threatens the people of the town that should anyone follow him, their entire family will be wiped out. And riding the pale horse, as Death rode in the Bible, he takes his leave, having reminded everyone in Big Whiskey exactly who William Munny was.
Eastwood has grown into the role, having waited 10 years to portray this merciless killer. Yet we know also that he put aside his evil ways when he met his wife, and they had children together. Somewhere deep inside he is a good man, but when forced to unleash hell, he is most capable.
As an actor Eastwood has been brilliant a handful of times, though this stands as his greatest achievement as both actor and director. A few years later he was brilliant in Million Dollar Baby (2004) and again in Gran Torino (2008). Most recently he excelled in The Mule (2017) and has announced a new film at the age of 90.
He won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Actor for Unforgiven, as well as the film winning Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor. The National Society of Film Critics awarded Eastwood Best Director and Hackman Best Supporting Actor, and the Golden Globes honored the film for Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor. The crowning moment for Eastwood in 1992 was winning the Directors Guild Award (DGA) for Best Director, firmly establishing himself as one of the greats of his time.
Unforgiven was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Eastwood), Director (Eastwood), Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound and Film Editing. It took four, among them Best Film, Director, Supporting Actor and Film Editing, with Eastwood crediting the nation’s film critics with keeping the film alive in the public eye and the thanking them for the staggering support the film received.
Anyone who believes Eastwood cannot act, cannot truly become a character, think again. Think long and think hard. He became a great director as he was becoming a great actor.
Like fine wine, Eastwood just gets better with age.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.