Friday, June 20, 2014

Clint Eastwood The Director: The 1990s

The 1990s were an interesting decade for Eastwood – the director. He was clearly striving at times in the 1980s – especially with Bird – to do more serious films as a filmmaker, and to be taken more seriously. In the 1990s, he finally accomplished that – and then for a while went back to make genre films. After directing 6 films in the 1970s and 7 films in the 1980s, he made 8 in the 1990s – and it’s a strange, but mostly great, bunch of films.

He started off in 1990 with one of his most underrated films – White Hunter, Black Heart – where Eastwood played a filmmaker modelled after John Huston on the set of The African Queen. It’s a great performance by Eastwood – perhaps the most daring of his career – because Eastwood’s own persona, voice and mannerisms are so iconic, that it’s somewhat strange to see him adopt the persona, voice and mannerisms of someone almost as iconic as he is with John Huston. On the surface, this is another of Eastwood’s characters who does whatever he damn well pleases – the consequences be damned. The difference between his character here and his normal character is that most often, Eastwood ignores what he’s supposed to do in favor of what he has to do in order to protect people. His standard screen character is heroic – someone who won’t let bureaucracy get in the way of doing what is right. In White Hunter Black Heart, Eastwood again plays a character that doesn’t care what he’s supposed to do – but he isn’t heroic. He’s on location in Africa to shoot a movie – but he doesn’t really care. All he really wants to do is shoot a damn elephant. It’s a fascinating film and performance by Eastwood – perhaps a little bit of a stunt, but one he mainly pulls off. This isn’t usually regarded as one of Eastwood’s best films – but I think it’s a must see.

His other 1990 film is one I have not seen – The Rookie – where Eastwood co-stars alongside Charlie Sheen. If you were to make a list of Eastwood’s films from most acclaimed to least acclaimed, The Rookie may well end up on the bottom. Over the years, I have read nothing that leads me to believe this is a film I need to see – which is why I still haven’t.

His next film however, is his masterpiece – Unforgiven (1992). There are few actors in history more associated with
Westerns than Clint Eastwood – and so there isn’t another actor – or director – who was more suited to make this film in 1992 than he was. Apparently Eastwood read the original screenplay in the 1980s – loved it, but sat on it until he felt he was old enough to play William Munny. The film is both one of the best Westerns ever made, and pretty much the nail in the coffin of the genre – that has had a few great films in the years since, but not many. It was the last time Eastwood would make a Western – as he left the genre behind, as if with Unforgiven, he said everything he wanted to say about the genre.

In the film, Eastwood plays William Munny – once a drunk and an outlaw – who murdered women, children and anyone else who got in his way. He was feared. When we first see him, he’s a widow with two young kids, and a hog farm – where most of the hogs are diseased. He married a good woman, and she set him straight. Now, he’s alone again when a kid rides up to his farm and offers him a chance to make some money. Two cowboys cut up a prostitute in a town not far from there. The other prostitutes have taken up a fund to hire men to kill them. The Kid wants Munny’s help – and eventually he agrees, leaving his kids behind, roping his old partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) into the plan as well. They ride into town – but aren’t much wanted. The Sheriff (played by Gene Hackman) tries to run them out of town. But Munny is good at what he does – and eventually he slips back into his old role.

This is the best performance of Eastwood’s career, and the best film he ever made as a director. It won him two Oscars – for producing and directing – and he deserved both. There is nothing glamorous about Unforgiven – nothing that makes the genre seem exciting, like most Westerns do. This is a film about violence, and its effects, and it takes its time. The murder of the two cowboys who cut up the girl are far from the typical, romantic gunfights – one gets shot while on the toilet, the other gets shot and slowly, painfully bleeds to death while screaming for water. Even the final confrontation – where Munny fully commits to killing for the first time (we see him, in the scene before take his first drink of whiskey in the film) – is harsh and brutal. William Munny is not a hero – and neither is anyone else in the movie. It is a masterpiece pure and simple.

Following up Unforgiven would be hard for any director – but Eastwood was back the following year with another of his more underrated films – A Perfect World, which features the best performance of Kevin Costner’s career. On the surface, the film seems like another genre film by Eastwood – as it stars Costner as a convict who breaks out of jail, takes a young boy hostage, and takes off across Texas – with Clint Eastwood as the Texas Ranger who chases him. These two know each other – Eastwood helped put Costner in jail in the first place – but doesn’t feel good about it. There is some truth that Costner was railroaded there. What follows is an uncommonly complex film that doesn’t do anything quite like we expect it to. The heart of the film is the relationship between Costner and the young boy – which doesn’t develop the way we would expect it to. In Costner, Eastwood found the perfect leading man – a strong, silent type like Eastwood himself – one who excels the most when he expresses the least. The film makes an interesting companion piece to Eastwood’s later Mystic River – as both are essentially about violence in childhood shaping violence later in life. Mystic River, deservingly, gets a lot of praise – but A Perfect World is just as good.

Out of all the films Eastwood has directed that I haven’t seen – his next film, The Bridges of Madison County (1995) is the most glaring omission. I really have no excuse for not seeing the film yet – it’s one of those ones that have been on my “too see” list for more than a decade now, and I’ve just never got around to it. It is one of his more acclaimed films – surprising many at the time, because no one expected Eastwood to direct a film version of a sudsy bestseller – let alone make a film out of it that many, if not most, consider to be better than the novel itself.

After doing three different, slightly more ambitious movies, Eastwood went back and made a straight ahead genre film. 1997’s Absolute Power is a nifty little thriller in which Eastwood plays a master thief, who while on his latest job witnesses the President (Gene Hackman) murder a young woman. No one is going to claim that Absolute Power is a great film – but it’s a good little thriller, with an fine performance by Eastwood and Hackman.

Later that same year, Eastwood did try for another “prestige” film with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – a murder mystery film based on the highly acclaimed, best-selling true crime book by John Berndt. Unfortunately, it turns out to be one of his weakest films. Eastwood is never able to quite capture the same feel as the novel – it’s a large, sprawling cast of characters, some so unbelievable, that have to be real. The movie – which over two and half hours long – spirals out of control, and never really settles down long enough to tell its story. It’s too ambitious – something Eastwood cannot usually be accused of – as it tries to do too much, and ends up not doing very much at all. Other than another eccentric performance by Kevin Spacey, there just isn’t much here.

He followed up that disappointment with another return to genre filmmaking with 1999’s True Crime. It’s not as good as even something like Absolute Power – but it gets the job
done as a somewhat entertaining time waster – with Eastwood as a reporter who thinks a man who is about to be executed is innocent – so he goes on a one man mission to prove it, taking it right down to the 11th Hour. Eastwood can do this type of film in his sleep – as both a director and an actor – and at times, that is what he seems to be doing in True Crime. It’s not really a bad film – it’s just not that good either.

Eastwood’s 8 films in the 1990s range from some of his best work, to some of his worst. He finally achieved what he wanted to – and that was to be taken more seriously as a filmmaker – won two Oscars, and then went back and made a few genre films. The first few years of the 2000s, it looked like perhaps that was all Eastwood was going to do. You couldn’t blame him. He turned 70 in the year 2000, and by that time most directors have either retired or all but retired. But Eastwood wasn’t close to done yet. He had directed 21 films since his debut in 1971 to 1999. When Jersey Boys hits screens this weekend, it will be his 12th since 2000.

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