Whether he’s engaging in a bizarre conversation with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention or pissing off the establishment with American Sniper as his latest directorial project this winter, Clint Eastwood, 84 years old be damned, still paints a polarizing canvas. He’s accomplished everything he’s needed to command “legend” status in Hollywood: four-time Oscar winner;
arguably the most successful crossover transformation from respectable actor
to elite director (and spawning a recent surge of actors who can more than
hold their own in the director’s chair); and a brief career as a politician.
Eastwood is back at the top of his craft. American Sniper is up for six Oscars at this month’s Academy Awards, and while he did not garner a fifth overall Best Director nomination, he’s one of the movie’s producers in the Best Motion Picture category. From his beginnings in those squinty-eyed, six-gunning genre-altering movies we all hold so dear, his quality work spanning many decades and categories across the film industry makes him one of Hollywood’s power players.
“Any actor, any crew member will tell you it’s the easiest ‘yes’ in the business,” said actor Matt Damon on Access Hollywood when asked about working with Eastwood. (Damon’s appeared in two of his directed films, Invictus and Hereafter.)
Eastwood’s success has also made his pitches no-brainers for studios to run with (he’s a fixture on the Warner Bros. lot). His Oscar-winning Unforgiven in 1992 stamped his place as an elite filmmaker (and a Best Actor nomination), but he was on fire in the mid-2000s. In a four-year span, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby (which Eastwood also starred in and was again nominated for as a lead actor) and Letters from Iwo Jima combined for four Academy Award wins and seven directing, producing and acting nominations.
Until American Sniper’s late push to Oscar relevancy, recent films like Hereafter, J. Edgar and Jersey Boys provided less acclaim, and some question if, at his age, his run of success was in jeopardy. It’s not that these were major bombs or anything. But when you’re Clint Eastwood, more is expected from you. American Sniper, which opened with a record $90-plus million winter weekend, is proof there’s still a lot left in this octogenarian’s gas tank.
VERSATILITY HAS ALLOWED EASTWOOD to score in a variety of themes as a director, including his Oscar-winning turns. Unforgiven – he also played the lead role – pays homage to those 1960s series of “Spaghetti Westerns” that put him on the map as a bonafide movie star. The dark, hard-core crime flick Mystic River was a super-sized version of the Dirty Harry series that Eastwood played later in his career. The gritty drama Million Dollar Baby – another film where he was both actor and director – reflected his depth of subject matter.
Taking on a script considered a risky idea in Hollywood – America’s involvement in the Middle East – was a daring move for a director who has nothing else to prove at this point. “I’m not a guy who is fond of the war in Iraq. But I’m always sympathetic to veterans and people who were forced to go do the job, whatever the morality aspects of it are,” he told the BBC of American Sniper. The film that stars Bradley Cooper in the Oscar-nominated title role profiles the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, considered the United States’ most prolific sniper. Shot himself several years after returning from duty, Kyle has become a controversial figure among those vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq.
Eastwood’s M.O. might suggest unabashed American patriotism given his resume, but he’s bucked the trend and dug deeper before, perhaps a precursor to tackling a subject like Kyle’s hero versus anti-hero debate. Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006) explored the Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima and the famous photo that was sold as a historic moment but was clouded with doubts about its authenticity. “(Kyle) is one of those guys who trouble always hunted down. I didn’t try to make it that it was the greatest deed in the world,” Eastwood said during the BBC interview. “I made a movie, Unforgiven, based upon somebody who was haunted by having these deeds that he had done that were despicable.”
Eastwood, a longtime proponent of the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association, clearly has sympathy for the characters in both of those films. Kyle won two Silver Stars among many medals for his tours in the Middle East, but he was also known as the “Devil of Ramadi” for his perceived ruthlessness and accuracy (at least 160 confirmed kills). Eastwood told the Today Show he wasn’t interested in directing “just a war movie.” “It was the kind of story that I like telling, where you have other aspects to a character, rather than just being a warrior going out and shooting up a storm,” he said in an interview with Cooper to Today’s Natalie Morales.
“It’s mostly about the dilemma of leaving family, and then where do you go from here?” Morales asked if the relative lack of awards-season recognition prior to the Oscar nominations being announced was a byproduct of Hollywood frowning upon the United States’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the critical acclaim of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty in recent years.
Sniper is probably considered a longshot among the seven other films vying for Best Picture honors (Boyhood and Birdman are considered two of the favorites). Eastwood would have been the oldest Best Director nominee ever, but fell short in a five person field. “I don’t know what they have an appetite for,” said Eastwood, who did score a Directors Guild of America nomination, to Morales. “We’re not making the picture for awards.”
EASTWOOD’S CAREER HAS been in many ways defined by guns, war and violence. But during a Q&A moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg after a screening of American Sniper in December, Eastwood set the record straight about his intentions when it comes to making films about such subject matter. “Contrary to public opinion, I abhor violence,” he told the audience, talking of his early years when World War II raged, his registering for the draft at the start of the Korean conflict and looking at Vietnam from afar.
“And so, at some point, you start saying, ‘It’s fun to talk about (war).’ It’s fun to talk about the emotions of it, getting in,” Eastwood said. “And in Letters from Iwo Jima (told from the Japanese soldiers’ perspective during a desperate and futile attempt to defend the island from the invading allies), it was fun to explore how it felt from the other side as well.”
Where does Kyle’s story fit in? He appears to be a complex figure, and now that he’s gone, his legacy will always remain a mystery. Some surely see him as a soul-less assassin, regardless of how beautifully Cooper portrayed him; others view him as a great American hero, no matter what his detractors say. Mysteries like that only keep Eastwood going – he is almost halfway through his eighth decade and shows few signs of slowing down. He’s taken on the challenge of bringing to the big screen fascinating historical characters before, like musician Charlie “Bird” Parker, J. Edgar Hoover and Nelson Mandela.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Eastwood was asked about the connection between Kyle and the Unforgiven character Eastwood both played and directed, William Munny, who also was known for being a killer. “I thought it was equally profound. I never got to know Chris Kyle, to learn how he felt about killing people, just picking them off,” Eastwood told the newspaper. “But it is a hell of a thing. And in the picture, I tried to capture a feeling that he was OK with it, but only after maybe talking himself into it a bit.”
American Sniper may be the kind of movie that makes most of Hollywood cringe, given its overall stance on guns and war. But the movie made a staggering $1 million in a five-day span when it opened on Christmas in just four U.S. theaters. Its wide release on Jan. 16, the day before Oscar nominations were announced, created the kind of buzz Eastwood’s body of work has generated over a long career. Much like his conversation with the empty chair, Eastwood’s film came under fire after its nationwide release, but agree or disagree with his style, you’re intrigued by most anything he says or does. “Yeah, I’m 84. But I’m still enjoying it. I’m not ready for the retirement home,” Eastwood told the L.A. Times. “Yet.” WSJ
by Chris Cocoles