Thursday, December 18, 2008

Clint Eastwood and Gran Torino: Does He Still Feel Lucky?

by Clarence Yu, also on, here

When Clint Eastwood uttered the now famous lines, “Do you feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?” in the polarizing, landmark 1971 cop drama Dirty Harry, he might as well have been talking to himself, minus punk, as he enters another interesting phase of his storied career.

Gran Torino, which opens this December in limited release and wider in January, has been receiving mostly positive reviews as it makes its premiere rounds with the usual critics. The particular emphasis now is on Eastwood the actor, in his first starring role since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, and also rumored to be his last thespian effort.

Eastwood’s acclaim owes much to his directorial efforts: Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) won him two Oscar awards for Best Director and Best Picture, and Mystic River (2005) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) garnered Best Picture and Director nominations as well. He is reputed never to shout or disrupt his actors when directing, keeps his set relatively calm and focused, and delivers his films under budget and with great speed.

Being a lifelong fan of Eastwood, the actor, has been no easy task for me, personally. The stereotype he virtually created — laconic, lean, mean, mysterious, and anonymous — has been particularly hard to defend against nonsensical accusations (especially from vicious personal friends out to hurt my feelings) painting Eastwood as a lazy actor. I always argue that he acts in terms of gesture and economy of dialogue, but that is another story altogether.

I have mixed feelings about why critics get to see a movie like this before I do, but in large part due to Ben Stiller’s terrific Tropic Thunder, I can accept the logic easier now. The film is obviously up for the Academy’s consideration, and there is always this drawn out process of taking out ads and lobbying for votes. Releasing two pictures this year in the late fall has been the same strategy that Eastwood employed in 2006 (Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers), the other film being a directorial effort, The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie.

Nonetheless, I am absolutely frantic in anticipation of seeing Gran Torino. I loved the trailer, and have heard the tear-jerking closing credits song (co-written and sung by Eastwood himself in a duet with English jazz singer Jamie Cullum). I’m reading all the reviews I can possibly find. I’m being sucked in slowly but surely, the same way I was during Million Dollar Baby’s pre-Oscar rituals. My crazy theory is that he lost out for Best Actor in Unforgiven and Million Dollar because of a stellar but overshadowing supporting cast (Torino's supporting cast are unknowns) that garnered both Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman their supporting actor trophies. One feels that, at 78, perhaps wanting to go out with the biggest bang possible, Eastwood the actor wants to make sure that all bases are checked and is relying less on luck to bring in his potential first acting Oscar.

Whatever the outcome will probably not diminish his status, but a win against Sean Penn (directed by Eastwood in Mystic) and Dustin Hoffman, amongst others, would surely be a fitting coda to Eastwood’s distinguished career.


Jan said...

It's my late older brother who was an avid Clint fan. I gave his early films a wide berth, dismissing them as trash. But in his senior years he made strings of quality films and I simply could not ignore his work any longer. Did Bridges of Madison County come before Unforgiven? I love that film. And of course Unforgiven cemented that respect for him as a film maker.

Clarence Yu said...

Hi Jan, you are not alone in the many who have thrashed Clint's films in the beginning only to find out that in the end it was sort of a grand plan on his part to gain commercial fame first in order to enable him to move on to quality projects. Unforgiven (1992) came before Bridges (1995). Thanks for your comments!