Sunday, May 31, 2015

Birthday Take: Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven" (1992)

Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Clint Eastwood
Born: May 31, 1930 (57)
Nomination: Best Actor - Unforgiven (nominated) as Bill Munny

The Take

In the modern era, the most iconic cowboy is Clint Eastwood. While there's an older generation who prefers John Wayne, the presence of a silent, gruffy looking man in a poncho has come to be the iconic look with a violent streak to spare. Another reason that this is likely is because as Wayne faded into obscurity, Eastwood managed to find new ways to remain relevant. While he got his start on Rawhide, he would become more known for his work on Sergio Leone movies and his eventual turn into a director starting with the spaghetti western-influenced High Plains Drifter. Eastwood wasn't just a cowboy, he was a survivor who went decades before The Academy eventually recognized his work.

In a career spanning back to the 50's, it is impressive that it took until 1992 with Unforgiven to get his first Oscar nomination as well as one of two Best Picture wins. Even then, it made sense why he won with his most assured ode to the cowboys he played with a film full of nihilism and reflection. By this point, Eastwood was aware about the dying nature of cowboy films. In fact, the Best Picture field hadn't honored the genre prior to 1990 winner Dances With Wolves since the 30's with Cimarron. This was a film as much about aging as it was about a genre that many would perceive to have run its course. In fact, there's likely a possibility that this film won solely because of Eastwood as an aging veteran artist who had yet to be recognized. He has since won four Oscars and even was nominated this past year with American Sniper.

Yet the sympathy vote theory doesn't hold up when considering that Unforgiven is just a really unique and good film. With a great villain performance by Gene Hackman, it follows pursuit of the familiar story. Morgan Freeman also stars in a memorable turn as Eastwood's partner. With great cinematography and a solid script, the film is more than an homage to the genre. It is Eastwood updating everything about it to match his sensibilities. He was no longer just a survivor. He was a man in a time that could forget him unless he made an impression. It may be why most of his latter day work has been so charged with purpose, as if it will be his last film. There could have been a time when that may have been Unforgiven. If anything, it was his last western.

While he has had just as many hits and misses as a director as anyone else, he remains just as vital at 85. American Sniper has sparked controversy while becoming the highest grossing movie of last year. It is also one of his best films full of tense energy. Much like Unforgiven, it is about the silent hero inside of its protagonist. It is about trying to understand the dread that hides underneath his quest to be the best he could for his country. It may seem more real than cowboys talking about mortality, but they're on par with what Eastwood and his survivor mentality has been exploring for decades now and what he likely will as he reaches his inevitable end sooner than later.

There is something to the iconic Eastwood cowboy that still resonates. He may be playing versions of the same character between his Leone days and Unforgiven, but he also is arguably more assured than his mentor. He knows how to hone the sometimes one noted performance into something gripping and exciting. He knows how to get the most out of his limited range and often does better when he's not even present. Still, it seems very fitting that his first acting Oscar nomination (a title that he has never won) was for a cowboy. He may have gone on to bigger and more acclaimed things, but even at 62 it was interesting to see Eastwood survive long enough to make up for being in the Freshman class.

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