Friday, August 7, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Unforgiven" (1992)

Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: August 7, 1992
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Written By: David Webb Peoples
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
Genre: Western
Running Time: 131 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Clint Eastwood)
-Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman)
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Clint Eastwood)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Sound

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Crying Game
-A Few Good Men
-Howard's End
-Scent of a Woman

And the winner is...

There has never been anyone quite like Clint Eastwood. With a career spanning many decades, it is astounding to see that he still has any influence in Hollywood, especially as American Sniper became the highest grossing film of 2014 when he was 84 years old. The legendary actor, best known for playing a cowboy, has had a storied career of playing the bitter rebel, scared of a changing world around him. Whether it is his work with Sergio Leone or his own directorial work, he embodies the strong, quiet rebel for a generation that was approaching retirement age by 1993. However, it was the start of Eastwood's Academy Awards history. All he had to do was say goodbye to his old persona in Unforgiven.

With films like High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood helped to keep westerns alive throughout most of the 80's. His gritty style could be attributed to his mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. However, he found one script that was too hard to resist. It was one that would be floating Hollywood for 20 years. It was the script by David Webb Peoples that would come to be Unforgiven, but then called The Cut-Whore Killings. He was attracted to the script, even making actor Gene Hackman reconsider his involvement. He almost passed on it because his assistant said that it wasn't very good. He did want to do, but not until he was old enough to pull off the role at the ripe old age of 63.

There was a reason for Eastwood's reluctance to immediately play the role. He wanted to look convincing. He wanted to do what John Wayne did with The Shootist (the book of which it was based on partially inspired Peoples' script) and have it be his final ride into the sunset. He cherished it, knocking out the last of his westerns. It was to be his farewell film as well. Even if this didn't end up being the case, the symbolism is blatant. During certain scenes, Eastwood is seen wearing boots that he had originally wore in Rawhide: the TV series that gave him his start. In a way, those boots symbolized the beginning and end of his career as a cowboy. While the two never worked together, Eastwood also had a character called "The Duke" in the film to symbolize Wayne.

There wasn't much to complain about regarding the production of the film. Eastwood's main request was that there weren't to be any automobiles near the set to maintain authenticity. Due to a dry spell that was happening Calgary where they were shooting, the rain was specially created. However, the snow that is seen was unexpected and not originally in the script. With violence being noteworthy at the time, there was concern that the film would inspire gun violence. Eastwood claimed that the film was by nature an anti-violence film and wouldn't.

Did Eastwood think that he would win an Oscar? To use his words: "First, I'm not Jewish. Secondly I make too much money. Thirdly, and most importantly, because I don't give a fuck." His farewell film wasn't initially intended for awards season. Yet, it ended up winning him two Oscars as well as two additional wins for Million Dollar Baby in 2005 and an additional six nominations total. It is only the third western after Cimarron and Dances with Wolves to win Best Picture. When accepting the awards, Eastwood put a lot of emphasis on the involvement of his mother, who wore difficult clothing for a scene that was eventually cut. The more impressive fact is that this was Eastwood's first Oscar at the age of 63. It wouldn't be his last, even if this was supposed to be his retirement film.
Unfortunately, the western genre tapered out as the decades rolled on. There would still be occasional hits, but the blockbuster nature of them would disappear. With Eastwood moving on to war films and self reflective period pieces, the masters had retired for a new generation. That is why it is more impressive that Unforgiven is both the last western to win and arguably the best of the three. It is the most assured and while a little cynical, a love letter to the genre that audiences were starting to move on from. It was a symbolism of a bygone era with a phenomenal cast and production that reflected what was best about Eastwood's take on the film. Even his tribute to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel that ends the film feels like a final and fond farewell. In a sense, Unforgiven is about as sentimental as Eastwood would be towards the genre that formed him.

There is a lot to be taken away from Unforgiven. For starters, it was the introduction of Eastwood to the Oscars. While the film still feels risky for a Best Picture winner, it was also one that enriched the past so beautifully that it fit with the nostalgic nature of a 90's winner. It was almost encouraging to note that this was Eastwood's first critical acclaim because of how iconic he had been for decades. Even then, he sent the cowboys out to pasture with the reverence that they deserved. Will we ever see a western Best Picture winner ever again? Anything is possible, though it will be hard to find one made by someone as intricately connected to the genre as Eastwood was for the first half of his career.

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