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9/8/2021 • 4 min read
When most people think of cinema’s biggest directors, they probably think of inventive visionaries or the filmmakers responsible for the most widely-seen popcorn films. The obvious names are Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, and auteurs like Ang Lee or Martin Scorsese.
In the "most important directors" list you might not see Clint Eastwood. And yet he has directed one hit after another for decades. In honor of his upcoming CRY MACHO (a now-rare Clint Eastwood movie in which he also plays the main character) let’s look back at some of the cinema icon’s greatest contributions as a director.
This 1971 thriller is where Eastwood began his career as a director. It’s not a Western. It’s not an action film. Instead, it tells the story of a radio DJ who can’t shake the obsession of a very troubled woman. Starting off with this kind of subject material might have seemed abnormal at the time, but it fits right in with the long arc of his career as a director.
While his first directorial effort wasn't a Western, Eastwood did end up directing himself in some Westerns. This 1976 effort is one of his best, and also the one most inspired by his work with Sergio Leone, who made the so-called "Dollars Trilogy." The Josey Wales character easily stands among Eastwood’s most iconic creations - silent, angry, and not to be trifled with. The film puts entertainment first, but it maintains a sharp edge. (Almost ten years later, Eastwood directed and starred in another Leone-influenced Western, PALE RIDER, which became the most successful Western of the '80s.)
Perhaps even more than filmmaking, music is Clint Eastwood's abiding passion, and his interest in jazz takes flight in BIRD, which chronicles the life of saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. With Forest Whitaker in the starring role, this is a loving and effective biopic. Eastwood didn't have anything to prove by the time this movie came out in 1988, but there was no way to accuse him of being bound to gun-toting anti-heroes after these credits rolled.
Eastwood’s masterpiece. No matter how many more films he makes or Oscars he earns, this is the peak of his career as a director. UNFORGIVEN has action, but it’s mostly a quiet film filled with great beauty and even greater conversations and character work from its impressive cast. When things get bloody – and they do get very bloody – Eastwood doesn’t hold back from the horrors inflicted by a traditional Western "hero" out for revenge.
This follow-up to UNFORGIVEN got a bit overshadowed at the time and seems almost forgotten now. That’s too bad. A PERFECT WORLD not only retains UNFORGIVEN’s beauty and patience; it also gives a career-best performance to Kevin Costner, playing against type as a somewhat villainous escaped convict.
Who says Clint Eastwood doesn’t know how to have a good time? Honestly, his filmography isn’t exactly a laugh riot, but this entry about a bunch of over-the-hill astronauts is an entertainment machine, proving Eastwood has what it takes to make fun movies. He just doesn’t often feel like it.
Eastwood’s reign as an Oscar darling began a year before this 2004 release with his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER, but it solidified here with this tale of a female boxer and the friendship she develops with her hard-nosed trainer.
In many ways, AMERICAN SNIPER is a Bradley Cooper movie. He not only stars in it; the actor was also responsible for getting the project off the ground in the first place. Nevertheless, onscreen it remains an Eastwood film through and through. It is also one of his biggest hits, and one of the most successful R-rated films of all time. (And Cooper would go on to direct and star in a movie that Eastwood got off the ground: The 2018 remake of A STAR IS BORN.)
All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
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