He’s gone from TV star to action hero to one of the biggest stars in Hollywood — on both sides of the camera. We’re talking, of course, about Clint Eastwood, and with his latest directorial effort, American Sniper, reaching theaters this weekend, we at RT thought the time was right for a look back at the best-reviewed films of his career behind the lens. We’ve reached back to the beginning, set the Tomatometer for “Make My Day,” and come up with a list that’ll take you from the high plains to the sands of Iwo Jima. Do you feel lucky, punks?
With Clint Eastwood behind the camera and Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, and Marcia Gay Harden in front of it, the film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River was pretty much a gimme for one of the highest-profile releases of 2003, and it didn’t disappoint, netting four Oscar noms (and two wins), almost $100 million in domestic gross, and enough positive reviews to earn an 87 percent Tomatometer. Although critics were quick to point out that Mystic River doesn’t equal or surpass Eastwood’s finest work, his trademark no-frills approach made a good fit for the source material, and the performances from the stellar cast were as strong as you’d expect. Empire Magazine’s Alan Morrison reflected the sentiments of many of his peers when he wrote, “While not quite the equal of the novel, it’s more complex, emotionally-charged and better acted than the average Hollywood thriller.”
The easy (and, it must be said, mostly fair) knock against Eastwood as an actor is that his characters tend to occupy a fairly narrow emotional bandwidth — one best reflected by Eastwood’s natural gift for portraying flinty, no-nonsense types. Squint your eyes and speak in a whispery growl, and odds are you’ll be doing a fair-to-middling Eastwood impression — with the notable exception of his performance in 1990’s White Hunter, Black Heart, where he takes Peter Viertel’s thinly fictionalized account of John Huston’s conduct on the set of 1951’s The African Queen and uses it as an excuse to plumb the depths of a man’s soul — and turns in one of the bravest and most atypical performances of his career. Eastwood’s steady-handed direction offered fitting support for his performance; as Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, the movie “makes it clear that his directorial ambitions have by now outstripped his goals as an actor.”
Clint Eastwood, master of cinematic understatement, directing and starring in an adaptation of Robert James Waller’s best-selling, critically reviled tearjerker? It seemed like a pretty daffy idea, at least until The Bridges of Madison County unspooled on screens in the summer of 1995 — at which point disbelieving critics were forced to doff their caps to Eastwood once again, this time for finding the smartly tender love story at the heart of Waller’s book. As sensitive photographer Robert Kincaid, Eastwood was playing against type more strongly than at any point since White Hunter, Black Heart, but his gamble paid off, and if anything, critics were even more impressed with Meryl Streep’s performance as the hausfrau Eastwood sweeps off her feet. It was, in the words of the Philadelphia Inquirer?s Carrie Rickey, “An admirable achievement, one that probably does more to reposition its maker as someone who can carry a movie without carrying a gun than as the director/star of a Love Story for the Loving Care set.”
The year 2006 found Eastwood with World War II on the brain — specifically the Battle of Iwo Jima, which he memorialized with a pair of movies, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Where Flags presented the battle in a series of flashbacks, Letters put viewers right in the thick of the war — and did it from the Japanese side of the line. It was a risky choice, both commercially and in the context of the political tenor of the times, but for Eastwood, it made nothing but sense: Having long examined the grim and terrible realities of violence in his films, here he siezed the opportunity to present the savage costs of war for soldiers on both sides. The approach fit neatly into Eastwood’s moral relativism, reinforcing his long argument that no matter how noble your reasons for unleashing it, violence takes an unavoidable toll. Letters, like Flags, wasn’t a huge box office draw, but critics responded positively — as Paul Byrnes of the Sydney Morning Herald noted, even alongside Eastwood’s previous triumphs, “Letters is an extraordinary achievement” — and it earned four Academy Award nominations.
Even with decades of success under his belt, a person can still find it difficult to get a project off the ground — as Eastwood learned during Million Dollar Baby‘s years in development hell. Unable to get his longtime partners at Warner Bros. to greenlight the budget he needed, Eastwood convinced Lakeshore Entertainment to split the $30 million cost, then proceeded to watch everyone who passed on the project eat plate after plate of crow: Million Dollar Baby went on to gross almost $220 million and win four of its seven Academy Award nominations. The film’s final act inflamed a number of activist groups, but as he’d done before — and would do again — Eastwood managed to transcend a film’s hot-button topics with sheer quality. Critics sent Baby to a 91 percent Tomatometer rating, reflecting Roger Ebert’s opinion that the film is “a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true.”
A Western in the mid-1980s? Only Clint Eastwood had enough chutzpah (and clout) to pull off something as unapologetically old-fashioned as Pale Rider, an obvious homage to Shane that amplifies the supernatural overtones of 1973’s High Plains Drifter and adds another nameless, tight-lipped drifter to the long list Eastwood had already played. This time around, in fact, the cowpoke in question just might be the Almighty — an advantage you might think would lead to a fairly boring film, but thankfully doesn’t color the action as much as it could have. Although critics tended to agree that Pale Rider wasn’t Eastwood’s best Western (TIME’s Richard Corliss noted that it “does nothing to disprove the wisdom that this genre is best left to the revival houses”), it’s still got enough of it’s director and star’s squinty mojo to earn Steve Crum of the Kansas City Kansan’s assertion that it’s “one of Eastwood’s best oaters.”
He was a Western star when it was fashionable to be one, and he went on to play the definitive loose-cannon cop of the 1970s — but making big hits wasn’t Clint Eastwood’s primary concern, as evidenced by small, thoughtful, and wholly unfashionable projects like 1982’s Honkytonk Man, a Depression-era road film in which Eastwood stars (alongside his son Kyle) as a would-be country singer heading out to take his last shot at a career in country music. Though many of Eastwood’s movies are as steely-eyed and uncompromising as Harry Callahan or the Man with No Name, he’s got a sentimental side, and it surfaces here — Eastwood’s affection for Honkytonk‘s places, people, and time are evident in every frame of the movie, particularly during the road-trip segments. It didn’t have a prayer of reaching a large audience, but as eFilmCritic’s Rob Gonsalves notes, Honkytonk Man is “one of the unnoticed treasures of the ’80s.”
Even for a guy who’d already demonstrated a fondness for revisionist Westerns, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a special case, arriving at the box office during a time when most people had written off the entire genre for dead — and presenting its hero as the innocent victim of marauding Union soldiers during the Civil War, to boot. (Josey Wales was adapted from a novel by Forrest Carter, a name later revealed as a psuedonym for former Klansman and George Wallace speechwriter Asa Carter, but its themes of racial inclusion don’t reflect Carter’s stated beliefs.) Packed with action and humor, the movie continued Eastwood’s winning Western streak, and further cemented his reputation as a talented director — a role he assumed on this project from the original helmer, Philip Kaufman, prompting the DGA to insert the so-called “Eastwood rule” into its contract, stating no cast member could take over for a departing director. Whatever behind-the-scenes drama it caused, Josey is, as the Tyler Morning Telegraph’s Jonathan R. Perry said, “Eastwood’s brooding, bloody masterpiece.”
Seven years after revisiting the Western with Pale Rider, Eastwood made one final return to the genre — and what a return it was. Even by its director and star’s inflated career standards, Unforgiven was a smashing success, going on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Supporting Actor — and, ultimately, to enshrinement in the United States National Film Registry. Viewed in the context of Eastwood’s unsentimental Westerns, Unforgiven represents the ultimate deconstruction of the genre’s myths, presenting Eastwood as an aging gunslinger whose soul has been irrevocably stained by the violence of his past. It contains some of his best work as both a director and an actor, and is, in the words of TIME Magazine’s Richard Corliss, “Eastwood’s meditation on age, repute, courage, heroism — on all those burdens he has been carrying with such good grace for decades.”
For his second directorial effort, Eastwood revisited the genre that made him a star — but rather than relying on the studio lots and dewy-eyed nostalgia that Westerns had become known for, he delivered a revisionist homage to the Leone and Siegel films that helped make him a star. High Plains Drifter is cynical, violent, and funny, and its cold-eyed take on the genre offered a glimpse of the perspective he’d bring to similar projects in the future. Although Drifter‘s moral ambiguity was difficult for some to accept — no less a Western luminary than John Wayne was rumored to have dashed off an angry letter to Eastwood — most critics applauded the film, echoing Film Threat’s Brad Laidman, who deemed Eastwood “the ultimate thinking man’s cinematic killing machine.”
Finally, here’s a young Eastwood in an uncredited turn as a lab technician in Revenge of the Creature from 1955: