The diverging career paths of Scorsese and Eastwood
BY FRANK PITTMAN
In the early 1970s, Hollywood entered a golden era of personal filmmaking, as a new generation of young auteurs seized the opportunity to splash their souls--and egos--on to the screen. Rather than old-style Hollywood-formula entertainments, this generation of cinematic Young Turks used their movies to explore intensely personal themes and exorcize personal demons. Of course, the danger of such an approach to filmmaking is early burnout and the tendency to make the same film over and over again. Before he self-destructed, Woody Allen exposed his delicate psyche in his yearly New York-nebbish comedies. Within a seven-year span in the '70s, Francis Ford Coppola made a handful of spectacular films about paranoia: Godfather I, Godfather II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, and then lost his hold on his audience. Some directors' period of productivity didn't even last that long. Michael Cimino (Deer Hunter ) and Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven ) never reprised their first success.
Only a handful of directors from that era have continued to captivate us over the long haul and show what it takes to remain relevant in a mass art form like the movies. That group includes Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, and Martin Scorsese. Part of the interest generated at this year's Oscars was seeing two of the three--Scorsese and Eastwood--fight it out for the Academy's ultimate prize. Their Oscar contest highlighted both the similarities and differences in their long careers, and what it means to balance artistic achievement and commercial success in the cutthroat world of Hollywood moviemaking.
Clint Eastwood is surely the most unlikely of our great movie directors. A tall, stringy, whispery young man who worked as a gas-station attendant and pool digger, he drifted into Hollywood and became a TV cowboy. He lacked the voice for talkies so, in the '60s, he went to Italy and, with Sergio Leone, made a series of Westerns as the "Man With No Name." In those films, Eastwood was impossibly handsome, silent, still, and disconnected, almost a part of the scenery, until the occasion demanded that he suddenly kill whoever had gotten in his way. In his remove from ordinary life, he was reminiscent of Alan Ladd in Shane, who rode into the sunset knowing he could never settle down in the town he'd shot up, or John Wayne in the The Searchers, fearlessly rescuing his niece from the Apaches, but unable to enter the domestic routine of family life once his mission was accomplished. Nameless, without a place in human society, Eastwood's signature character fascinated an audience that was shown nothing of where he came from, what led him to this life, or what it felt like to be him.
Eastwood then made a series of even more violent films with director Don Siegel, creating a kind of modern-day counterpart to the Man With No Name--rogue cop Dirty "Make my day" Harry. Under Siegel, Eastwood also learned to direct, to tell a story, and to put up on the screen what was going on in his head. By 1971, he was directing his own films: psychomelodrama Play Misty for Me and violent Westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales and High Plains Drifter.
His movies during the next 20 years were mostly viewed with disdain by critics, but were consistently successful at the box office with his core male audience. In almost all of them, Eastwood played a silent, occasionally sadistic, loner, for whom neither women--nor anything else--was the antidote to his loneliness.
His turnaround film was Unforgiven in 1992, a rich, emotionally-complex study of a widowed ex-gunfighter and failed farmer who's forced to return to his former life of cold-blooded violence. Seeking a reward to feed his family, he takes a job of killing some cowboys who've viciously mutilated a sassy whore. As he sets out to kill people he doesn't want to kill, we get to see, for the first time, what it really feels like to be the Man With No Name. …