Actors revere Eastwood. They admire the fact he does not get in their way when they are working, creating a character for him in his film. They are hired to serve his film, and they know this. Going in there is an understanding that they will show up and have the role create and be ready to work. Maybe they know he often shoots and prints rehearsals, maybe they will learn that as Meryl Streep did while shooting The Bridges of Madison County (1995). Eastwood creates a hushed set for his actors, so they have a quiet area in which to create. There is no yelling, no temper fits, no cussing someone because you can, just a well oiled machine that the actors are expect to become a part of very quickly. There is a discipline and professionalism that is simply implied and if the actor struggles with that, Eastwood deals with it. Kevin Costner found out the hard way. An Oscar winning directing himself, he pitched a fit over something silly, and stormed off to his trailer. On the spot Eastwood decided to shoot the scenes he needed with Costner’s double, over his shoulder. They had the scenes done by the time Costner returned from his tantrum at which point he very sheepishly apologized and never again let Eastwood down. As Eastwood stated to him, “I am here to shoot film, not fuck around.” And shoot film he did that day. Rarely does he do more than three takes, believing the actors do their best in the early ones, and for those actors who do not do their best in three…catch up and do it. He does deal with egos on his set, and as Sean Penn aptly said, “he is the least disappointing icon in America.”
When a director trusts his actors, when a director says to his actors, show me, the depth of trust that is developed between the two of them is intense and very personal. They will bring him all their ideas; they will challenge themselves as much as they challenge him and be willing to jump off a cliff for him. Eastwood trusts his actors, Eastwood gives them freedom and space to create and they reward him with excellent, often Oscar nominated or winning performances.
After pouring over his films I came up with a list of the ten best Eastwood directed performances. And I know there could be another ten…easily.
1. Leonardo Di Caprio in J. Edgar (2011) is a superb piece of acting in which Di Caprio ages more than fifty years to portray J. Edgar Hoover near the end of his life. It’s a mesmerizing piece of acting with Di Caprio capturing Hoover’s viciousness, cruelty, but also his humanity. The self denial he lived throughout his life damaged his souls more than anything he could have ever admitted.
2. Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County (1995) is an exquisite Streep performance. Cast as the Italian housewife, Francesca Streep is luminous in discovering that the man who has arrived on doorstep while her family is away is the love of her life, her soul mate, which they discover during a love filled weekend. Yet what makes him love her more is that she cannot harm the people she loves, and their love can never be beyond this weekend. Their final moments together in the rain are heartbreaking in what is said and unsaid.
3. Sean Penn in Mystic River (2003) is a scream from the very depths of the soul of a man who has lost what is most dear to him. When the police pile on top of Penn to stop him from coming closer to the drainage ditch that contains the murdered remains of his daughter, we feel his pain; we feel his howl of rage because it comes from somewhere profound, from somewhere terrifying. And we know that this is a man who will find a way to exact revenge, for right or wrong.
4. Gene Hackman in Unforgiven (1992) is among the most electrifying performances of Hackman’s career. As Little Bill, a vicious Marshall who enjoys the pain he inflicts with a smile he is quietly frightening. When he leans in to Morgan Freeman, who he has been whipping and explains he is about to get really angry, we are looking at evil incarnate. A terrifying sadist who thinks he’s right, and there is nothing worse, Little Bill is hell on two legs.
5. Ken Watanabe in Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is a performance filled with dignity and honor in the face of terrible circumstances. Knowing his men cannot defeat the Americans, knowing they are doomed he rallies them to their cause which is to defend the land and die with honor. We feel for this purely decent man, who once called Americans his friends and now knows he will die at their hands.
6. Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (1992) is along with Robert Duvall’s performance in The Apostle (1997) the best self directed performance on film. As William Munney as a one time gunfighter and killer trying to escape his past and do right by his kids after their mother dies, Munney’s past catches up with him and the past encounters the present. Munney seems to be the only man in this town that realizes death is forever, except for the man who killed the other, for him the ghosts stay around head forevermore.
7. Marcia Gay Harden (2003) was nominated for an Oscar for Supporting Actress while the man who played her husband won the award. Hmmm. Harden might have deserved the award for her heartbreaking work as a defeated wife trying to understand her husband and in confiding with a friend damns her husband to a wrongful death. Watch her fragile calling to her son at the end of the film…a woman shattered.
8. Forest Whitaker in Bird (1988) was still at the beginning of his career when cast as the sax genius Charlie Parker in this surrealistic masterpiece. Doomed by drug use and booze, Parker would die young, his body ravaged by abuse. Whitaker captures the agonies of the man, but also, the genius on stage with that sax. A superb piece of acting that foreshadowed one of our finest actors Oscar wins years later as Idi Amin.
9. Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino (2008) was the role Eastwood was born to play. A tough old bird, wife gone, dying himself, racist, surrounded by what he considers inferior beings, befriends a group of Asian people, eventually coming to realize that they matched his courage and bravery every day of their lives in dealing with what they were forced to deal with. The dawning on Eastwood is a joy to behold, and his decision…vintage Eastwood.
10. Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby (2004) may not be a popular choice but I admired her performance in the film, the boxing sequences as much as the scenes where she is “frozen” as she says. The heartache in pain in her voice and on her face as she asks Frankie for that final favor shows a woman at peace with herself and the world. She soared to the highest of mountains, and is ready to come down and come home.