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Directors in Focus - Clint Eastwood: An American Master

This year marked the seventieth birthday of one of the iconic figures of contemporary cinema: actor-director Clint Eastwood. It was nearly thirty years ago that Eastwood began his work on the other side of the camera, coming of age as a filmmaker with a generation of auteurs who would define the New Hollywood. Eastwood’s oeuvre, however, represents a unique achievement among contemporary directors, for virtually alone he conjoined the legacy of Hollywood professionalism with the less hierarchical terrain of independent (although studio-financed) production. In his work we find vestiges of the real golden age of American cinema—traces of Walsh and Ford, Mann and Hawks, Siegel and Peckinpah. He is also the last great practitioner of the western, a most accomplished maker of action films, and—like Howard Hawks—a surprisingly adept director of comedy. While he remains a superstar in the film business, his legacy may well emerge less from his trademark "make my day" glare than from his quiet mastery of the codes of classical American cinema.

Special thanks for their advice and support of this series go to Mary Lea Bandy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Susan Lacy of WNET’s "American Masters"; filmmaker Bruce Ricker; and Joe Hyams at Warners.


September 18 (Monday) 8:30 pm

Play Misty for Me

Directed by Clint Eastwood
US 1971, 35mm, color, 102 min.
With Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills

For his directorial debut, Eastwood chose a small-scale drama that could be shot on location in and around his beloved Monterey on a modest budget, in between acting assignments for his final two films with director Don Siegel. Eastwood plays an egotistical disc jockey whose philandering leads him into a Fatal Attraction relationship with a too-devoted listener (Jessica Walter). Weaving together a story of romantic intrigue with his personal love for music, Eastwood created a low-key thriller as he balanced a creative environment for his actors (the film was shot in sequence, a rarity then as now) with the craftsmanship of studio production. Look for one of Eastwood’s mentors, director Siegel, in the role of a bartender in the opening sequence: he quickly exits this fictional role and, we may presume, his off-screen assistance with the production.

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September 20 (Wednesday) 7 pm
September 24 (Sunday) 8:30 pm

Bird

Directed by Clint Eastwood
US 1988, 35mm, color, 160 min.
With Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker

Eastwood’s lifelong love affair with jazz found its most powerful expression in this stunning biopic on the legendary bebop musician Charlie Parker. Developed from a screenplay based on the memoirs of Parker’s widow, Chan, Bird focuses on the final chapter in the musician’s too-brief life, beginning with his bout with suicide and time-shifting through flashbacks to illuminate both the nature of his artistic genius and his singularly unremorseful lifestyle. For the role of Parker, Eastwood cast the young actor Forest Whitaker, who immersed himself in the character and earned the Best Actor prize at Cannes. Whitaker’s musical training helped him to mime brilliantly Parker’s performance style, while Eastwood oversaw the assembly of a meticulously remastered mix of Parker recordings, complemented by recreations by the jazz veteran Charles McPherson. The resulting film is not only one of the finest portraits yet made on the subject of jazz but Eastwood’s most personal and poignant work.

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September 22 (Friday) 7 pm
September 24 (Sunday) 6 pm

Unforgiven

Directed by Clint Eastwood
US 1992, 35mm, color, 130 min.
With Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

Eastwood’s most accomplished western, Unforgiven marked his return to the genre that had made him a star. Based on a David Webb Peoples screenplay that reworks elements of the classic revenge western, the film was shot on location in a remote setting in Western Canada that proved a flawless match for the American frontier of the 1880s. Eastwood plays a pig-farming ex-gunfighter who is lured out of retirement by the chance to redress the brutal assault of a prostitute and to earn some much needed money for his two children. Drawn into this scheme are his former sidekick (Freeman) and the sadistic sheriff (Hackman) whose inaction had spurred the local prostitutes to post a reward. While a moral ambiguity pervades the film, Unforgiven became an unprecedented critical and box-office success, earning an Oscar for Hackman’s chilling performance and a pair for Eastwood as director and producer of this modern masterpiece.


September 22 (Friday) 9:15 pm

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Directed by Sergio Leone
Italy 1966/1968, 35mm, color, 163 min.
With Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach

In the third and final work in the epic western trilogy by the late Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, Eastwood reprises his "man with no name" role, this time in cahoots with two distinctly untrustworthy accomplices: Van Cleef and Wallach—the "Bad" and the "Ugly" opposite Eastwood’s "Good." Set in Texas (but shot in the Basque country of Spain) during the Civil War, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly focuses on a simple quest to retrieve a stolen shipment of Confederate gold. The plot, as film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel notes, is "constantly beset by dislocating coincidences, vertiginous reversals of fortune and, most significantly, the chance, megahistorical intrusions of the war." While the complicated narrative twists and prevalent violence riled some reviewers (the New York Times retitled it "The Burn, the Gouge, and the Mangle"), Eastwood’s swan song to the spaghetti western was the most successful of this cycle of works and even spawned a hit single for composer Ennio Morricone.

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September 23 (Saturday) 8 pm
Special Event—all seats $10
Director Bruce Ricker in Person

Clint Eastwood, Out of the Shadows

Directed by Bruce Ricker
US 2000, video, color, 90 min.
With Clint Eastwood, Forest Whitaker

One of the preeminent contemporary documentary filmmakers and a specialist in jazz, Bruce Ricker was an inspired choice to direct this "American Masters" profile on actor-director Clint Eastwood. The two had met while Eastwood was in pre-production on Bird and encountered Ricker’s celebrated film on Kansas City jazz, The Last of the Blue Devils. Eastwood would later serve as executive producer on Ricker’s feature-length portrait of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. For this newly completed film, Ricker had access to Eastwood and to many of the directors and actors with whom he collaborated over the years, as well as to an extensive archive of both on-screen and off-screen material, from his earliest Universal-International B-movies (Eastwood played a lab assistant in Revenge of the Creature and a fighter pilot in Tarantula) through the Rawhide years, the "spaghetti westerns," and the American features he has acted in and directed. The result is a thorough and thoroughly engaging work.

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