Viva Eastwood: Clint Gets Cannes Fest's Honorary Palme d'Or

Clint Eastwood, in Paris for the release of his film Gran Torino, was given the Palme d’Or of the Festival de Cannes by Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux at a private ceremony today. The American filmmaker has a long and trusting relationship with the Festival which first welcomed him for the first time in 1985 with Pale Rider. He has returned to present Bird, and then White Hunter, Black Heart, Mystic River and Changeling.

Over the years, the acknowledgement of his peers has met the growing fervor of international critics to acclaim a major artist who alone makes “the synthesis of the classicism and modernity of American cinema”. The passion he incites in film lovers is one of admiration and respect, a natural response to his elegance and legendary reserve.

 A few years after having paid tribute to Ingmar Bergman, the Festival de Cannes today awarded a Palme d’Or to Clint Eastwood in homage to the talent of a grand master at the summit of his craft.

At 78, Clint Eastwood is at the top of his form as a filmmaker and as an actor, getting better and better, and also making films that have wide commercial appeal.  His latest work, “Gran Torino,” may not be one of his very best pictures (“Unforgiven, “Million Dollar Baby”), but it's a good, poignant work that has found an audience. The film has just crossed the 120 million at the domestic box-office and is still running strong.  Did I mention that earlier this year, Eastwood made the period thriller-drama “Changeling,” starring Angelina Jolie in an Oscar-nominated performance?

Youth is a cherished value in American culture, particularly in Hollywood.  And yet Eastwood continues to defy trends, stats, and the slow stagnation that is usually associated with old age. In this he resembles to only two other vet American directors, Robert Altman, who produced honorable work, including the Oscar-nominated “Gosford Park” in 2001, up to his death several years ago, and the very much alive Sidney Lumet, who just turned 84.

The scene in foreign cinema is different, perhaps reflecting the different meanings of age and aging.  Seen from mainstream Hollywood's point of view, the cinema that has defined the Cannes Film Festival over the past few years must have appeared as the cinema of senior citizens.  Indeed, up to 2003, the competition was typically composed of international filmmakers in advanced phase of their careers, well into the autumn of their lives.

 

The combined age of the three directors who made the strongest films in the 2001 edition of the festival was 235: Manoel de Oliveira, 92, Jacques Rivette, 73, and Jean-Luc Godard, 70.   Rivette and Godard are members of the French New Wave, the film movement that revolutionized cinema exactly fifty years ago, in 1959.  Except for Truffaut, who died young (in 1984, age 52) as a result of a brain tumor, other leaders of the French New Wave are all very active, including Eric Roehmer, Claude Chabrol, and Agnes Varda.

 

The enduring career of Portuguese Oliveira is one of the wonders of the modern film world.  At 99, he still makes a film almost every year, a productivity level matched by only one American filmmaker, Woody Allen.  Roughly the same age, Billy Wilder hasn't made a film in decades; his last, Buddy Buddy, was in 1981.   In Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1996), Oliveira coaxed a touching autumnal performance from Marcello Mastroianni as a Portuguese director who revisi
ts his childhood.  In the new film, I'm Going Home, the eloquent French thesp Michel Piccoli, who many believed should have won the acting prize, brings similar understatement and subtlety to his portrayal of Gilbert Valence, a dignified actor who has devoted his entire life to the theater. There are autobiographical elements in the story of an aging ethical actor, who sadly realizes the world is slipping from his grasp. 

 

But this situation is not limited to France.  Take Japan's vet directors, the late Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura, who were creative almost up to the end of their careers.  What's exciting about these directors is not only that they're still alive and kicking–though, that's an achievement, too–but that they have made their most mature, subtle, and poignant work.

 

This double achievement is an anomaly in Hollywood.  With the notable exception of Altman and Lumet, it's hard think of other elderly American filmmakers who still enjoy viable careers, let alone make vital pictures.  What has happened to Arthur Penn and Blake Edwards, talented directors at the forefront of American cinema two decades ago, but now in severe decline–or out of work. 


The American movie scene is extremely youthful, which is reflected in the impact of demographics on the box-office.  Directors who're past the age of 60 have hard time finding backing for their projects or even practicing their skills. Few professions are as cruel to their practitioners as the film industry. This may explain why most of the publicity that George Cukor generated while directing what turned out to be his swan song, Rich and Famous, was the fact that he was the oldest, 82, studio director.  Similarly, a lot was written about John Huston's age, when his last three pictures: Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi's Honor (1985), and The Dead (1987), which are among his very best.

 

The problems of mainstream American cinema go beyond allowing vet directors the sheer ability to work.  Various institutional and demographic factors, some dictated by the marketplace, limit the kinds of film they're given to direct.  Unlike most American directors, who reach the peak of their productivity in the first or second decade of their careers, European directors continue to develop their skills and refine their singular vision up to their death.            

 

Take Luis Bunuel, an innovative filmmaker who got better and sharper as he grew older, leaving at his death (at age 83) a rich body of films.  Most of Bunuel's films were made in exile, in Mexico and France, under less than optimal conditions, but he continued to make provocative satires that attacked the Church and middle-class morality with ferocity, irony, and humor.  In the last decade of his career, Bunuel's biting criticism has mellowed, but he still spoke with a bold voice.  Tristana (1970), the Oscar-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), made at age 77, helped maintain his long-standing reputation for integrity and courageous candor.

 

This may be the most significant contrast between American and European cinema, which tends to be more personal and expressive.  The distinguished Gallic Robert Bresson made great, personal films at old age.  Bresson never made films casually: L'Argent, directed at the top of his idiosyncratic form, was only the 13th feature in a four-decade career.  At 76, Bresson became one of the world's oldest active directors–and one of its most rigorous ones.

 

Perhaps the best example of a tenaciously creative director, who refuses to succumb age, is Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni. A stroke felled Antonioni in 1985, but instead of sinking into despair, he went back to work, reaffirming his motto, “To direct is to live.”  At 83, Antonioni showed his creativity in Beyond the Clouds, a film that flaunted a young glamorous cast and dealt with tangled sexual relationships.  What made Beyond the Clouds notable was the fact that Antonioni directed it in the first place.  When insurance companies refused to guarantee the project, the producers hired director Wim Wenders as a standby.  But from the very first day, Antonioni was in full control, angry at any interference.  It became a totally Antonioni film, reflecting his uncommo
n vision, detailed camera setups, unique sense of color, distinctive composition of frames.

 

Like Antonioni, Oliveira, Rivette, and Godard demonstrate in their new works that cinematic creativity defies age boundaries. Functioning as philosophers with a camera, to use a metaphor, they have uncompromisingly cultivated what has become a rare sight in Hollywood, a subtle yet entertaining cinema of ideas.