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Academy Snubs Eastwood Over Politics

January 26, 2009
By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

There were plenty of snubs in this year’s Oscar nominations.

Although the blockbuster “The Dark Knight” picked up eight nominations, tying “Milk” for the third-highest total, the Batman sequel failed to snag either a Best Picture or a Best Director nomination. Heath Ledger was given a posthumous Supporting Actor nomination, as anticipated, for his intense portrayal of The Joker. However, other “Dark Knight” nods were in technical categories such as visual effects, art direction and cinematography.

Still, the Academy reserved its coldest shoulder for Clint Eastwood and his latest film, “Gran Torino.”

Eastwood was on most Oscar-watching lists and was expected to be nominated and/or win in the Best Actor category. Many also picked the film as a Best Picture candidate. The sentiment for Eastwood had he been in the running would have been great, because the 78-year-old actor had indicated that it was likely to be his last stint in front of the camera, and he had never won an Academy Award for acting. His Oscars were for direction and production.

“Gran Torino” is Eastwood at his best. The film is reminiscent in tone and texture of his previous Oscar-winning Western, “Unforgiven.”

Eastwood has an uncanny knack for the rhythm of storytelling, and it shows in “Gran Torino.” His onscreen character, Walt Kowalski, is a decorated yet crotchety Korean War vet who watches with suspicion as immigrants move into his neighborhood.

The tale launches with Walt refusing to fulfill his wife’s deathbed request that he confess his sins to a “27-year-old, over-educated, virgin priest.”

One of the neighborhood Hmong teens, whom Walt fondly refers to as either a “zipperhead” or a “gook,” attempts to steal his prized possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino. Walt almost kills him. But eventually he becomes close friends with the young man, Thao, and his sister, Sue, defending them from a vicious gang that has terrorized the community.

While amazingly entertaining, Eastwood’s film simultaneously deals with universal themes of suffering, self-reliance, courage, justice, friendship, and spiritual redemption.

So did Hollywood snub Eastwood?

Industry folks have long memories. In the past, Eastwood was castigated for his “Dirty Harry” persona. In 1971, the New Yorker magazine featured a piece on him by Pauline Kael in which she tagged “Dirty Harry” with the term “fascist medievalism.” Much in the style of Jack Bauer in the TV hit “24,” Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character tried to save a kidnap victim’s life by shooting a serial-killing kidnapper in the leg and then stepping on the suspect’s wound to extract info from him.

Afterward Eastwood did some “penance” with more politically correct contributions such as “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby,” and Hollywood’s cocktail crowd said such cinematic moves exemplified “growth.” But “Gran Torino” marks a return to a “Dirty Harry”-style character that despises pacifists and antiwar types, and that kind of rugged individualist figure unfortunately works against getting Academy votes.

During the past “Dirty Harry” movie runs, there was a corresponding increase in sales of Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum revolvers, so it won’t be surprising if “Gran Torino” sparks a similarly high demand for M1 Garand rifles and Colt 1911 semiautomatics.

Guess a guy who admits voting Republican in the last election and who does a film that celebrates individualism and the right to bear arms always had a pretty slim chance against a film about a gay martyr or a flick about a GOP bogeyman.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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