CINE-DEBATE: GRAN TORINO – Are You Kidding Me???

I believe the following to be true:

If Clint Eastwood hadn’t directed or acted in Gran Torino and the role of Walt Kowalski had instead been played by an unknown theater actor from Detroit, and if everything else about the movie had stayed the exact same, not only would Gran Torino not have gotten theatrical distribution, I am 100% confident that it would never have been accepted at an even somewhat major film festival.

To state my case, allow me to quote from the filmmakers themselves. These choice nuggets are taken from a New York Times article written by Bruce Headlam:

Exhibit A:

The script for “Gran Torino” had been kicking around Hollywood for a while before Mr. Eastwood read it. The writer, Nick Schenk, who worked in a Ford plant years ago, based the character of Walt on the men he met there, many of them Korean War veterans. “I’d talk a lot to these guys, and they’d tell me stuff they wouldn’t tell their wife and kids,” Mr. Schenk said.

Some directors are known as an actor’s best friend. Mr. Eastwood may be the writer’s. “He didn’t change a word,” Mr. Schenk said. “That never happens.”

Exhibit B:

Mr. Eastwood bought the script in February, then shot the movie over the summer at a guerrilla filmmaker’s pace, finishing in 32 days. The fast clip, Mr. Eastwood said, helped him with the Hmong members of the cast, most of whom had never acted and many of whom didn’t speak English. “I’d give them little pointers along the way, Acting 101,” he said. “And I move along at a rate that doesn’t give them too much of a chance to think.”

Apparently, Clint, that rate didn’t give them a chance to act either. Whatever one makes of Eastwood’s characterization of Walt, the never-ending parade of wooden, inexcusable-even-if-this-was-a-student-film performances of his ‘supporting cast’ reeks to me of lazy filmmaking. Eastwood has often appeared to be more concerned with his main players, yet his failure to even try to cast up-to-snuff actors in his less meaty roles tends to magnify the cavernous gap between the two. In the case of Gran Torino, that gap is so cavernous it borders on the avant-garde.

As for the quote in Exhibit A about Eastwood not changing a word of the script, this applies more dramatically to the finished product. Clearly, Eastwood took a script, shot that script, and then edited his picture to that shooting script. And then he called it a picture lock. Which is all well and good if you’re someone like the Coen Brothers. But for most of us—and that includes Clint Eastwood, I’m afraid (at least in this case)—there comes the moment in the editing room when it’s time to make the real movie. When we discover that some performances just didn’t measure up, when harmless jokes now appear to be jarringly racist, when it comes time to kill some babies. Watching Gran Torino, I got the feeling that Clint never had any babies to kill. He sped through production like he was working on an assembly line in a Detroit automotive plant, churning out product and not seeking to find the truth—and credibility—every step of the way. It’s for that reason that the commercial success of Gran Torino bothers me, and it’s why the critical success truly disappoints me.

Somebody, anybody, convince me that I’m wrong (even though I know I’m right).

HTN Tool Belt:

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