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Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
June 20, 2014 10:06 AM
18 Comments
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Why is Clint Eastwood the Oldest Working Filmmaker in America?

The list of active American filmmakers over 80 directing wide-release movies isn't a list; it's a name: Clint Eastwood. And while it's easy to view Dirty Harry as immune to the aging process, "Jersey Boys" looks like what it is: a movie from an 84-year-old who growled confusing epithets at a chair during the Republic National Convention.

"Jersey Boys" inexplicably buries its best attributes. Eastwood's bland treatment of the Broadway music about the bumpy career path of '60s rock group The Four Seasons deadens the material by relegating the bumpy soundtrack to a handful of performances, mostly seen in fragments, before adding a single lively song-and-dance number — the delightful "Sherry" — over the credits. 

Though John Lloyd Young delivers a sensitive turn in the lead role of Frankie Valli, Eastwood barely delves into the peculiar nature of the falsetto Valli's singing technique or the travails of the band's developing fame. Instead, the movie plods along with a melodramatic tale of the group's early rebellious nature and eventual falling out. Eastwood generates some amusing bits in early scenes involving the anarchic streak of teenager Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who drifts in and out of prisons as if adhering to a seasonal calendar. Then he moves offer a dry account of Valli's struggles as a husband and father on the road. The resolution is a shrug.

As a filmmaker, Eastwood has maintained an ability to wrestle with harsh material even in his later years, with everything from the imminently quotable "Gran Torino" to "J. Edgar" offering elegant portrayals of men driven to bitterness by the forces around them. "Jersey Boys" is his first toothless effort. Needless to say, it's an old man's film — but its failings stand out for indicating a much bigger problem.

Clint has unlikely company.


"Jersey Boys."

Eastwood isn't alone in the pantheon of productive American directors heading into old age. Also 84, the ever-probing documentarian Frederick Wiseman continues to churn out challenging assessments of institutions and characters with the same relish he displayed 50 years ago; seminal avant-garde film diarist Jonas Mekas still explores his surroundings with poetic detail at 91. But ever since Sidney Lumet passed away at 86, having found another wave of acclaim for his last feature "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" in 2007, Eastwood remains the sole octogenarian making narrative features for wider audiences.

Things are better overseas.

This outcome stands in notable contrast to the opportunities for filmmakers in Europe. As it happens, another director roughly the same age opens his own stage adaptation this week: Roman Polanski, who turned 80 last year, continues to produce lively films that reflect an artist gunning to craft inspired stories. "Venus in Fur," his vivid two-hander drawn from David Ives' play, may not rank with his best works, but it maintains a wicked energy. Its portrait of a desperate actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) struggling to impress a theater director (Mathieu Amalric) finds her wrestling control of the situation with erotic power. Polanski's last truly effective accomplishment may have been 2010's classically suspenseful "The Ghost Writer," but "Venus in Fur" proves he can still tackle the challenge of generating a cinematic excitement out of two people in a room for 90 minutes. 

At this year's Cannes Film Festival, 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard unleashed the vibrant 3-D experiment "Goodbye to Language," which drew cheers from hundreds at its premiere screening for its innovative use of technology. More than a half century after "Breathless," the French-Swiss director continues to produce boundary-pushing achievements. That was also the case for several of Godard's French New Wave brethren, including Eric Rohmer (whose "Romance of Astree and Celadon" made the rounds in 2007 before his 2010 death at the age of 89), Chris Marker (2006's "Leila Attacks" preceded his 2012 death at 91) and Alain Resnais, who died this year at 91, just two months after his "Life of Riley" received an award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Later this month, the 73-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci's delicate brother-and-sister coming-of-age drama "You and Me," his first feature in a decade, will hit American theaters two years after its Cannes Film Festival premiere. Last May, 85-year-old Chilean maestro of the midnight movie Alejandro Jodorowsky's surreal account of his childhood, "The Dance of Reality," found its way to American theaters. Both movies are mesmerizing, personal achievements that foreground their creators' identities in vivid fashion.

The oldest filmmaker in the world is still making movies.

No filmmaker has sped through old age with the remarkable dexterity of 105-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, whose hypnotic period chamber drama "Gebo and the Shadow" opened in New York earlier this month. The unnerving adaptation of Raul Brandao's 1923 play showcases first-rate performances from the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Michael Lonsdale and Claudia Cardinale for a quiet rumination on the isolation of an impoverished existence. Oliveira's other recent credits since his 100th birthday have been similarly evocative: from the dour, expressionistic romance "Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl" to the haunting "The Strange Case of Angelica," a portrait of mortality capped by a rare case of poetic special effects in its otherworldly climax.

Manoel de Oliveira's "The Strange Case of Angelica."

In America, successful filmmakers are lucky if they can make it past 60 and maintain relevance. (Notable exceptions like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen belong to a short list.) Francis Ford Coppola managed to run on fumes for a few years with the peculiar low-budget undertakings "Youth Without Youth," "Tetro," and "Twixt," none of which managed mainstream attention. At 75, he hasn't directed a movie in nearly five years. John Landis, 61, last directed the genial "Burke and Hare" in 2010 — in the United Kingdom. The 70-year-old Penny Marshall hasn't released a feature since 2001's "Riding in Cars With Boys," with her last credits surfacing on a couple of "United States of Tara" episodes on Showtime.

How do Oliveira and his ilk manage to thrive while American directors get put out to pasture almost as soon as they go grey? As ever, the chief culprit is financial. In other countries, particularly in Europe, government-subsidized film productions make it possible for filmmakers with a certain name-brand currency to find the support they need to move ahead. Rather than struggling to convince bored studio executives or other risk-averse financiers that they've still got the right stuff, these filmmakers continue to produce work on their own terms with the same richness of novelists or painters in their advanced years.

What's holding America back?

The country's longtime discrimination toward its older citizens doesn't help. Just as the media has wondered if Hillary Clinton's "grandmother" status would hurt her presidential efforts, studios display unapologetically ageist tendencies, generally filling their rosters with young talent and the occasional middle-aged safe bet. This isn't a new problem, either: Directing legends Billy Wilder and Arthur Penn were largely inactive during the final 20 years of their lives.

"Jersey Boys," a Warner Bros. release, offers a rare exception — yet its sole existence seems to predicated on Eastwood's ageless brand, which has virtually no presence in this tedious picture.

Though it may have been accidental, the movie offers one telling moment in its final scene, set during a 1990 reunion performance: After filling in viewers about their activities in old age, the band members suddenly transform into their younger selves. Sporting eager grins as they dominate the stage, they illustrate a fantasy of long-lasting creativity that has yet to materialize in American movies. As Eastwood's own appeal falters, the landscape for aging directors will soon look more desolate than the ghost towns traversed by his man with no name.


18 Comments

  • Bob | July 4, 2014 9:29 AMReply

    This is simple. Unlike most Americans he's not clinically overweight (73% are), clinically obese (34% are), he eats very healthy and exercises routinely (less than 18% do). In other words, he gets off his ass and works to be healthy.

  • Lynne Littman | June 24, 2014 4:02 PMReply

    "Needless to say, it's an old man's film — "
    Needless to say, it's this kind of criticism that's responsible
    for ageism.

  • ernest | June 23, 2014 2:18 PMReply

    Great article. Indie should do more of the above. portraits of the participants in a film help sometimes get a perspective that one cannot get but just watching the movie.

  • Jan Elvsen | June 23, 2014 6:42 AMReply

    Eric, you omitted mentioning William Friedkin who will be eighty next year and maintains an inspired and challenging output.

  • Wally | June 20, 2014 9:18 PMReply

    Great piece. Clint is great actor an director but not of its productions are top quality

  • rosalyn | June 20, 2014 3:53 PMReply

    This a good piece. It summarizes accomplishments and a few mistakes without moving to unquestioned adoration or unwanted criticism.

  • richard.perry@wright.edu | June 20, 2014 3:44 PMReply

    Who is an American director who is older than Clint Eastwood who still should be directing? I can't think of one living American director older than 84 left. Ones that could realistically be alive but are dead: Kubrick would've been 84 and he is dead, Lumet 89 dead, Frankenheimer 84 dead, Altman 89 dead and I'm drawing a blank. I'm going to guess that the reason John Landis age 63 doesn't direct anymore is because he hasn't directed a commercially or critically successful film in almost 30 years and the Vic Morrow + 2 kids dying on the set of Twilight Zone the Movie probably finally caught up with him.

  • tammy | June 20, 2014 3:42 PMReply

    Great piece . It gives Clint E.'s accomplishments without adoration.... and it points the fact that he has been a figure in the film industry under many different incarnations... and without ignoring his involvement in the national scene.

  • James Marsden | June 20, 2014 3:16 PMReply

    How many typos do you have to read, before you stop reading?

  • derb | June 20, 2014 3:13 PMReply

    great piece. don be intimidated!

  • WriterDudeLA | June 20, 2014 2:45 PMReply

    What bunk! "Jersey Boys" isn't a documentary, it's a movie. It doesn't have to delve into the deep dark recesses of anyone's mind. If the dark side of existence is your cup of tea, then perhaps you would be better off reviewing off, off Broadway productions and leave the entertainment reviews to those who enjoy being entertained.

  • Burt | June 20, 2014 12:45 PMReply

    Eric Kohn "Indiewire" : Your article is as impressive as your imdb credits.

  • Chris | June 20, 2014 12:30 PMReply

    Dear Indiewire - Ageism is discrimination, in case you didn't know. He's a brilliant director fortunate enough to have such a long and successful career. He should be celebrated for his talent and not written about by a nobody like you.

  • walter | June 20, 2014 3:11 PM

    Eric's article is a celebration of Clint's Contributions. You obviously have problems in understanding the written word

  • M | June 20, 2014 11:40 AMReply

    Get your act together Indiewire.
    Your job is to criticize a filmmakers job, not his character.
    So many things are wrong with this article... Where to start?
    How can you criticize discrimination on the basis of age while using a sentence like: "an 84-year-old who growled confusing epithets at a chair during the Republic National Convention".
    What's holding America back? People like YOU are. The man gives us fantastic films in his senior years and you define him on the basis of one event, his age and political affiliation.
    And did ya' need to put Hilary's pic on here too? Subliminal political propaganda in the place of proper film criticism? What did we do to deserve this?

  • Jay Bajaj | June 20, 2014 10:59 AMReply

    The article did not mention anything about Woody Allen. Sad.

  • serpico | June 20, 2014 10:44 AMReply

    People really need to get over the Republican National Convention fiasco. And it was only 10 years ago that he directed Mystic River & Million Dollar Baby back to back. He can direct till he's 100, I don't care.

  • Rob | June 20, 2014 10:39 AMReply

    I don't see how this is ageism unless you can point to a bunch of American directors near Eastwood's age who are trying and failing to get work.

    Also: "In America, successful filmmakers are lucky if they can make it past 60 and maintain relevance."

    Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Kathryn Bigelow, Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Ron Howard, Taylor Hackford, and Michael Mann might disagree with you. And Joel Coen and Ang Lee turn 60 this year.