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Why is Clint Eastwood the Oldest Working Filmmaker in America?

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 20, 2014 at 10:06AM

Quick: Name an American filmmaker over the age of 80 still directing widely-seen movies.
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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.


This article is related to: Reviews, Clint Eastwood, Jersey Boys, Manoel de Oliveira, Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Venus in Fur