Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' anniversary marks 20 years of the modern western

Posted by · 8:11 pm · August 6th, 2012

Somewhat quietly, it would appear, Clint Eastwood’s western masterwork “Unforgiven” is celebrating its 20th anniversary today.

The film hit theaters on August 7, 1992 and was the last western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Though to be clear, it’s not like it was one in a long line. Only three from the genre have ever taken the prize, with a six-decade drought between 1931’s “Cimarron” and 1990’s “Dances with Wolves.”

Somehow the western didn’t spark for the Academy during its heyday. Films generally agreed upon as American classics today like “The Searchers,” “Red River,” and “The Magnificent Seven” couldn’t even manage nominations, to say nothing of Italian triumphs like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

Indeed, it’s always been somewhat fascinating to me that the three westerns that won Best Picture came outside that heyday entirely. And “Unforgiven” — which Eastwood always said would be a great final say on the genre if he were to ever have one — has always felt like a poignant sort of closure for the western and Oscar.

An anti-violence screed that was also something of an anti-western (turning countless tropes on their ears), Eastwood’s film is, for me, one of the genre’s crown jewels. And I would argue it’s one of the top five Best Picture winners ever. It also landed wins for Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actor, for Gene Hackman’s wicked Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett.

Eastwood acquired David Webb Peoples’ script — originally titled “The William Munny Killings” — in over a decade before he finally got around to making it. At the time, Francis Ford Coppola had already optioned it and let it go, but Eastwood had grand plans in mind. So he locked it up in a drawer for 10 years until he was old enough to play the lead. But he also brought his decades of western experience to the film all those years later, which only added to its potency and, indeed, the industry and audience’s reaction to it.

But it’s not like the western hasn’t been fighting back lately. I think it kind of started with Kevin Costner’s underrated “Open Range” in 2003, but most look to 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (a “Victorian” western from Aussie director Andrew Dominik), “3:10 to Yuma” (a remake of Delmer Daves’s 1957 original) and “No Country for Old Man” (a neo-western from the Coen brothers that bathes in typical themes and imagery). Three years later, 2010 brought the Coens’ “True Grit” remake, which actually nabbed the genre’s record for nominations with 10. So it’s been percolating throughout the decade.

Quentin Tarantino will finally dip into things with “Django Unchained” later this year. He has consistently called his film a “southern” more than a western, but it nevertheless trades in familiar strokes. Meanwhile, Eastwood — who last week grabbed headlines with his endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — will be on the scene with a big Best Actor push in “Trouble with the Curve,” directed by his long-time A.D. Robert Lorenz.

Will a western ever spark for the Academy again? I can’t say. I guess it will take something unique in the genre fray, like the revisionism of “Unforgiven,” to really get one there. Maybe nostalgia for the form will someday click for a romp that manages to float the Academy’s boat. I don’t know. But for now, Eastwood’s 1992 farewell to the genre remains the last to win, and 20 years later, it still feels like the one to go out on.

But let’s hope it’s not.

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