TORONTO — Judging by the reaction to him at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre on Sunday night, Clint Eastwood can still muster a lot of love. There was standing ovation when he came out to introduce his new film, “Hereafter,” and the kind of murmurs through the crowd reserved for rock stars and world leaders.
Yet in recent years, the response Eastwood has received from awards voters — those arbiters of taste, for better or worse, in modern Hollywood — has been less enthusiastic
After three movies that landed best-picture nominations in a span of four years (“Mystic River,” Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,”) Eastwood has gone colder than the hands around Scorpio’s gun. His last three movies — “Changeling,” “Gran Torino” and “Invictus” — each had clear awards potential. And yet apart from a few acting nominations and two technical nominations, Oscar acclaim has eluded the icon. No director nominations for Eastwood on any of the three films; no best picture nominations either.
Eastwood’s most recent effort, the Nelson Mandela-centered sports movie “Invictus,” was a particular disappointment on that front. Although not a unanimous reviewer favorite, the film contained political subject matter, an inspirational story, historical and period flourishes and a larger-than-life central character. Its omission from the Oscar best-picture list last year, when the academy had the luxury of 10 selections, might have stung even a more awards-agnostic filmmaker.
The film that could break Eastwood’s cold streak this year comes in the form of “Hereafter,” a spiritual / supernatural triptych starring Matt Damon. Those looking for blazingly original subject matter may not be entirely satisfied with three afterlife-related story strands that, inevitably, come together at the end, in the manner of an Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu film or a host of indie dramas from the last decade or so. And with its sometimes gauzy exploration of the topic of the afterlife — particularly in the story of a French woman who believes she has seen the white light and then undertakes a search trying to understand it — the movie leaves itself open to the criticism of pseudo-depth that seemingly comes whenever Hollywood tackles spiritual subjects.
But there is a quiet drama and pacing in “Hereafter” that could appeal to reviewers and the academy’s base. More important, there is a stretching of subject matter and genre, even by the standards of the already-elastic Eastwood. The academy likes to give what are essentially lifetime achievement awards (e.g., Martin Scorsese’s 2006 wins for “The Departed”) to reward an icon for doing something particularly well for so long. With Eastwood, it sometimes seems moved for a very different reason: to reward an icon for doing so many different things for so long.
If that’s the criteria, “Hereafter” stands an excellent chance this season. Eastwood’s moral preoccupations are often similar from movie to movie, but his backdrops and genres are radically different. The film is a departure even by those standards. Drop a filmgoer into a theater that’s showing “Hereafter” and ask him to guess the director. Eastwood may be the 30th or 40th name that comes up.
Eastwood has, in recent years, shown a remarkable consistency at the box office. In the last six years, every one of his movies (aside from “Letters from Iwo Jima”) grossed almost exactly the same amount, between $33 million and $37 million. (The one exception was “Gran Torino,” his most successful movie as either an actor or a director, when he caught lightning in a bottle and grossed a whopping $148 million.)
There is a die-hard base that is attracted to Eastwood and his work, a group that is not large but is exceedingly reliable. There used to be a corresponding cadre among awards voters. We’ll see if they return with “Hereafter.”