It's hard to say whether the four Oscars awarded to Clint Eastwood's revisionist Western "Unforgiven" owed more to the film's artistic merit or to Hollywood's guilty conscience over having neglected the craggy-faced actor for so long. Either way, the recognition was richly deserved.
Mr. Eastwood made his name in the 1960s playing remorseless desperados in a string of movies that included Italian-made spaghetti Westerns like "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly." There followed a series of detective movies in which he played the crime-busting renegade "Dirty Harry," who was notable primarily for his laconic attitude toward killing -- "Go ahead: Make my day."
Though the violence of Mr. Eastwood's early roles disturbed many people at the time, in hindsight the films often reflected contemporary anxieties more accurately than the Oscar winners of the era. During the 1980s, Mr. Eastwood, an avid jazz buff, revealed a wholly unsuspected side of his talent by directing "Bird," a loving if emotionally searing tribute to legendary jazz innovator Charlie Parker.
"Unforgiven," for which Mr. Eastwood won an Oscar for best picture and best director, combined the harrowing violence of the actor's action films with the penetrating psychological insight of his essay on Parker. The result was a classic anti-Western that managed to convey both society's repugnance for violent lawlessness and a profound ambivalence for the rootless heroes who traditionally have populated the genre.
In "Unforgiven," Mr. Eastwood faced the genre's moral ambiguity head on. "Any actor who has been in action films has dealt with violence, and often it can be glib," he said. "Gene Hackman, when I first approached him for this film, didn't want to be involved in films with violence. And I agreed with him, telling him that based upon that fact, this was a chance to make a statement on the effects of violence, something that means something. That it isn't glamorous to take a gun, that it isn't glamorous to kill people. Killing isn't beautiful."
Mr. Hackman, whose roles also have included a number of violent characters, won an Oscar for best supporting actor in "Unforgiven."
"Movies can be gratuitously violent," said Mr. Eastwood, "but life can be gratuitously violent. Reporting violence in the media can have a numbing effect. If you have a conflict in a film, you could be heading toward violence. The important thing is to state something valuable about it in the process."