THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Unforgiven’ (1992)

In 1993, the 65th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1992, and December 31, 1992, the awards were held on March 29. For the fourth consecutive year, the ceremony was hosted by Billy Crystal.

Al Pacino became the sixth performer to receive nominations in both lead and supporting acting categories, with nominations for Best Actor for his performance in Scent of a Woman and Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Glengarry Glen Ross. Pacino had been nominated six times over the last two decades without a win. His victory for Best Actor finally putting an end to his losing streak.

Clint Eastwood became the seventh person nominated for lead acting and directing for the same film. Eastwood, nominated for both Best Actor and Best Director for Unforgiven, became the fourth actor in Oscar history to win an Academy Award for directing a movie he also starred in, joining previous winners Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, and Kevin Costner.

After her surprise win for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in My Cousin Vinny, Marissa Tomei was subjected to a vicious rumour which suggested presenter Jack Palance had announced the wrong name after opening the envelope. Alphabetically, Tomei’s name was listed last on the nominations printed on the envelope. The rumour claimed this caused Palance to misread the actual winner, and no one had corrected him. The Academy were forced to officially deny the rumour, stating a member of the stage crew would step on stage and intervene, in the event of a mistake being made. After 14 years, this was finally proven to be true with the La La Land fiasco of 2017.

Leading the way this year with nine nominations each were Clint Eastwood’s western Unforgiven and James Ivory’s sweeping romance Howard’s End. But the night belonged to Eastwood, who, after two decades of filmmaking, finally broke through at the Academy Awards, with Unforgiven taking home four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Film Editing.

The nominees:
The Crying Game
A Few Good Men
Howard’s End
Scent of a Woman
Unforgiven

The winner:
Unforgiven

When prostitute Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson) is disfigured by a pair of cowboys in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, her fellow brothel workers post a reward for their murder, much to the displeasure of sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who doesn’t allow vigilantism in his town. Two groups of gunfighters, one led by aging former bandit William Munny (Clint Eastwood), the other by the florid English Bob (Richard Harris), come to collect the reward, clashing with each other and the sheriff.

Why did it win?
After decades of being a mainstay of the industry, Clint Eastwood was finally accepted by the Academy Awards as a legitimate filmmaker, and he achieved this reverence by revitalising a genre many thought was long dead. While many consider Dances with Wolves a western, and the film to truly kickstart the dormant genre, it wasn’t quite the classic form of the genre someone like Eastwood helped define in the 60s and 70s. Unforgiven was a throwback, nostalgic piece of cinema, and the Academy rightly ate it up.

The film also represented the chance to finally reward one of its most beloved figures. Despite decades in the industry, Eastwood had never received an Academy Award nomination, let alone win one. He was cursed with being stuck in genre films the Oscars never took seriously. To audiences, he was an icon. To the Academy, he was just an action star. While this was not his first directorial effort, it was his first western in almost 15 years. Call it a comeback, of sorts. Unforgiven was his revisionist masterpiece, and was the one piece of Eastwood cinema the Academy simply could not ignore.

Unforgiven also afforded the Academy the opportunity to continue their new run of recognising films outside the usual Oscar bubble. Silence of the Lambs had shattered preconceived notions of what constituted a Best Picture winner. Unforgiven followed that same path, and shone brighter over its competitors, which, for the most part, fit the mould of previous winners. Two British dramas and two American crowd-pleasers made for decidedly light competition for a thrilling and epic western melodrama like Eastwood’s masterpiece. It may not have swept the awards, but it ultimately had no true competitor for the top prize. Its surprise success at the box-office only bolstered its campaign even further.

On a tiny budget of just $14 million, Unforgiven exceeded all expectations by scoring big at the box-office. The film earned over $100 million at the U.S. box-office to end the year as the 11th highest-grossing film of 1992. The film earned a further $59 million internationally, ending the year just outside the top 10 highest-grossing films worldwide. Given its shoestring budget, Unforgiven still stands as one of the most commercially successful westerns films of all time.

Adding to the film’s remarkable box-office success, Unforgiven received widespread acclaim, with many hailing the return of what was once a staple of Hollywood cinema. The Hollywood Reporter called the film a “magnificently realized work,” the New York Times hailed the film a “most entertaining western that pays homage to the great tradition of movie westerns while surreptitiously expressing a certain amount of skepticism,” while the Los Angeles Times declared “the Western is back. With a vengeance. Saddle up or get out-of-the-way.”

The precursor season provided weight to the campaign of Unforgiven, but it was far from a certainty it would ultimately succeed at the Oscars. In one of their most baffling ceremonies to date, the Golden Globes awarded Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay to Scent of a Woman. This created a scandal in the industry, after it was revealed members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association were treated to a lavish press junket by the producers of the film, causing many to assume they had essentially bought votes. However, Eastwood was the victor at the Directors Guild awards and Unforgiven won Best Picture with the Los Angeles Film Critics awards and the National Society of Film Critics, which cemented its status as the frontrunner. Its only fumble was losing the Producers Guild award to The Crying Game, which would mark the first PGA winner to fail to win Best Picture. Unforgiven ultimately became an undeniable force at the Academy Awards, and rightly won those four awards none could deny it.

Did it deserve to win?
For the second year in-a-row, the most deserving and the best film of the year won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Even without its Oscar narrative of finally awarding a Hollywood legend, Unforgiven was all but destined to win. It stood as one of the best examples of the western genre. It revitalised this style of filmmaking and dared the Academy to recognise a genre they had long ignored. It was easily the best piece of cinema of the year, and few can deny it was completely entitled to be deemed the Academy’s Best Picture winner.

What set Unforgiven apart from many other examples of the western genre was how daringly different it ultimately was. This was Eastwood’s revisionist vision of a genre often so bogged down by expectations and clichés. It may look and feel like a conventional western of old, but it’s anything but. Eastwood not only ramps up the violence, but there’s a complexity to his narrative so often missing from westerns of the past. His characters constantly blur the lines between good and evil, which is radically different from the usual good guys vs. bad guys routine we’ve come to expect from a western.

We see this in the startling and sublime performance of Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett, the local sheriff. Typically, the sheriff is our hero and good guy. Not in Unforgiven. Little Bill is our sadistic villain, and Hackman gives a terrific performance to capture such a layered and complex individual, who the audience will love to hate. Hackman is matched by the typically beleaguered and weary performance of Eastwood as our protagonist Munny. Munny is a weathered and tortured soul, desperately trying to live a peaceful life, but knowing his destiny lies with violence and death. The two legends play off each other with deft precision, and their scenes together are the film’s true highlights.

The film’s screenplay is also a complete gem, with a thrilling and captivating narrative and brilliantly crafted dialogue. When Eastwood utters the immortal line “it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have,” you almost want to applaud. No single piece of dialogue has ever so perfectly encapsulated the western genre. And while the screenplay may deviate from typical western genre tropes, the visuals are the truest ode to a genre so deeply cemented in the history of cinema. The production and costume design are both sublime, capturing the wild west like only this genre can. The film has been crafted with such care and respect, and that only comes from having a man at the helm who truly understands this genre.

No one but Eastwood could have directed Unforgiven. He knew this genre like the back of his hand, and he knew exactly how to craft this film for maximum impact. He clearly knew how to get the most out of his actors by being a western genre actor himself. He knew how to craft the locations and precisely how to shoot them to create the most gorgeous visual sense any western film had ever delivered. And, given his deep history with the genre, he knew the pitfalls to avoid. Eastwood throws convention out the window, and creates something so beautifully familiar but daringly original. He’s got some great films to come, but this is his opus. Unforgiven is Eastwood’s masterpiece, and he is at the top of his game here.

A dark and unsettling tale, Unforgiven still makes for truly engaging and captivating cinema. It’s such a glorious work, and, on a personal level, it’s the film which finally made me appreciate the western genre. Eastwood crafted something truly special with his bold and unique vision of a genre which had seen better days. It’s a film that will haunt you long after the credits roll, and a film that stands as one of the greatest of its time. Once again, the Academy proved they still have the ability to recognise the best film of the year, and Unforgiven was a genuinely deserving winner of Best Picture.

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