Clint Hemingway? Ernest Eastwood?

by Steve Dzwonkowski


The late great Ernest Hemingway was famous for having said, “If you can say it in five words, do not say it in six.” What did Papa know? Okay, so he won, in 1953, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with The Old Man and the Sea which was published in 1952. Okay, so he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Okay, so Papa had creds– A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and some of the GREATEST short stories of American or ANY Literature.  (Check out any of the Nick Adams stories some time.)

Okay, so Papa knew. His sparse style of writing, which he called, the iceberg principle, involved cutting out from his rough drafts any words he felt were not absolutely essential to the story he was writing at the time.  He revised often. Nothing was wasted or distracting in his work. Where some authors might take pages and pages to describe one man’s treacherous futile journey across a desert and fill the prose with many adjectives and much imagery, Hemingway would just write something like, “Charlie died in the desert, alone.” Okay, maybe that is an exaggeration, but you get the idea. Papa did not waste words.

Clint Eastwood, winner of four Academy Awards—two for producing and two for directing—is the Hemingway of directing. He does not waste anything either. Some actors like to work with Eastwood because he does not like a lot of takes. He normally gets what he wants on the first or second take, and he moves onto the next scene. For Eastwood, it is all in the preparation.  In addition, he always brings his films in early and under budget. I suppose part of this economy of film making is due to the fact he usually is the producer of the films he directs. So, part of the cost of the films is risked by him. If you see A Malpaso Production in the screen credits, you are seeing the name of his own production company.

But this economic style of Eastwood’s is only one reason why I compare him to Ernest Hemingway.

Eastwood said once he chooses the films he directs by the stories the films tell.  It is that simple. If you examine some of his films, you will see that not much distracts from their stories.  Excepting Hereafter and Space Cowboys, you will not find many over-the-top special effects in his films.  For example, films like Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and Mystic River are films that are driven by relatively simple stories. They are well-cast—the three films won a combined total of five Oscars for acting—and Eastwood lets his actors convey the stories because he has cast them well. What also makes these films so good is Mr. Eastwood’s deft use of the camera to call attention to his actors without distracting us from the stories. In Mystic River, for example, Clint films Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) in a bird’s-eye-view as the Boston Police hold him down as we in the audience feel Jimmy’s pain at having just found out his daughter was brutally murdered. The music, composed by Eastwood, augments the camera angle. We focus on Jimmy; we focus on the story. There are, of course, other examples—Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) telling Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) what happened to him when he was abducted as a youth in Mystic River; Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) saying to William Munny (Clint Eastwood), “I was building a house,” just before Munny blows Little Bill’s head off with a shot gun in Unforgiven; Scrap (Morgan Freeman) telling Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) about his 109th fight in Million Dollar Baby. These scenes, critical to their respective films, are filmed perfectly—nothing intrudes on the actors furthering their part of the story. Camera angles, music, scene framing, and other aspects are masterfully handled by Eastwood and his regular crew to tell the story without taking over said story. Just like Papa, nothing is wasted.

Ernest Hemingway died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 61. What a tragedy.  Clint Eastwood turned 83 this year. What a treasure. Recently, he said he wants to keep directing until age 103. When he’s 103, I will be 77. I hope I am alive to see him do this. That would make my day.


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