That year's other Best Picture nominees were The Crying Game and Howard's End, which I have seen, and A Few Good Men and Scent of a Woman, which I haven't. I had not seen Unforgiven before, but I had seen a dozen other films made that year: Basic Instinct, Batman Returns, Wayne's World, Sister Act, The Crying Game, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Player, Howard's End, Damage, Bob Roberts, Noises Off... and Peter's Friends. Apart from Batman Returns, which really lost me by trying to make a large number of penguins look menacing, I really like them all, including Unforgiven, though I would not put it at the top of my list. IMDB users rate it second and seventh on the two systems, Reservoir Dogs ahead of it in both cases. Here is a trailer.
We have several actors returning from previous Oscar-winning films, and one who was also in two Hugo winners (one of which also won the Nebula). We'll start there, with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman as Little Bill, the nasty sheriff, and Ned Logan, the nice black cowboy.
It's a while since we've seen Gene Hackman, but he was Lex Luthor in Superman (1978), the blind man in Young Frankenstein (1975) and one of the lead cops in The French Connection (Oscar 1971). He has aged well.
We saw Morgan Freeman only three years ago as the guy who was Driving Miss Daisy:
It's a lot longer since we last saw Anthony James, who is brothel-keeper Skinny Dubois here and was the killer in In the Heat of the Night (1967). (Sorry for spoilers, but the film has been out since the year I was born, and it's my 54th birthday on Monday.)
When first drafting this I missed the first woman of colour to be in two Oscar winners. Morgan Freeman's character's wife, Sally Two Trees, is played eloquently and silently by Cherrilene Cardinal, who as Tantoo Cardinal was also Black Shawl in Dances with Wolves.
I see a couple of other returnees in the smaller parts too, though none of the women.
Unforgiven is the third Western to win the Best Picture Oscar, after Cimarron (1930-31) and Dances With Wolves (1990), and the first one that I really enjoyed. Yes, it has its flaws, but this time I found the good points outweighing the bad points. I'm putting it a third of the way down my list, between two other films about crime and law in the USA with historical settings - ahead of The Sting, but below The Godfather.
So, on the negative side: it's still a pretty violent film. Only nine people are actually killed, but it starts with the horrific mutilation of Anna Thomson's Delilah and ends with a bloody shootout, with Richard Harris's English Bob getting beaten out of town and Morgan Freeman's Ned tortured to death in the meantime. Sure, this drives the narrative, but I don't have to like it.
And while it's only one of the three Westerns to have a major role for a black actor, and Morgan Freeman is really really good, one cannot help but feel that it somewhat sanitises the African-American experience of the West - yes, even with his grisly end.
Apart from Sally Two Trees, the other women characters are all sex workers, which is the first time we've seen that profession on screen since The Deer Hunter (1978) and the first time they've had a positive portrayal since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). There is a debate about whether Unforgiven passes the Bechdel test: the first two steps are easy, but in the one scene where the women are all talking together, they are discussing raising money to get revenge on the men who hurt Delilah, so I think that is a fail. Still, the plot is driven by women who collectively plan and fund a mission, even if the focus of the story is on the men who implement that mission.
As usual with Westerns, the scenery is breath-taking (and my eye cannot detect the difference between Canada and Wyoming); and the music is good too, without being distracting.
I also enjoyed the subplot with English Bob's top-hatted biographer, W.W. Beauchamp, played by Saul Rubinek, reminding us that most of what we think we know about the West is romanticised fiction.
But what carries the film is of course the performances of Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. (I was actually a little less swept away by Gene Hackman, though Oscar voters were more impressed.) My most recent memory of Clint was his frankly embarrassing performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where (in case you have forgotten) he talked to an empty chair pretending that it was President Obama. It's good to be reminded that he was a really great actor in his day, twenty years earlier. And as I mentioned already, while I have some difficulty with the way Freeman's character is written, I have none at all with the way he performs. One has the sense of fully rounded personalities, real people in a real environment dealing with real life, as opposed to the cruder dichotomy of Dances with Wolves (and the confused truncation of Cimarron).
So basically I enjoyed this a lot more than I had expected.
The Hugo that year went to “The Inner Light”, from the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The other finalists were Aladdin, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Batman Returns (the only one I have seen) and Alien3. But in this project I am covering cinematic releases only, so we will skip the Hugos this year and go straight on to Schindler's List. I may take a weekend off.