The 10 Best Performances in The Movies of Clint Eastwood

eastwood movie performances

Few actors and directors have had the longevity in their careers as Clint Eastwood.

His first acting credit on IMDb is for an uncredited role in “Revenge of the Creature” in 1955.

The first breakout film role was in “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1964 and then he appeared as Rowdy Yates on the TV show “Rawhide” which ran from 1959-1965. The “Man With No Name” trilogy wrapped up with maybe his greatest acting role in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” in 1966.

Eastwood had grown up watching and admiring great directors himself including John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy wilder and loved the prospect of directing films himself. He said he learned as much as he could from the directors of “Rawhide” as well as Italian director Sergio Leone and starting thinking about what style he would use or what kind of director he wanted to be.

He wanted to be an “actor’s director” which makes complete sense considering his roots were in acting. He wanted to maintain a calm and easy-going atmosphere on his sets as that is the type he preferred while acting himself and he believed he drew more out of his actors that way.

He has said he has mixed feeling regarding rehearsing scenes before filming them saying some actors need additional times to flush out their characters and some hit the ground running right away.

There has even been occasions he has filmed scenes without the actors knowing or thinking they are still rehearsing saying sometimes the spontaneous moments are the best.

He is known for liking to get it right quickly and only getting one or two takes a lot of the time as he knows what he wants and when he gets it, he tends to want to keep moving.

He feels most good actors know the direction they want to take their characters and it is up to the director to “guide” their performance only and not get in the way of it.

He says he likes to stay busy and regularly lines up his next project while he is still finishing the one he is currently working on.

He has developed a fantastic working relationship with Warner Brothers over the years and he has been allowed to make the pictures he has wanted to make as long as he also makes the “studio films” as well so they can continue to be profitable. You could see that evident when he directed “Bird” and “White Hunter Black Heart”, and then also appeared in “The Rookie” and “Pink Cadillac” around the same time.

Like a lot of directors, he also likes using a lot of the same crew on many of his projects including cinematographer Jack Green, editor Joel Cox and film composer Lennie Niehaus. His son, Kyle Eastwood, has also contributed music and songs to a lot of his father’s films.

As of 2016, Eastwood has directed more than 35 films including “Sully” starring Tom Hanks which is due out later this year.

Here’s hoping this Hollywood icon remains at the top of this game for years to come.

Please note that this list does not include performances by Eastwood himself.


10. Kevin Costner for A Perfect World

A Perfect World (1993)

As a departure from many of his heroic, clean likable characters, Kevin Costner was cast as Butch, an escaped convict who kidnaps a young boy on a cross Texas escape involving a U.S. Marshal (Eastwood).

Eastwood himself was also not going to appear in the film until Costner talked him into it.

Great stories involve complex characters and that is what is evident here. The “relationship” that develops between Butch and his young victim are what works best in the film and must have been what drew Costner to the project apart from the desire to play against type.

Costner really stands out as deciding to play a non-likeable character in this piece. He has often been criticized in his career for his overacting or his terrible accents in films, but none of that exists here.

Eastwood has a way of drawing subtle emotion from his actors maybe due to his laid back style, and Costner really rides the line between escaped convict and innocent friendship with his captive child through his artful portrayal of Butch.

The tragic nature of the story was also compelling as the tension builds to the end.


9. Jessica Walter for Play Misty for Me


Before there was Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”, there was Jessica Walter in “Play Misty for Me”, Eastwood’s directorial debut in 1971.

After a brief encounter at a bar, Evelyn Draper (Walter) becomes hopelessly devoted to DJ Dave Garver (Eastwood) and begins stalking him and showing up and embarrassing him everywhere in his life including at an important business meeting.

He tries to let her down nicely, but she does not get the hint and the obsession deepens. Things become quickly destructive and psychotic when Evelyn learns there is another woman in Dave’s life.

The resulting climax is exciting to see how events will play out.

Walter’s performance was surprising and chilling at the same time. It would not have been believable if her transformation would have happened too suddenly, so she played it just right. Her subtle nuances in subsequent scenes when her true motives are revealed are exciting and unnerving simultaneously. She really has you believing her actions are rational and serving her needs even though to everyone else they are way off base.

Eastwood was very excited to direct his first film after Universal executives agreed to let him only if he would waive his acting fee. He ended finishing the film $50,000 under budget and four days ahead of schedule.


8. Forest Whitaker for Bird


In 1988, Eastwood directing and not starring in a biopic of Jazz saxophone great Charlie “Bird” Parker may have seemed unusual for some, but those who know Eastwood know him to be a lifelong jazz fan and an admirer of Parker after seeing him play live.

Forest Whitaker previously had small roles in “Platoon” and Good Morning, Vietnam” but it was “Bird” that gave him his first leading role. He did not disappoint and fully inhabited the role of the troubled jazz great as he rises to success and then starts the slow decline into alcohol addiction which ruined his career, family life and ultimately, caused his premature death.

Whitaker was able to come across as both likable and tragic at the same time with his understated performance. You love him when his passion for his work is exhibited, but hate him when his drunken vengeance is released and he takes it out on his family. His performance illustrates how Parker was able to cope with both sides of his personality through his love for jazz.

“Bird” was the first film that gave Eastwood an award for directing, the 1988 Golden Globe for Best Director and helped establish him as a top-rated Hollywood director who could make films in many different genres and not just films Eastwood himself starred in.


7. Ken Watanabe for Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima

It is hard to believe Eastwood directed two films in 2006 considering he was 76 at the time.

Both “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers” show us the story of the World War II Pacific conflict of Iwo Jima from the prospective of both the United States and Japan.

“Iwo Jima” is the better film of the two focusing on the Japanese side of the battle and the role General Kuribayashi (Watanabe) and his subordinates played in its outcome. Kuribayashi was different than his predecessors and favored a less rigid approach to battle. His orders are not well received among his staff and conflict develops while the invasion is imminent.

Watanabe was amazing in this role as his persona and delivery coupled with his character perfectly and he was very convincing. Through his performance, he was able to convey orders to his subordinates convincingly, but still have subtle touches as when he is waiting on the beach for the forthcoming invasion he seems cool, calm and collected.

You really believe through his intense, moving acting performance the immensity of what is about to happen.

The black and white documentary style of the film also added to the authenticity.

Although 2006 was the year Martin Scorsese finally won his Academy Award for Best Director and his film, “The Departed” took home the big prize, a lot of people thought “Iwo Jima” had an outside chance of winning. Eastwood’s recent streak of Academy Award success in the years prior may have worked against him here.


6. Sean Penn for Mystic River

Mystic River (2003)

Eastwood does seem to lean toward novels as source material when directing supposing the source material is more solid and established than other forms. Maybe he also feels he can tap the source themselves for information or consult with them directly when adapting into a film.

In this case, it was a riveting novel by Dennis Lehane.

Sean Penn was a great choice to portray Jimmy Markum, a man who lives through a family tragedy alongside his childhood friends Dave and Sean (Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon). This emotional story brings the former friends back together after the tragedy and the ensuing investigation that develops weaving the character closer together and explores the various relationships they have formed throughout their lives and how they are effected by the events occurring right in front of them.

All the acting in the film is compelling and emotional with Penn and Robbins as standouts (It was even difficult to select between them for the purposes of this list.)

Penn’s performance is understandably emotional due to the events of the film, but he displays it in different ways making it compelling, riveting and leaves you wanting to know what he is going to do next. His scenes during the police questioning resonate memorably as everyone thinks to themselves they are glad they are not in this situation themselves.

The film itself may have had a chance to win Best Picture in a different year. Unfortunately, it had to contend with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and its momentum and proved no match for it.

Eastwood did win for Best Director for this film.