‘The Invisible Chair’

09.01.12

Clint Eastwood’s RNC Speech: Ben Affleck and Other Hollywood Insiders React

Clint Eastwood’s ‘invisible-chair’ speech at the Republican National Convention confounded many. At the Telluride Film Festival, Marlow Stern got reactions from Ben Affleck and other Hollywood insiders.

It combined the rambling, torturous pace of J. Edgar, the oddball clairvoyance of Hereafter, and … that line from Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood’s speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa was an anomaly befitting James Franco—a performance artist, not a four-time Oscar winner known for being a straight shooter, both literally and figuratively.

Forget that Eastwood endorsed Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. And forget that Eastwood, a legendary womanizer who fathered seven children with five women—including a daughter he refused to acknowledge for 32 years—followed Mitt Romney preaching “family values” and Ann Romney’s “We’re the mothers, we’re the wives…” appeal for the female vote. And forget that Eastwood name-checked Jon Voight, who was estranged from his children, Angelina Jolie and James Haven, until 2007 due to his marital infidelity. And forget that he criticized Obama for failing to shutter Guantánamo Bay, and then closed his speech by quoting his famous, “Go ahead, make my day,” line from Dirty Harry, a violent right-wing revenge-fantasy film.

Eastwood’s onstage exchange with an empty chair—symbolizing an imaginary Obama, who at one point hurled an imaginary curse at him—managed to overshadow the entire RNC, and leave the whole country scratching their heads. Ann Romney awkwardly called it “unique,” while the Romney camp issued a statement right after that began, “Judging an American icon like Clint Eastwood through a typical political lens doesn’t work.”

News of Eastwood’s speech spread like wildfire across the Twittersphere—resulting in a hilarious mock Twitter account—all the way to the mountains of Telluride, Colo., where many film and industry professionals have gathered for the 39th annual Telluride Film Festival.

Ben Affleck—a lifelong Democrat who campaigned for Obama, spoke eloquently at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in support of John Kerry, and grew up in Romney’s former stomping grounds of Massachusetts—doesn’t understand what all the hullabaloo is about.

“You see these excerpts and you think, ‘What’s going on? He’s talking to a chair? What is this?’” Affleck told The Daily Beast. “But once you actually watch it you go, ‘Yeah, I get what he’s doing.’ Look, everyone knows Clint is a Republican. He’s 82 years old. He’s old enough where you don’t expect Obama up there, you know? He’s got a right to speak his mind. He didn’t kill with the speech, but I by no means thought it was a huge embarrassment.”

“It was very bizarre,” Todd McCarthy, a documentary filmmaker and chief critic for The Hollywood Reporter told The Daily Beast. McCarthy has been friends with Eastwood for a number of years and felt like the RNC routine was out of character for the film icon. “To see this wackier thing happen is not in line with his super-cool personality that we’re used to,” he said.

Eugene Hernandez, the co-founder of Indiewire and director of digital strategy for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, had just arrived in Telluride on Thursday night and gathered in a condo with a bunch of film-industry and media friends to watch the Romney speech, unaware that Eastwood had been tapped as the “mystery guest.”

“As a film, I wouldn’t say it’s one of his greatest pieces of work,” says Hernandez, with a chuckle. “He’s obviously an acclaimed and respected filmmaker, and we’ve had a great relationship with him at the film society over the years, but personally, there was something off about it. It was weird to me … but I’ll still see his next movie.”

On Twitter, many members of the film community were far harsher toward Eastwood, including celebrated film critic Roger Ebert. “Clint, my hero, is coming across as sad and pathetic,” Ebert tweeted. “He didn’t need to do this to himself. It’s unworthy of him.” And Obama himself got what was arguably the finest jab in, tweeting “This seat’s taken” shortly after Eastwood’s speech, attaching a picture of him sitting in a chair labeled “the president.”

“Even though I disagree with his politics, I’ve seen far more boring speeches in my day,” says Affleck. “And he’s sweet as can be and a good filmmaker.” He pauses. “And I’m generally not one who takes joy in other people’s problems.”