Monkeypiece Theater: Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
Well folks, it has taken forty one and a half years and two attempts, but I can now finally say that I have seen the 1978 motion picture Every Which Way But Loose in its entirety. I’ve done more than that, really. Since the first time I tried to watch the Clint Eastwood blockbuster the DVD got stuck halfway and I really wanted to get the whole, immersive Every Which Way But Loose experience, I watched it over in its entirety, all 114 minutes of it, so at this point I’ve seen the movie one and a half times.
And I STILL can’t quite believe that Every Which Way But Loose exists, that it stars Clint Eastwood and that it’s one of the most commercially successful films he’s ever made. I suppose my shock is attributable to my conception of Eastwood as a fundamentally serious man. He’s not quite in the same league as Space Cowboys co-star Tommy Lee Jones, who is in a league of his own when it comes to being a serious-minded crank, but Eastwood is in the same ballpark. Presumably, one of the ballparks where they filmed Trouble With the Curve. Incidentally, watching Every Which Way But Loose made me want to launch a Kickstarter to raise money for a remake of the film with Tommy Lee Jones in the Eastwood role and Jim Carrey in motion-capture as Clyde the Orangutan. Carrey would of course have to first obtain a Buffoonery Sanction from Jones for filming to begin, what with Jones famously informing Carrey that he would not, and could not, sanction his buffoonery when they worked together on Batman Forever, but it would be worth it. Can you even imagine the outtakes?
He’s dabbled occasionally in comedies and lighter hearted fare, but Eastwood doesn’t just overwhelmingly make movies that are serious, he makes movies that are goddamn somber. He makes melodramas lousy with substance and art and ambition. He made Mystic River, for fuck’s sake. And Unforgiven. And Million Dollar Baby. And, though it is a garbage motion picture utterly devoid of merit, he made American Sniper, which was pretty damn grim once you removed the hilarity involving the fake baby.
That’s one of the reasons it was so fucking weird to see Eastwood do the empty chair shtick at the Republican National Convention. Eastwood doesn’t do comedy, as a rule, so it was very odd to see this ancient exemplar of stoic American masculinity bust out a not so tight five involving Obama’s shortcomings as Commander-in-Chief.
Somehow Eastwood’s legacy involves the timeless, enduring Spaghetti Western masterpieces of Sergio Leone, the iconic, wildly influential and unrelentingly grim Dirty Harry series, Oscar-winners like The Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby and a movie whose most memorable set piece involves his character getting his orangutan sidekick Clyde progressively drunker before they break into a zoo in order to get him laid.
Every Which Way But Loose is an astonishingly stupid movie in general but it is particularly idiotic for a Clint Eastwood movie from the 1970s, that most glorious and gritty of decades for American studio cinema. From an alternate angle, the movie must have radiated promise.
I know I’d get excited if I heard that Clint Eastwood, Geoffrey Lewis, Ruth Gordon and a young, adorable Beverly D’Angelo were starring in a 1978 road movie about plucky, bruised but determined outsiders on the fringes of American society that delved deep into the fascinating subcultures of trucking, bare-knuckle brawling and honky tonks where hearts are broken and legends are born.
But if you were to tell me that this super-promising proposition was mainly a vehicle for Clint Eastwood to beat up out of shape, overweight retired stunt-men types in their fifties and sixties, the sitcom-style shenanigans of a zany motorcycle gang composed exclusively of (you guessed it) out of shape, overweight retired stunt-men types in their fifties and sixties and a sad-seeming ape getting drunk and giving people the finger my expectations would sink accordingly, and appropriately.
The superior Hollywood cinema of the 1970s was blessed with an effortless authenticity, a sense that it was forever blurring the increasingly fuzzy line between narrative and documentary film. Every Which Way But Loose, meanwhile, asks us to believe that the world of bare-knuckle brawling in the late 1970s was dominated by morbidly obese men in their 50s and 60s who were also terrible at fighting, for good measure.
In Every Which Way But Loose the only “performance enhancing drug” any of these brawlers ever need is a can of lukewarm domestic beer fed to him immediately before a fight. They seem to have an unwritten code against exercising and/or eating right, as well as a fierce commitment to consuming only the greasiest of truck-stop grub.
In the land of the elderly and morbidly obese, the reasonably in-shape middle age man is king, and the only fellow in Every Which Way You Can who even vaguely fits that description is Eastwood’s Philo Beddoe, a truck driver, country music enthusiast and a bare-knuckle brawler nearly on par with the legendary Tank Murdock, the reigning King of Bare Knuckle Brawling, which here means that he’s an elderly man who’s okay at fighting.
Philo pals around with buddy/manager Orville, who the great character actor Geoffrey Lewis gives exactly one move: switching the direction his baseball hat is facing in every sing. I was skeptical, imagining that it was just a bit of actorly business from an actor bored and all too cognizant that he’s going to have every scene stolen by an ape being viciously beaten into giving the illusion of intelligence and agency, but I’ve been flipping around a baseball hat while writing this essay and I can already feel myself getting smarter and more talented. Must be an old Scientology trick or something.
Philo’s other pal is Clyde the Orangutan. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say about his motivation as an actor: “According to a book by anthropologist Jane Goodall, the orangutan used in the movie, Manis, was trained with a can of mace and a pipe wrapped in newspaper, a common way of training great apes used in movies at the time. His successor for the sequel, an orangutan named Buddha, was beaten to death with an ax handle by its trainer for stealing doughnuts from the set.”
How fucking grim is that? I discovered the cruelty-based method by which Every Which Way But Loose got Manis to “act” from Stinker Lets Loose! author Mike Sacks when he guested on our podcast. Consequently, when I watched Clyde the Orangutan drink beer, get his fuck on and mess with bikers and cops all I saw was a depressed, abused animal grateful to not be viciously beaten by his trainer for at least as long as the cameras were rolling.
I should be laughing like a fucking hyena at the mere idea of an orangutan drinking beer and haunting honky tonks, in flagrant violation of both propriety and even the most lenient and relaxed health codes, because he’s a silly simian behaving like a human being. He’s an ape, but he thinks that he’s a person! That should make for not only comedy, but the funniest, most liberating, most hilarious comedy ever.
Instead it doesn’t even qualify as comedy. Instead, it’s a goddamned tragedy. Nobody should have to suffer for Every Which Way But Loose. What a goddamned waste. How am I supposed to watch Philo take Clyde from honky tonk to honky tonk before deciding that Clyde needs to get his fuck on, and pronto, knowing that one of Manis’ kind fucking died for the sequel. I’m getting angry now. This news and this film is turning me against animal abuse. I am one hundred percent against any animal getting abused for any reason, but I’m particularly against abusing animals for the sake of movies that abuse audiences.
Yes, Every Which Way But Loose is all about a big, dumb animal you can’t help but see flickers of humanity in, as well as his buddy Clyde the Orangutan and the very stupid adventures they get up to once Philo’s big, dumb, ape-like heart is won and then broken by an aspiring country singer who is all guile and no heart played by Eastwood’s real-life paramour Sondra Locke.
Philo is inexplicably besotted with this cold and calculating career woman so he says goodbye to mom Ruth Gordon and embarks on an idiot’s quest to win back this woman he never should have bothered with in the first place. Gordon was of course a Hollywood legend whose life and career had a series of distinct stages.
To a certain generation, Gordon was revered as the smartest of the smart set, the wife and writing partner of Garson Kanin, with whom she collaborated on a series of plays and screenplays, some Oscar-nominated. In the mid to late 1960s she came to prominence playing a certain kind of eccentric, strong-willed older woman, most notably in her career-defining performance as Maude in 1970’s Harold & Maude.
By 1978, Gordon had seemingly settled happily into loud self-caricature. After Harold & Maude, it seemed like Gordon charged per profanity. By that measure, she might have made more money than Eastwood here. Her performances were defined by their loudness, both in terms of Gordon going big and broad and cartoonish and in the sense of her yelling very loudly all the time.
I don't want to say that maybe Gordon went a little too broad, but Manis' performance is legitimately much more nuanced and understated and the ape is literally beneath her on the evolutionary scale, if not necessarily the call list.
Every Which Way But Loose is loud in other ways as well. It features some of the sloppiest but loudest fight scenes I’ve ever seen/listened to. Every time Philo lands a lazy-looking punch in the enormous beer belly of an opponent it hits with the force of a sonic boom. The fight scenes aren’t well choreographed, or even competently handled, but what they lack in quality, they attempt to make up for in loudness.
Philo is a bit of a dumbass. Thankfully everyone pursuing or fighting him is even more of a dumbass, particularly the members of the Black Widows, a motorcycle gang led by Cholla, who looks like a pockmarked, Nazi biker version of Charles Durning, only with a white ascot and open jackets that inevitably leave his enormous gut, tattooed with the Black Widow’s sad-looking logo, open to public display.
When the Black Widows visit Gordon’s “Ma” and she’s soon got them fleeing in horror, one step ahead of her shotgun blasts, it’s supposed to qualify as a surprise and a fun reversal. But the Black Widows are so comically, but not humorously, pathetic, that as soon as they're in the same frame as Ma you begin feeling sorry for those poor, doomed, overgrown child-senior-citizens.
The Black Widows are older, less in shape and less convincing as a motorcycle gang than the Wild Hogs were in the film of the same name. They’re a goddamned cartoon gang from The Monkees, so when Philo beats up an entire motorcycle gang at the same time—shades of The Gorch beating up a whole softball game—it honestly doesn’t seem that impressive.
Shit, I haven’t been in a fight since elementary school and I’m pretty sure I could beat up the entire Black Widows motorcycle gang. Heck, judging from Every Which Way But Loose I could probably rank in the top ten in 1978 bare knuckle brawling, though I might need to wait until I’m in my early 50s at least to really start not training.
After nearly two hours of accidentally sorrowful monkeyshines and some of the saddest fisticuffs to be filmed for posterity this side of bootleg videos of bums fighting, Philo finally gets a chance to take on the great Tank Murdock and wouldn’t you know it, he’s also a fat old man who can barely fight.
Every Which Way But Loose toys with the idea of a triumphant ending. Philo has a clear shot at knocking the old man out but chooses to lose as a way of affording the battle-scarred veteran one last moment in the sun. In a better movie, it’d be a moment of refreshing ambiguity. But this is not a better movie. It’s the fucking worst movie. Every Which Way But Loose doesn’t earn the right to end on a relatively adult note, considering it’s been a stupid movie for babies every second leading up to the final fight.
I suppose the American public simply could not resist the siren song of a silly ape (who was of course being viciously abused behind the scenes) drinking beer and giving people the finger, but I’m glad I’ll never have to think about this almost impressively terrible and lazy franchise and the universe it inhabits ever again. Or at least until tomorrow, when I’m scheduled to watch the film’s 1980 sequel, Any Which Way You Can, for an upcoming article and a Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast segment with the great Eric Szyszka from We Hate Movies.
This is entirely too much monkey business for me to get involved in.
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