Clint Eastwood and the Empty Chair

“Who is sitting in that empty chair?” – Eugene Ormandy

By now you have probably heard about all the fuss over Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention. You may have even heard some of the jokes about “Eastwooding” and “The Old Man and the Seat”. Yes, many Eastwood fans are wondering whether Clint will be able to put this incident behind him or whether he will forever remain Unforgiven.

The Speech

In case you missed it, Eastwood was invited to give a short speech in support of Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention. Prior to the speech, he asked for an empty chair to be placed beside the lectern. A few minutes into the speech, Eastwood began to address an imaginary Barack Obama who was sitting in the chair.

The speech has generated a huge amount of discussion and countless Tweets and Facebook updates. It has also provided a bunch of fodder for late night talk show hosts.

The Chairs of Madison County

Now, many people have jumped all over Clint for his … chairing of the performance … and, let’s face it, it’s not too hard a target to hit. But before we start taking pot shots, it is worth knowing a bit of the background.

According to several reports, the entire conversation with the chair was an impromptu decision that Clint Eastwood made only minutes before taking the stage.

“There was a stool there, and some fella kept asking me if I wanted to sit down. When I saw the stool sitting there, it gave me the idea. I’ll just put the stool out there, and I’ll talk to Mr. Obama and ask him why he didn’t keep all of the promises he made to everybody.

And so Eastwood asked one of the assistants to place the chair on stage next to where he would be speaking. Just like that.

Clint Eastwood
“I know what you’re thinking. Did I make six jokes or only five?”

Clint Eastwood: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

So, how did Eastwood do?

The Good

  • Kudos to Clint for going out there at 82 and talking pretty much off the cuff and without a script on the teleprompter. A lot of people will snipe at him, but not a lot would be able to do what he did.
  • I thought that his opening was fairly strong and that he was doing OK until around 3:40 (enter the chair).
  • I thought that his ending, while not the strongest, was not too bad. Things definitely picked up after 8:45 (exit the chair).
  • I actually thought that using the chair as a prop was an interesting idea; however, the execution was wrong. With a few adjustments (see below) I think that it could have been much more effective.

The Bad

  • The lack of preparation showed at times. When asked about it, here’s what Eastwood said: “They vet most of the people, but I told them, ‘You can’t do that with me, because I don’t know what I’m going to say.’” Bad idea. Ad-libbing in the moment one thing; not knowing what you’re going to say is a whole other matter.
  • The last-minute decision to use the chair was very risky and, in this case, the risk did not pay off.
  • The base humour (“I can’t tell Romney to go do that to himself”) was unnecessary. Clint didn’t need to resort to it. He used humour well at other times and he should have kept it clean throughout.

The Ugly

  • There were times during the “chair-ologue” when Eastwood lost his train of thought—“That’s what happens when you don’t have a written-out speech,” he said afterwards—and it was uncomfortable to watch. I found the stretch between 6:00 to 6:30 particularly cringeworthy.

Pull up a chair, Clint

In a couple of previous posts, I wrote about how props can help a presentation and suggested ten tips for using them. As mentioned above, I thought that the chair idea was interesting and I do believe that it could have been very effective with two adjustments.

First, the chair should have been set up better. At 1:55, Eastwood turns to it and says, “So I’ve got Mr. Obama sitting here …”. It was sudden and, for a moment or two, a bit confusing. It would have been more effective to take a little time to set the scene. Perhaps something along the lines of the following:

“I would love to be able to sit down with the President and ask him some questions about his record. But he’s a busy man who doesn’t have time for an old actor like me and I’d probably just be left sitting across from an empty chair. But if I were able to sit down with him, these are some of the things I’d ask him …”

Second, Clint Eastwood should not have spoken directly to the chair as though Obama were in it. Instead, he should have alternated between first-person and third-person narratives. Doing so would have displayed decorum. There would have been fewer laughs and the chair-as-a-prop would have been more dramatic and less slapstick. For example:

“I’d ask him about the millions of people who are out of work and struggling. I’d remind him of his promises to [A, B, C].  And the President would probably reply [X, Y, Z]. But for me, that’s not good enough because [1, 2, 3].”

Overall, I think that Clint Eastwood could have done a lot better. But I give him credit for getting up on the stage and having a go. And I will still enjoy sitting back and watching a good Eastwood movie. Gran Torino, anyone?

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  1. How about we send Clint a formal invitation to Toastmasters? I’m sure he’ll find it useful, even as a weathered actor…

      1. BTW, here’s Dr. Nick Morgan’s opinion on Clint’s speech (if you haven’t read it by now): “A special nod to the worst convention speech of all time and a warning to all movie actors to beware Improv. The empty chair was an inspired idea gone horribly wrong. The speech itself is rambling, pointless, and ultimately embarrassing.”

  2. John,
    Good that you are posting regularly again.
    I’m no big GOP fan, but I must say I was taken aback at the venomous criticism of Clint talking with an imaginary person. Once the moment sank in, I believe many people saw that speaking with the spirit of a person is not all that whacky. Your two suggestions are credible to say the least.
    What do we learn though? — Practice, practice, practice. Even a great actor can’t ad lib so easily.

    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for the comment. Yes, it was a busy summer, especially given that we brought our oldest daughter to Canada as she has started university. A big change and one that kept me busy. But now I am back to the blog.
      I agree with you about Clint. There has been a lot of (electronic) ink spilled over his speech. Most of what I have seen as been in the nature of poking fun at the incident—Jon Stewart was particularly hilarious—but some of it has been very negative. From what I have read, the Republicans are regretting letting him go on, at least without vetting what he would say (which would have been hard in any event given that he didn’t write one). But the idea of the chair wasn’t bad (as I said in the post); it was the delivery with the chair that was the weak part. As you said, practice, practice, practice.

  3. John, excellent review, as always. Will you ake the same to Bill Clinton speech at the Democratic Convention? Hope so, I love that speech.
    Regards, Nuno

    1. Thanks very much, Nuno. Clinton gave a great speech. I’m tempted to break it down in an analysis, but it is 48 minutes long. Plus, there are some good analyses out there already. I’ll think about it.

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