40 Years Ago: Clint Eastwood and an Orangutan Make Box Office Gold
Clint Eastwood gained international fame as the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns in the '60s. But he became a box-office draw as the .44 Magnum-carrying policeman Harry Callahan in a string of Dirty Harry films. Defiantly going in a completely opposite direction, he then made a film that let him to break free of any typecasting constraints. Critics hated Every Which Way but Loose, but audiences loved the movie, which came out on Dec. 20, 1978.
The slapstick comedy road movie pic originally intended for Burt Reynolds, who turned it down. On choosing the role, Eastwood told Empire magazine, “It was not quite the thing people were expecting. No one was particularly excited about it. It had nothing to do with Dirty Harry. I saw it as some camp deal. There was something about the screenplay that was unusual. I mean, it was about this fringe society where there was bare-knuckle fighting.”
Every Which Way but Loose follows the adventures of truck driver and brawler Philo Beddoe (Eastwood), whose best friend is an orangutan named Clyde he won in a bet. Stopping at the country-themed Palomino Club one night, he falls heavily for singer Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke). Sensing things are getting serious, she runs off to Denver. Accompanied by Clyde and his brother Orville (Geoffrey Lewis), who sets him up with fights along the way, they leave their feisty Ma (Ruth Gordon) and head to Colorado. .
Eastwood’s boxing coach for the film was Al Silvani, who trained Sylvester Stallone for fake Hollywood fights and Jake LaMotta, subject of Raging Bull, for real ones. It gives the fight scenes authenticity. But the real focus of the movie is on the orangutan that steals the film as Philo’s comic foil. “You have to be able to shoot really quickly, because the ape has the same concentration as a seven-year-old," Eastwood said. "One take and they are fine, two and their mind is running off somewhere. You have to be ready to roll.”
Following tough-guy roles in the acclaimed western The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976 and the decently received The Gauntlet a year later, critics like Newsweek’s David Ansen called Every Which Way but Loose a "plotless junk heap of moronic gags, sour romance and fatuous fisticuffs. ... One can forgive the orangutan's participation -- he couldn't read the script -- but what is Eastwood's excuse? James Fargo directed, every which way but well." Janet Maslin of The New York Times was a little kinder when she wrote, “The slackest and most harebrained of Mr. Eastwood's recent movies. It is overlong and virtually uneventful, even though there are half a dozen cute characters and woolly subplots competing for the viewer's attentions.”
Even with the mountain of negative opinions, the public, particularly moviegoers in smaller cities who identified with the film’s blue-collar characters, filled theaters. The movie made more than $10 million as the No. 1 film on its opening weekend, and became the second-highest grossing movie of 1978 with $95 million. Its success spawned a commercially successful sequel, Any Which Way You Can in 1980.
“It turned out to be this PG kind of movie,” said Eastwood, “one that could reach down to an audience I hadn't been appealing to with the tougher pictures."
Like Philo’s favorite music, country tunes were featured on the accompanying soundtrack, with songs by Mel Tillis, Charlie Rich, Hank Thompson and several by Locke. Country star Eddie Rabbitt name-checks the film’s title on the title track, a hit single that set a record – the highest debut on the Hot Country Songs chart -- that lasted 25 years, until Garth Brooks’ 2005 comeback hit, “Good Ride Cowboy,” entered the chart in the same position at No. 18.
Watch the Trailer for 'Every Which Way but Loose'
In 2018, country singer and The Voice judge Blake Shelton released a version of “Every Which Way but Loose” as part of his “Friends and Heroes” cover song series. And as with many works of entertainment, Every Which Way but Loose has gained a reassessment over the past four decades.
“All of a sudden, Norman Mailer comes out and says he likes this film, and because he’s such a well-thought-of writer, people think, ‘Wait a second, maybe that wasn’t such a bad movie after all,’" Eastwood told writer Tim Cahill in a July 4, 1985, Rolling Stone cover story. "I thought it was kind of a hip script myself when I read it. Here’s a guy pouring his heart out to an ape and losing the girl. I like the correlation with some of my westerns too. The guy purposely loses the big fight at the end because he doesn’t want to go around being the fastest gun in the West.”
After decades of Eastwood playing complex and different characters, latter-day film critics now appreciate the movie for its lead actor's branching out in a lighthearted comedy. “America had finally recovered from Vietnam and Nixon, so put it down to Hollywood just cutting loose and meaningless for a spell," Empire noted. "Clint doing roughneck humor with an orangutan, what's not to like?”
The blog for the podcast Feelin’ Film agreed: “Apart from the overtly comedic elements (of which there are a multitude), this feels almost like textbook Eastwood material. Eastwood is once again playing a no-nonsense tough guy, who frequently scores with the ladies and embodies an almost western-style machismo.”
In January 2017, a press release said Every Which Way but Loose was getting a remake produced by the original's director, James Fargo, with Anthony G. Cohen (The Sex Trip) tapped to direct. It noted that filming was set for springtime, but no other information about the movie, including casting or release date, has surfaced since then.