Clint Eastwood has for decades embodied red-blooded, red-state American manhood, but under that persona evolved a soulful, deeply humane perspective on the sexes that has blossomed into a late, great filmmaking adventure. I recently discovered this piece whilst I was researching for a class presentation on equality and diversity within Eastwood’s films. It’s a piece by Karen Durbin for ELLE that was originally published on October 25th, 2010. I thought I’d reproduce it here as I found it to be a very enjoyable read. I’ve also enhanced it with some photos relevant to the story.
Channel surfing one lazy afternoon in the '90s, I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of Clint Eastwood on the hot seat in John McLaughlin's One on One interview show. McLaughlin is best known as the irascible, right-leaning host of The McLaughlin Group, a weekly Washington, DC, journalists' free-for-all. That day, thrilled to have such a spectacular guest all to himself, McLaughlin was pitching softballs. But as in the fable of the scorpion and the frog, his true nature suddenly erupted, and, fixing Eastwood with a suspicious glare, he barked, "Some people say your movies have a hidden feminist agenda. Is that true?" His eyes dancing with delight, Eastwood could barely keep a straight face, finally saying, "The only agenda I have for my movies is they should be good."
Well, sure, but funnily enough, McLaughlin was on to something. Recalling the show today, Eastwood says, "Everybody's always trying to put a spin on what a person is or what they do. When I was growing up, George Cukor was known as a women's director, primarily because his movies had great female leads. But Howard Hawks did wonderful movies such as His Girl Friday, and he was considered a man's director." Eastwood has proved to be both. I think a feminist element entered his work almost 40 years ago and made it better. It's not an ideological thing, nor does it need to be.
A gut sense of fairness toward women and a camaraderie built on empathy and respect will do just fine.
Eastwood has become a woman-friendly director because he's actually interested in us. In his recent films, the sexes take turns on centre stage, from Million Dollar Baby (Hilary Swank as a young woman hoping to box her way out of poverty) to the Iwo Jima war films, then Changeling (Angelina Jolie as a 1920s mother who loses her child under corrupt and horrific circumstances), then Gran Torino (Eastwood as a crusty bigot able to change) and Invictus (with his good buddy Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela).
In his new film, Hereafter, the twain meet again, with the lovely Belgian actress Cecile de France as a journalist trapped underwater by a lethal tsunami, then almost miraculously returned to life, and Matt Damon as a reluctant psychic who can communicate with the dead but longs desperately to be normal. Bryce Dallas Howard puts in a luminous appearance too, and so do little identical British twin brothers.
The supernatural theme in Hereafter is subtle, although the movie's inspired description of the afterlife is something to savour. But the film's real subject and the source of its emotional power is that terrible thing we all face: not our own death, but the deaths of those we love. Eastwood, who just turned 80, treats this subject with uncommon grace. Age hasn't made him maudlin, just deft. Talking about working with him for the first time, de France says, "Every day he would put his hand on my head—he's very cool, very tender. He really emanates love. Watching him work, I thought I really would like to be in his skin. He's happy, and he's found serenity in himself."
Does that sound like Dirty Harry to you? Over the years, Eastwood has evolved as few actors have into one of the true—and most versatile—artists of American cinema: acting, directing, producing—even composing the music for some of his films. But before any of this happened, he became a world-famous icon of industrial-strength machismo by playing two characters. In the mid-'60s, he was the Man With No Name, a roughneck serape-wearing cowboy in a trio of Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, a character he gave an allegorical tinge to in 1973 in High Plains Drifter, his third movie as a director. A tale of vengeful salvation, it contains a scene in which his character, dubbed the Stranger, makes a point of raping a woman—an awful woman in the awful town that he's ruthlessly setting to rights, but rape is rape. By that time, the '70s backlash against the transformative '60s had set in. The Man with No Name had an urban counterpart in Dirty Harry Callahan, a Magnum-flashing San Francisco cop who shoots the bad guys and gets in trouble with the city's Constitution-quoting liberals.
The Dirty Harry movies were glib, nasty, and maliciously false; they're not just silly dick flicks but a relentless attack on the Bill of Rights: Judges don't gloat at letting murderers go free, and DAs don't love tying cops' hands. Once the mayor of Carmel, California, Eastwood genuinely cares about the health of the body politic, and whatever he thought about those films at the time (he was past 40 and they made him a huge star) his fans' reactions made him uneasy.
"People are always trying to equate you with the roles you play. When you start going out and diversifying, they say, `Wait a minute, why is he doing this?' In my earlier years, I found that people would be disappointed if I didn't pull out a .45 Magnum." He sounds even more uneasy today about the country at large. "We're at a point now where nobody can have a political discussion without calling each other meatheads and idiots," he says. "In the old days you discussed things. I guess we were more liberal then. Now it seems that no one is interested in that. It's very frightening."
Luckily, Eastwood had already begun to diversify, and his first effort as a director, Play Misty for Me (1971), immediately drew complaints. The beautiful Jessica Walter—known today as the mean mom in Arrested Development—plays Evelyn, a fling of Eastwood's late-night DJ who becomes his lethal stalker. Via e-mail, Walter says,
"We decided we shouldn't know anything about her because it would be scarier that way."
It is. Evelyn is truly frightening, but she's familiar, too. Who hasn't gone postal on a man and felt mortified afterward? Eastwood's camera never mocks Evelyn. Walter shows us her painful fear and confusion; her eyes widen anxiously as paranoia sweeps over her like a veil, erasing any trace of sanity and culminating in off-the-leash rage. You can't help feeling relieved at her death; it's an end to her suffering as well.
"Forty years ago, people were very conscious of feminism," Eastwood says. "The first picture I directed had Jessica Walter's wonderful performance in a wonderful role, and I had feminists saying, `Why are you so oppressive to women?' At the same time, one of the executives at Universal asked me, `Why would Clint Eastwood want to make a movie where a woman had the best role?' "
Eastwood's oeuvre soon became studded with rich, prominent roles for women, and this time, virtue was rewarded. Five years ago, Million Dollar Baby brought Eastwood Oscars for best director and best picture, another to Hilary Swank for best actress, and one for Morgan Freeman for best supporting actor. The story portrays Maggie Fitzgerald's dogged quest to become a boxer. Eastwood, as the aging trainer Frankie Dunn, unpleasantly points out, "I don't train girls." Eventually he does, of course, and the decision profoundly alters his life. Eastwood and Swank carry equal weight in this movie, but her performance goes so deep it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Swank puts it all on him, of course. "It's his great belief in you that lets you jump off the cliff," she says. "Yet you have to have a safety net, and Clint gives that to you by making the set a very safe place in which to work."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Eastwood is how romantic he can be, off screen as well as on. Known in his jazz-playing youth as a ladies' man not unlike the DJ in Misty, he's now a paterfamilias in spades and revels in it. He has seven children with five women, bookended by marriages. His first union, a young actor and model's heady impulse, lasted for more than three decades; the second began when TV journalist Dina Ruiz interviewed him, and they're still going strong. His daughter with the actress Frances Fisher lives with him and Dina and their daughter during the school year because Monterey beats L.A. as a place to raise a kid. And he speaks with palpable pleasure about his son Scott, now 24, whom he introduced to music early on and who is now dedicated to it in a way that, Eastwood says wistfully, he and his Depression-era dad couldn't be. If his approach to family is more countercultural than nuclear, then judging by the lack of gossip and bitter tell-all books emanating from the arrangement, everybody seems reasonably content. (In the '80s, however, following her breakup with Eastwood and an undisclosed settlement with him and Warner Bros., Sondra Locke did write a tell-all with the Leone-ian title The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly.)
It's easy to forget that Eastwood didn't just star with Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County, he was her director, too, and the result is one of the best love stories, middle age be damned, ever to grace a movie screen. In adapting the purple-prose novel of thwarted passion between a rural housewife and a photojournalist, Eastwood gave Streep a gift that wasn't just generous but smart—he reversed the perspective. "The book told the story from the man's point of view," he says, "but it's the woman's dilemma of having a family and facing big decisions." Streep describes a scene in which the lovers fight and she accuses him of standing apart from life, just being an observer, and says she's just a byway for him. "And he breaks," she says. "He shocked me when it happened. It was something Sean Penn would be very proud of—you can just march right up to the podium with that performance. And he cut it out. It wasn't about him. It was a matter of never losing focus on the piece and its integrity." As for the notion that a lot of directors don't have a deep interest in women, just saying that to Streep inspires a vigorous hoot. "That is the understatement of the century," she says. "And that's right, it's just interest. Clint at some point became interested."
Eastwood has a witty way with love scenes, particularly the hesitation waltz between people who are just starting to realize what's happening. De France describes a scene in Hereafter in which she and Damon are meeting in a public place. "The camera went around and around, circling us. Suddenly Eastwood says, `Okay, can you kiss the girl?' ”She laughs, adding, "It was not written in the script!" No, but it's there on the screen, two people surprised by love, looking utterly real.
In such unlikely films as the militaristic Heartbreak Ridge, with its gnarled gunnery sergeant (played by our guy) who has a secret stash of women's magazines he pores over to understand us—particularly his ex-wife—better, Eastwood has a way of acknowledging the importance of women. And in Bird, he tells the story of the heroin-doomed jazz genius Charlie Parker from the perspective of Parker's wife, Chan, with Diane Venora both a pungent presence and a satisfying reality check throughout the movie. But never has Eastwood injected a female perspective into a male genre to greater effect than in Unforgiven, the movie he calls his last western because he doesn't believe he'll ever find a better one. Unforgiven, which brought Eastwood his first pair of Oscars in 1993, and the less celebrated 1984 New Orleans noir Tightrope, are two brilliant repudiations of the ethos that made Harry Callahan and the homeless man on horseback into romantic figures.
Unforgiven opens with a particularly ugly act of violence: A cowboy cuts up the face of a young prostitute he thinks has laughed at his small penis. When the bully who runs the town refuses to punish the cowboy, the prostitutes' enraged madam rallies them to raise a bounty: "Just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses doesn't mean they can brand us like horses. Maybe we ain't nothing but whores, but we, by God, ain't horses." That's what brings Eastwood's retired and bitterly regretful gunslinger—now an impoverished widower with small children—into the drama, which plays out violently, and largely among men. But the women's implicit critique of the codes of masculinity infuses the whole movie, preventing it from becoming just another righteous thrill ride.
In Tightrope, credited to Richard Tuggle but much of it directed by Eastwood, he creates the antithesis of the confidently lethal Dirty Harry. Wes Block is a New Orleans homicide detective riddled with guilty self-doubt who is the devoted single dad of two daughters. This murkily handsome movie doesn't pit good and evil against each other so much as explore the thin line between them. Pursuing a serial killer, Block finds himself in a moral fun house hall of mirrors; among other things, the killer makes a specialty of murdering the prostitutes Block has taken to visiting. But the movie's most radical element, in more ways than one, is the woman Block finds himself increasingly drawn to. She's the smart, no-nonsense head of a rape crisis centre who teaches self-defence, and as played by the masterfully understated Genevieve Bujold, she holds out to Block not just the possibility of redemption but of simple peace. When I asked Eastwood if she was in Tuggle's script to begin with, he mentioned other things in the script but said he couldn't remember. I'm not sure I believe him, but that's okay. To go in 12 years from High Plains Drifter's portrayal of a woman's punishment by rape to a romance with the kick-ass head of a rape crisis centre is a hell of a learning curve.