May 31st marks Clint's 80th Birthday. Here at the Clint Eastwood Archive we would like to wish Clint a very happy Birthday on behalf of his many fans across the world.
I was wondering what picture I could use that would be appropriate to illustrate this very special occasion. Naturally, it turned out to be a bit of an impossible task, so instead I changed direction. I have a great deal of novelty cards that I have collected over many years and while going through them I found this wonderful card that I picked up in the U.S. back in 1992. I will be starting a dedicated page sometime in the future which will host all of these various cards, but I felt this particular example suited the occasion perfectly.Produced by Slidecards, SC-36 'Make my Cake' Artwork by Mark Fredrickson.
Some related stories in the Press:
Joe Queenan: The Guardian
Clint Eastwood at 80: profile of a Hollywood legend The actor and director is entering his ninth decade, What accounts for his astonishing professional longevity?
Directors may occasionally be shown respect, perhaps even asked for their autograph, in America, but no one actually likes them. People may admire or envy James Cameron or Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese, and a significantly smaller group of filmgoers may look forward to Woody Allen's next outing, but they don't have much of an emotional connection with them. This is what makes Clint Eastwood's career so singular.
Because he started out as an actor, and very quickly became an actor that a large segment of the population positively adored, in the same way that they adored Jimmy Cagney and Cary Grant and both Hepburns, Eastwood has long benefited from a personal relationship with the American people that no other living director can even dream of. (In my lifetime, only Alfred Hitchcock, who came into everyone's living room once a week to deliver his weird, deadpan introductions to his creepy TV series, has enjoyed this sort of ongoing, intimate rapport with the American people. But little boys didn't want to grow up to look like the puffy director. And very few women would have asked Hitchcock to play Misty for them.)
Eastwood's close relationship with his countrymen is the sort of thing that Michael Jordan, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and Babe Ruth all experienced. At a certain point, he, like Elvis Presley, crossed over into a land beyond reproach, where no blemish would ever go on his personal record, no matter how many Sondra Locke movies he made. It was OK to dislike this or that Eastwood movie – Pink Cadillac, Tightrope, The Gauntlet – as long as you did not dislike the man himself. Even women who did not like Eastwood expected their men to. The American people might forgive you for being a communist or an atheist. But they would never forgive you for saying you did not like Clint Eastwood.
He has made more than 50 films as director or actor. He has been a fixture in American life since 1959, when he charmed his way into the bosom of the Republic by playing the likable cowboy Rowdy Yates on the TV series Rawhide. Much like Robert Redford, another actor who enjoys near-godlike stature in America, Eastwood's film career did not take off until he was in his mid-30s. But after the operatic, genre-smashing A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which made it impossible to go on making Westerns the way they had always been made, he was in the club for good.
To the extent that Westerns can be taken seriously, there are only two cowboys worth talking about: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Wayne was the old-style prince of the high chaparral, the hero in the white hat. (Only in The Searchers did he deviate from this role.) Eastwood always played a gunslinger with something dark in his past. This is the way people who grew up in the 60s liked their leading men – Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Little Big Man, De Niro and Pacino in everything. People in that era still wanted heroes. But they no longer wanted monochromatic ones such as Wayne and Gary Cooper. They liked it if their heroes were a tad neurotic, with a bit of history. The Man with No Name fitted the bill perfectly.
Like John Wayne, Eastwood is a charismatic, somewhat underrated actor who was not born to play Lear. He is not in a class with the Nicholsons, Hoffmans, Hackmans and Freemans, much less the Washingtons and Day-Lewises, but he is far superior to contemporaries such as Harrison Ford. And no one else has ever had a career like his: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang 'Em High, Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter, Dirty Harry, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Bird, Unforgiven, White Hunter, Black Heart, In the Line of Fire, The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Mystic River. Not to mention less successful, but not uninteresting, films such as Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Bronco Billy, The Gauntlet, The Changeling, Invictus, Honkytonk Man and A Perfect World. And those truly bizarre films such as Paint Your Wagon, The Beguiled and Every Which Way But Loose.
Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg, legends all, made better films, archetypal films, but none of them were actors. Nicholson has dominated the American psyche since Easy Rider in 1969, but his stabs at directing were not terribly successful – and nor is he actually liked by Middle America in the way Eastwood is. He is too dark, too strange, too LA. Eastwood has never been accused of that.
Redford, De Niro, Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand, among others, also experienced a measure of success as directors, but not on the scale of Eastwood, who has directed 30 films, and is thought of as a serious, full-time director in a way they are not. There was, of course, Orson Welles, a splendid actor and brilliant director. But his career petered out early and, by the end of his life, the prodigiously fat has-been was making self-parodying TV commercials for mid-market California wineries and appearing in pitiful Pia Zadora movies. His fall from grace was the saddest event in the history of American cinema.
As a double threat, the most obvious comparison is with Mel Gibson, a solid, highly successful director who is also a very accomplished actor. But Gibson is not nearly as productive as Eastwood, nor as idiosyncratic and varied. And, though he was born just up the river from the town where I live, Gibson is an Australian, not an American. Nor, after the furore regarding The Passion Of the Christ and his boozy, antisemitic tirade to those Malibu coppers, will Gibson ever be thought of as "beloved". In the end, no other actor-director – not Beatty, Costner, Lee nor even Woody Allen – has had a career like Eastwood. Like the Man With no Name, he stands alone.
(Out of respect for the directors cited above, I have not mentioned Sylvester Stallone, director of nine movies, even once in this essay. Nor will I.)
Eastwood, born in 1930, displays a mindset shaped by the decade of his birth and by the 1960s. The best films from the 1930s and 1940s are both entertaining and uplifting, and united by a clear moral vision: good will prevail over evil, but it's going to take a while. In the spaghetti westerns that made him famous, good's triumph over evil takes even longer. Working with the director Sergio Leone had a huge stylistic influence on Eastwood, who has never been in any hurry to get to the point. Spaghetti westerns moved along at a languid pace and so do Eastwood's. Early films such as High Plains Drifter start off with a bang, then taper off, then build to a huge finale; so do Pale Rider and Unforgiven. In A Fistful of Dollars, the movie that made him a household name, a tall, lanky, enigmatic stranger comes to the aid of poor, downtrodden Mexicans. In Gran Torino, a tall, lanky, enigmatic stranger comes to the aid of poor immigrants from south-east Asia. Some things change. Some things don't.
A true child of the Depression, Eastwood understood that the only unforgivable crime was to stop working. So he never did. He made all kinds of movies and he made them fast. He didn't waste much money on co-stars and he didn't spend much money on special effects. He brought his films in under budget and on time. If a film flopped he'd make another one, and if that flopped, he'd try something different. Then, if his career as a director stalled, he'd hire himself out as an actor. Unlike Beatty and Welles, he does not seem to have been terribly afraid of failure, and nor does one get the impression that he ever cared much what the critics thought of his work. His biggest-grossing films – the stupid ones with the orangutan – are among his greatest box-office coups. So there.
William Goldman, probably the world's most famous screenwriter, worked with Eastwood on Absolute Power. He believes that Eastwood, like Paul Newman, benefited from having to delay gratification. "The reason they were so terrific is that they didn't make it early," he told me last year. "Eastwood was still digging swimming pools when he was 29. They were not John Travolta. They were not Tom Cruise."
He also pointed out that Eastwood's high-quality work at such an advanced age is unprecedented. "Directors lose it around age 60," he says. "They're either too rich or they can't get work anymore. And it's physically debilitating work. That's why Gran Torino amazes me. Clint Eastwood is nearly 80, and he can still make a movie like that. He is having the most amazing career."
Clint Eastwood falls into the category of artist – like Sean Connery or Judy Garland or Van Cliburn – who does something wonderful early in his career, for which the public believes he is owed a permanent debt of gratitude. The public never forgets A Fistful of Dollars, because it breathed life into a dying genre and because Eastwood – with the poncho and the cigarillo – was just so fantastically cool. (The genre is now even closer to death, only occasionally coming back to life when Eastwood directs a western.) Like Bob Dylan, once reviled for his born-again Christian albums of the early 80s but now thought of as a congenial old coot, Eastwood somehow managed to bury the rightwing Dirty Harry stigma that followed him around in the 70s. (At a time when a lot of people in Hollywood were genuinely concerned that their country might be turning into a police state – during Richard Nixon's administration – Eastwood was making movies lionizing a rogue cop. Talk about politically incorrect.) But Eastwood himself mellowed and grew as an artist with the passage of time: High Plains Drifter (1973) starts with three murders and a rape; The Bridges of Madison County (1995) doesn't.
In Eastwood's defence, the Dirty Harry movies that some found so objectionable were little more than Hang 'Em High transferred to modern times. Extremely unpleasant men are making life miserable for ordinary citizens. The police are unable to control them. Into the mix comes a mysterious sociopath who is nonetheless fighting on the side of the angels. Nobody minded when Eastwood did this sort of thing in A Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Hang 'Em High, just as nobody minded when he returned to this theme in Pale Rider and Unforgiven. It is only when the avenging angel appears in an urban setting that civil libertarians get riled up. Westerns are set in an era with which Americans feel comfortable, with everyone having a gun and gunslingers taking the law into their own hands. Rogue cop movies aren't. If somebody takes the law into his own hands in the late 1800s, he's a hero. If he does it in the late 20th century, he's a fascist.
Eastwood resembles the great directors who preceded him, such as Hitchcock and John Huston and Don Siegel, in that he never stopped punching the clock. Unlike sensitive auteurs, who will take a few years off to contemplate their next project, Eastwood has not stopped making films since his debut in 1971. Working with the same collaborators, he has made arty films such as Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart, creepy films such as Play Misty for Me, offbeat comedies such as Bronco Billy and Space Cowboys, sentimental films such as Honkytonk Man and Invictus, and epics like Flags of Our Fathers. He has taken a great book and made a great movie (Mystic River), but more impressively he has taken a terrible book and made a great movie (The Bridges of Madison County). Eastwood went through a few stretches where it seemed he might be washed up, but he always found a way to drag himself up off the canvas. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, True Crimes and Bloodwork appeared in rapid succession. They were all duds. Then came Mystic River and Million-Dollar Baby, which were not.
The number of truly bad films Eastwood either starred in or directed is surprisingly small. This is mostly because he avoided comedies: cop movies can only be so bad, but with comedies, the sky's the limit. His worst movies, without question, are the ones he made with Sondra Locke, who briefly played Linda McCartney to Eastwood's Sir Paul. Still, the only thoroughly ridiculous (non-orangutan) film he ever made is Paint Your Wagon, the misbegotten 1969 musical. And even that has the redeeming virtue of being completely insane.
Clint Eastwood films are not philosophically dense. He likes to make movies where the little guy is up against it, where the small fry are going to need a champion, a deus ex machina. A conservative himself, Eastwood somehow manages to synthesise right- and leftwing points of view in his films. The government cannot be trusted – a position tenaciously held by Republicans – but the police are invariably brutal and corrupt – the opinion of most Democrats. In Eastwood's world, there is something for everyone, as long as they do not object to a bit of violence.
He has also never hesitated to poke fun at his own persona. Gran Torino, where Eastwood literally growls and squints and swears and points firearms throughout the film, is actually quite funny. So is Space Cowboys, where the famous twitch is on full display.
Like Denzel Washington, a far better actor, Eastwood presents an image of America to the rest of the world that Americans are comfortable with. He is not a gangster (De Niro), not a glamour boy (Richard Gere), not a wiseguy (Bruce Willis), not an orthodontist's dream (Tom Cruise), not a neurotic (Dustin Hoffman). He is not impish (Johnny Depp), not avuncular (Robert Duvall), not sincere (Harrison Ford), not mannered (Tommy Lee Jones), not hysterical (Al Pacino), and not homegrown Hollywood royalty (Warren Beatty). Pundits are always using the term "national treasure" to describe people such as Michael Moore, a fiercely divisive American who is only a national treasure to those who hate conservatives. Eastwood is a conservative, a rarity among movie stars. Yet he is also, without question, a national treasure. Even Michael Moore knows that.
Eastwood made his film debut in 1955, playing a lab technician in Revenge of the Creature. That was the year Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra made Guys and Dolls, the year Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama. This has been one long career. Eastwood has outlasted all of his notable contemporaries, and has lapped a host of actors and directors whose stars once, briefly, emitted somewhat more light than his.
Directors and stars have come and gone; Eastwood has endured. He is still working today, directing Hereafter, his 31st film. "Man's got to know his limitations" is the famous line he delivers at the end of Magnum Force. To all appearances, Clint Eastwood never had any.
Clint Eastwood: immortality in his sights.
David Denby celebrates a man who, even as he turns 80, seems bigger and better than ever.
Being underestimated is, for some people, a misfortune. For Clint Eastwood, it became a weapon. Certainly, no one meeting him in his twenties, before his movie career began, would have seen much more than a good-looking Californian who loved beer, women, cars and noodling at the piano – a fun guy to hang out with.
Since those unprepossessing days, he has done the following: starred in a hit television show, Rawhide; appeared in more than 50 movies and directed 31, often acting, directing and producing at the same time; added several menacingly ironic locutions to the language, such as “Make my day”, which Ronald Reagan quoted in the face of a congressional movement to raise taxes; become a kind of mythic-heroic-redemptive figure, interacting with public desire in a way that no actor has done since John Wayne; served as the mayor of Carmel, California; won four Oscars and received many other awards, including a hug from Nicolas Sarkozy while becoming commander of the Légion d’honneur last November. Those who were sceptical of Eastwood 40 years ago (I’m one of them) have long since capitulated, retired or died. He has outlasted everyone. On Monday, rich, garlanded and exceptionally busy, he will turn 80.
Eastwood was born big – Bunyonesque big – at 11lb 6oz, in 1930, and grew up mostly in Piedmont, California, near Oakland. During the Depression, as his father found and lost jobs, the family was constantly on the move. His biographer, Richard Schickel, has suggested that this peripatetic existence may be a cause of Eastwood’s habit in his movies of appearing out of nowhere at the beginning and disappearing at the end.
The constant in Eastwood’s early life was his mother, Ruth, who collected jazz records and got her son excited about music. As a teenager, hanging around clubs in Oakland and Los Angeles, Eastwood heard such icons of the new West Coast cool style in jazz as Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and the bebop geniuses in their early days, among them Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. As Eastwood has said, his notion of cool – slightly aloof, giving only the central satisfaction and withholding everything else – is derived from those musicians.
After high school, he did odd jobs for a couple of years, including hard work in a lumber mill and easy work on a beach, as a lifeguard. When he was drafted, in 1950, he was made a swimming instructor, and kept out of combat in Korea. Assigned to Fort Ord, near Carmel, which turned out to be the geographical centre of the rest of his life, he worked days at the base pool and manned the piano at local bars on nights off – a relaxed existence that he captured in his first film as a director, Play Misty for Me (1971), in which he was a Carmel disc jockey, indolent, seductive and seducible, a character probably as close to the actual young Eastwood as we’ve ever seen onscreen.
At the suggestion of friends, Eastwood sat in on evening classes taught by a disciple of Michael Chekhov, the acting guru, and in 1954 he came to the notice of Universal Studios, which still had a “school” devoted to the training of young actors. He signed on as a contract player for $75 a week. His teachers noted a certain tentativeness in his demeanour – to put it gently, he didn’t project much – but also some interesting corners in his temperament, and for the next few years he had small parts in junk movies.
No one much noticed him until he was hired, in 1958, to star (alongside Eric Fleming) in Rawhide, one of the many television Westerns of the period. After a few years, bored and ready to jump, Eastwood received a strange, derivative script by a man named Sergio Leone. It was titled The Magnificent Stranger and was an obvious remake of Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa’s bloody but funny 1961 samurai classic. Leone was a second-unit director in Italy who was obsessed with the United States. He was convinced that the classic Western had turned what was historically a remorseless struggle for commercial dominance into a moralised battle between good and evil. Leone wanted literally to demoralise the Western. He took the deep syntax of the genre (the bare streets, the stare-downs and sudden draws, the high body counts), raised it to the surface, and dropped almost everything else.
A Fistful of Dollars, as Stranger was eventually titled, and its more entertaining sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, was knowing parody, and Eastwood, with his minimalist technique, fitted perfectly into the style of unyielding absurdism. As the Man with No Name, he kept his head still, at a slight angle; he narrowed his eyes; he scowled and curled his upper lip. It was an arrogant teenager’s idea of acting, but he looked mean, amused, coolly amoral. He understood that, for an actor like him, playing a character was less important than establishing an image of implacable male force.
There were comic possibilities embedded in Eastwood’s mask, and the director Don Siegel (who became Eastwood’s mentor) exploited them in the baleful pop-cult explosion Dirty Harry (1971). In a drolly violent prelude, Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callahan stops a bank robbery at lunchtime, crossing the street and blazing away with his .44 Magnum, while chewing on a hot dog. Pointing the gun, which may or may not have a bullet left in its chamber, Callahan almost croons to a wounded robber who’s thinking of reaching for his own weapon: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” The question became one of Eastwood’s signature lines; he repeats it at the end of the film, when he has the serial killer under his gun, and this time the question is lethal.
That moment – an insolent piece of pop cruelty – put Eastwood, at the not-so-young age of 41, over the top. An actor may work for years without becoming a star. Then, suddenly, looks, temperament and role all come together and the public sees the actor, sees what it desires. He becomes not only a star but a myth, as Garry Wills defined it in his 1997 book John Wayne’s America – something that was true for the people who needed it to be true. What the public needed from Eastwood by the time of Dirty Harry was both physical and, in a convoluted way, moral.
It began with his appearance. He stood about 6ft 3in, as tall as John Wayne. He had gray-green eyes; a forehead like the rock face of Yosemite’s Half Dome; a perfect jaw line. A fitness nut, he was broad-shouldered by nature and muscular from the hours spent in his workout room, but not overly muscled – not a media joke like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. A mass of light-brown hair piled up on his head in a pompadour and flowed back in waves; he had an animal grace, a big-cat tension as he moved. Wayne was graceful, too, but he had an unusually long torso and he rolled slightly as he walked. As Wills pointed out, Wayne, swinging his bulk down the streets of the Old West, couldn’t imagine being challenged by anyone. Eastwood, ever wary, couldn’t imagine a world free of challenge. Wayne’s confidence, Wills says, made him especially popular in a country that had won the Second World War and shouldered the burdens of the Cold War. One could add that Eastwood’s guardedness, and his Magnum, offered reassurance to a country that was losing in Vietnam and feared chaos in the streets. “Mass culture is a machine for showing desire,” Roland Barthes wrote. It’s also a machine for expressing resentment, a frustration of desire.
Harry Callahan is lonely, hard, intolerant. Eastwood became popular, in part, because he allowed people to dream that they could be effective without being nice. He was a man, as the critic Michael Wood wrote, who let the audience enjoy “imaginary violence as a solution to real problems”. Callahan hates officials (he defies the mayor) and disdains regulations that slow him down, yet his rebellion would have been meaningless outside the system. He was an outsider by temperament, who nevertheless stayed inside, protecting society, protecting us.
For that reason, Eastwood became, as everyone said, an icon. A lesser man, receiving such adoration, might have gone on repeating himself forever.
As an actor in training at Universal, Eastwood had roamed all over the lot, asking questions about different aspects of film-making, and, during his Rawhide years, he made several requests, without success, to direct an episode. In 1970, he prevailed upon Universal to let him direct a low-budget feature.
In return for not taking a fee, he had the freedom to make the movie as he liked. The studio may have been trying to hook him into years of service in Western, crime and other action vehicles. But a couple of years earlier, before he became a superstar, Eastwood set up his own production company, Malpaso, and from that time on if studios wanted him they had to negotiate with his company. This allowed him to exercise control over the script, the director and major casting. He had created the basis of his freedom before he needed to exercise it.
Play Misty for Me ends with Eastwood’s character, Dave Garver, knocking his lover through a window and down Big Sur’s rocky cliffs. Eastwood was clearly telling both the studios and the public that they could admire but not possess him. Universal may have thought that he would be a workhorse on the lot, but he switched to Warner Bros, where he made, among other movies, more Westerns, but only his own, eccentric kind of Westerns.
In High Plains Drifter (1973) he is again nameless, this time a metaphysical avenger who brings justice to a sinful town. The movie was a whimsically daft spectacle, but Eastwood did one thing straight: he embraced the noble American pictorial ideal – a man on a horse, traversing vast open spaces. He had, it seemed, a horizontal imagination. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), his first great movie as a director, is filled with one ravishing image after another of lonely figures searching for a resting place. This time, the Eastwood character has a name. Initially a rooted man, Josey Wales is a Southern farmer who loses his family to Union marauders during the Civil War. He takes revenge and then heads west, passing among a Mark Twain gallery of bunco artists and opportunists, but he also acquires, as he moves, a new, irregular family (a talkative Indian, an elderly woman, a young girl). The Western hero was no longer alone; the new family takes over an abandoned house in Texas, in effect resettling the West.
If Leone emptied the West in his early movies, making Westerns that were mainly syntax and dead bodies, Eastwood, working in long paragraphs, put meaning back into the genre. Landscape as moral destiny, a miscellaneous community as the American way – these were the first signs in Eastwood of both a wider social sympathy and an incipient distaste for the conventions of genre plotting. Indifferently reviewed when it came out, The Outlaw Josey Wales received a stunning compliment six years later. Orson Welles, who had seen the movie four times, said on The Merv Griffin Show: “It belongs with the great Westerns. You know, the great Westerns of Ford and Hawks and people like that.”
Welles’s invocation of names from the past is a reminder of the singularity of Eastwood’s path. John Ford appeared in just a few silent films; Howard Hawks never acted in movies. Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Steve McQueen and Sean Connery never directed a feature. John Wayne directed only twice, and badly; ditto Burt Lancaster. Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Robert De Niro, and Sean Penn have directed a few movies each, with mixed commercial and artistic success.
The comparison with Beatty is irresistible and telling. Both were pretty boys who emerged from television in the Sixties. Both were casual piano players, catnip to women. Both cast actresses they were involved with. Both were extremely ambitious, and engaged seriously in politics. Beatty has had a fascinating career as a producer and a hyperenergetic stimulator of persons and projects but, along with his genuine achievements, the principal activity of his professional life for considerable stretches has been getting people excited about what he wants to do, rather than actually doing it. He holds endless meetings, fusses over details, keeps people waiting for years.
If Eastwood likes a story, he buys or commissions the script, moves rapidly into production, shoots the film on a short schedule and, until recently, on a modest budget. If he knows an actor or an actress’s work, he doesn’t ask for a reading. He casts quickly and dislikes extensive rehearsals and endless takes. If someone else is supposed to direct, then falters or becomes too slow or indecisive for his taste – as did Philip Kaufman on Josey Wales and the writer Richard Tuggle on Tightrope (1984) – he pushes him aside and takes over. Like Bergman, Godard and Woody Allen, he works hard and fast, an impatient man who likes calm and order, and relies on the same crew from picture to picture. As a professional code, this seems obvious enough, but, in recent years, who else in big-time American film-making but Eastwood, Allen and, lately, the Coen Brothers has practised it?
“Maturity” is a high-school guidance counsellor’s word, and responsibility is something that we rarely ask of artists and entertainers. But Eastwood, by experimenting with new forms and moods, both light and dark, and by constantly altering his early self as a star, achieved both as he got older, and without becoming a stiff. Anything but. He began to add dimensions to situations that he had earlier handled simply. Whatever else it is, his 1992 Western Unforgiven is an argument about how to represent violence, an argument about movies. Eastwood and the screenwriter David Webb Peoples are the artificers here, but there’s a rival actually present in the movie, a hack writer of Western fictions. W W Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a dime novelist, appears in the nearby town of Big Whiskey with one of his fabled heroes, the raffishly ornate outlaw known as English Bob (Richard Harris). The sheriff of Big Whiskey (Gene Hackman) quickly disarms and beats up the prating Bob, and then, sentence by sentence, he deconstructs the nonsense Beauchamp has written, explaining how shoot-outs really happen.
In effect, the sheriff, known as Little Bill, shreds the way that violence is represented in most Westerns. Peoples’s script is complicated, and Eastwood honours its startling turns. We may enjoy Little Bill’s scornful realism, but he’s a frightening man. If he’s the true West, the West is a nightmare. Hackman makes him jolly, rancorous and sadistic – a man without honour who later beats another man, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to death. In Little Bill, justice and order give way to brute force.
Where does that leave Eastwood’s character, William Munny, a retired professional assassin disgusted with his past? Eastwood shapes his own performance as a study in rueful abnegation; at times, he looks lost and vulnerable, even sickly. Yet Munny, however ashamed of killing, has to avenge the death of his pal, Ned Logan. Unforgiven ends with him gunning down Little Bill and his friends and then riding away, in a return to the kind of familiar myth that the rest of the movie seems to reject. What, one wonders, was the use of that anti-violence business if it all comes to this? Eastwood’s murderous past characters and his regretful new temper appear to have collided on a Western street. By giving the Western extra dimensions, and by pushing the moral issues to extremes, Eastwood had exposed (inadvertently, perhaps) the limits of the genre. Unforgiven is both an entertainment and a contradiction, a masterpiece at war with itself.
Eastwood may have sensed that he hadn’t said all that he wanted to say about renunciation. In the lovely movie that followed, A Perfect World (1993), Kevin Costner’s escaped convict and murderer, having lost his desire to kill, yet unable to outrun his past, dies without a fight in an open meadow. In these two pictures, the protagonists are imprisoned in the imperatives of character, exercising, they imagine, free will from moment to moment but governed at the same time by the sullen imprint of past crimes, injuries, mistakes. The word for this kind of dramatic structure is “tragedy”. That’s what Eastwood had become capable of. The two movies had depth, nuance, a burnished and reflective nostalgia for a simplicity that was no longer possible. This became definitive in Mystic River, from 2003, a movie in which all of Eastwood’s late obsessions – guilt, destruction, self-destruction, vengeance – merge into a completely satisfying work of art.
In the framing of the story, you can still see some genre conventions at work. The screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, adapting the novel by Dennis Lehane, worked with the elements of a police procedural: a girl has been murdered, and Sean (Kevin Bacon), a homicide detective for the Massachusetts State Police, sets about solving the crime with his partner (Laurence Fishburne). But within this familiar structure, Helgeland and Eastwood created a shadowed way of life whose roots go back 25 years to another crime: the kidnapping and abuse of a young boy. In the present, the grown-up victim (Tim Robbins), and the two friends who watched years ago as he was driven away (Sean Penn and Bacon), are held together by a bond of shame and contempt. The working-class Boston neighbourhood, with its wood-frame buildings, grey light and tough, anxious women clinging to their men, has never recovered; it might be an ancient Greek city fallen under a curse. We are what the past has made us, and Penn’s Jimmy, a neighbourhood store owner and thug whose earlier life has been marked by acts of vengeance, loses his daughter and is forced to ask if, in some way, he’s responsible for her death.
To work with such glum material without falling into middlebrow dreariness requires intellectual force and a steely grip on narrative. This movie, too, turns into an argument about violence. Falling in line behind Dirty Harry and Little Bill, Jimmy is yet another guy who imagines that he alone embodies justice. He tries to avenge his daughter’s death, only to kill the wrong man. But, then, a surprise: his wife (Laura Linney), excited by his daring, pulls him into bed. Eastwood had moved past easily understood right and wrong, past the plain satisfactions of pattern. Killing for revenge is as idiotic as killing for hire, yet this act is flagrantly rewarded. From the beginning, going back to his performance in A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood had shown a penchant for irony, but the end of Mystic River was a perverse twist worthy of a sardonic modern artist like Brecht or Fassbinder.
Eastwood had reached the summit and, at 73, he appeared to be taking stock. For years, he had played angry men who held the fort of white-male authority. Now, returning to elements from Josey Wales, he began to notice and even to celebrate true outsiders, people who had much less power than his own characters did. Had he become, of all things, a liberal? Probably not, at least not in any overtly political sense. It’s more likely that, as he got older, he saw his own prized values embodied in people he had essentially ignored before. Women, after all, had rarely been at the centre of his movies. One can remember Verna Bloom’s tenderness in supporting roles, and, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, a few sassy performances by Sondra Locke, who was then Eastwood’s inamorata. In Tightrope, Genevieve Bujold projected a taut intelligence, and Meryl Streep had a never-met-the-right-man wistfulness in The Bridges of Madison County (1995). But many of the women were predatory or adoring, and none of them, even the strong ones, quite prepared us for Hilary Swank’s pugnacious jaw and wide smile in Million Dollar Baby (2004).
At first, the fight-club setting gives off the sour-sweat odour of defeat. As Eastwood and Morgan Freeman rag on each other, the movie seems a joke between ageing friends (the lines are a duet for buzzsaw and cello). But Eastwood himself turns out to be the butt: the bull-headed Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) breaks into this second-rate male province, trains as a fighter, and pulls the snarling old man out of emotional isolation and, finally, into the full humanity of mourning. Maggie could give and take a punch. The movie was less an expression of feminist awareness than a case of awed respect for a woman who was strong and enduring.
In the same way, Eastwood began to see, in minority groups, even in America’s former enemies, what he had long admired in tough white men. Certainly, no one in American movies has ever done anything quite as open-hearted as Eastwood’s 2006 feat of recounting the devastating battle of Iwo Jima from both points of view (in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima).
Part of Eastwood’s late curiosity has been directed at new aspects of himself, a superb animal inexorably growing older. Rather than fight his years, Eastwood has explicitly dramatised ageing – the slowing of reflexes, the hardening of perception and will.
Back in 1993, with In the Line of Fire, he managed, in the midst of a first-rate thriller (directed by Wolfgang Petersen), to suggest that men his age compensate for perceived weakness by overly focusing on the task at hand – a fresh insight. He didn’t revive Dirty Harry, who would have been a grimly witty old party, but Walt Kowalski, the irascible retired auto worker in Gran Torino (2008), is a variation on Callahan. Living in a house outside Detroit, next door to a family of Hmong refugees, Kowalski is indecently hostile – “gooks” and “slopes” are among his daily epithets – but, by degrees, he becomes impressed with the family’s insistence on discipline and rouses himself to protect it.
Who can doubt that Eastwood’s shift from loathing to compassion was an oblique rejection of the endless American rancour over immigration? The man who once walked away at the end was now gravely taking responsibility for everything (a development that would be enlarged the following year in Invictus, a celebration of the shrewd and noble way that Nelson Mandela united South Africa in 1995). As Kowalski, Eastwood literally growled, as if teasing his limits as an actor, but Kowalski is also a true terror. Eastwood’s skull stood out from beneath his skin; his eyes were like smouldering coals. He was never a more dominating star.
In Praise of Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood at 80. 'Old man'? You damn well better smile when you say it...
If masculinity had a face, it would be his face. Even as he aged, Clint Eastwood still held the distinct air of authority that has made him a star throughout the 20th century, an attribute of which is clearly visible in his movies. His roles throughout the years have been numerous and, occasionally, quite obscure; but they have all still featured that underlying sense of masculinity and control that only Eastwood can bring to a role.
From the spaghetti westerns to his last acting role in Gran Torino, Eastwood has always held a position of power within his movies, whether it is as the no-nonsense Inspector Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry or as aging boxing trainer Frankie Dunn in Million Dollar Baby. This is a man who not only made the transition from Wild West cowboy to hard hitting San Francisco Inspector seamlessly, but managed to do so with such a professional and convincing nature that it became the most recognisable character of his acting career.
It is all too easy to write a piece about Clint Eastwood’s success because of the numerous roles he has undertaken and the critic acclaim he has received throughout. However, it is important to understand a little bit about his background and to assess where he has come from.
Eastwood was born on the 30th May, 1930 in San Francisco, to a middle class family whose sole income was provided by his father. The family was forced to relocate often in pursuit of regular work, before finally settling in Piedmont, California. It was clear that Eastwood was going to develop into the broad shouldered adult that has graced our screens, with the actor/director admitting in an interview with the Guardian that he weighed over 11 pounds at birth.
His manly image is only furthered by the fact that he has admitted to being a serial womaniser, fathering at least seven children with five different women. His success and impressive physical appearance played a pivotal role in this, and Eastwood has admitted to having at least six intimate relationships, with the last being to his second and current wife, anchorwoman Dina Ruiz.
"Although spanning an acting career of over 53 years, things could have been very different. At a young age, Eastwood shunned many advances from drama teachers and showed little enthusiasm towards acting."
Although spanning an acting career of over 53 years, things could have been very different. At a young age, Eastwood shunned many advances from drama teachers and showed little enthusiasm towards acting. In 1949, Eastwood planned to attend Seattle University and to major in music but, in 1950, was drafted to the US Army to assist in the Korean War. It was here that, after a chance meeting with Universal and the subsequent friendship that resulted with director Arthur Lupin, Eastwood began his route towards a long and prosperous career in acting.
With the advent of his 80th birthday, it is still clear to see that the same level of desire and passion burns intently within him, and he has much left to offer. Gran Torino was his self proclaimed “swan song”, with Eastwood informing that it would be his last role in front of the camera and that he intended to concentrate his efforts on directing. To date, he has directed or co-directed 32 movies and his last three, Invictus, Gran Torino and Changeling, have all been met with critical acclaim.
"As an individual, Eastwood is a fantastic example of the unpredictability of life itself; his acting and former lifestyle has shaped both who he is now and how he came to be perceived on screen"
Clint Eastwood has achieved so much in his time and has lived an interesting, if not unstable, lifestyle. While he takes much pride in his directing and has expressed a keen desire to continue this for years to come, he is keen to spend as much time with his youngest daughter, Morgan Eastwood. As an individual, Eastwood is a fantastic example of the unpredictability of life itself; his acting and former lifestyle has shaped both who he is now and how he came to be perceived on screen. Much can be learnt from one of America’s greatest movie stars, both good and bad, and he deserves much praise for this.
His movies have become iconic of 20th century cinema, with many actors and directors speaking of their respect for him and his work. His work has dealt with a number of issues including racism, rape and debauchery, and yet his on-screen presence has always been the most talked about outcome. I recommend everyone to go out and experience his roles while he is still alive, because it will inevitably grant a better understanding of his work as a director.
DECADES 8: IMPRESSIONS OF CLINT EASTWOOD
Comparing Clint Eastwood to his contemporaries, Jonathan Heaf astutely observes in the March 2010 issue of British GQ, “Paul Newman was always too smooth, Marlon Brando too pretty; Steve McQueen too much of a hothead,” but “there is a stylish nonchalance about Eastwood; he drives home fervour [sic] and conviction without so much as flickering a smouldering [sic] cheroot from one corner of his mouth to the other” (100). Robert Redford, if I may add, was too untroubled.
Eastwood was an infant in the 1930s, a young man during the late 40s, and an indisputable movie star by the 70s. Having worked as both actor and director for Warner Brothers for thirty-five years, Eastwood has collaborated with great talents such as Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Hal Holbrook, Blake Edwards, Burt Reynolds, Rip Torn, Madeline Kahn, Bernadette Peters, Raul Julia, Tom Skerritt, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Scott Glenn, Kevin Spacey, James Woods, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, Anjelica Huston, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Laurence Fishburne, and Hilary Swank.
When I initially decided to write an article about Clint Eastwood in celebration of his 80th birthday, which also coincides with Memorial Day 2010, I had planned to incorporate biographical, historical, and thematic analyses of his body of work. After seeing “The Bridges of Madison County,” (Eastwood, 1995), “Dirty Harry” (Don Siegel, 1971), “A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964) and “Gran Torino” (Eastwood, 2008), though, I realized that any attempt to illustrate with the written word the man’s brilliance and significance would not do him sufficient justice. The proper and most satisfying way to appreciate his achievements is to watch his films.
Furthermore, the adage about being a man of few words fits Clint Eastwood’s onscreen presence. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, he is profound. My hope is that in sharing with you my impressions, instead of densely packed summaries and praises, your own budding (or continuing) acquaintanceship with Eastwood’s contributions to filmmaking will be more personal.
Based on Robert James Waller’s bestselling novel, “The Bridges of Madison County” centers on a passionate and transcendant bond that forms between Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), an Italian housewife, and Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), a photographer sent by National Geographic magazine to take pictures of Iowa’s Roseman Bridge. “The Bridges of Madison County” asks if people can spend just four days together and develop such a connection that they’d want to and seriously consider leaving their already-settled lives to spend ever after together.
The film’s mesmerizing pulse lies not in the plot but in Eastwood and Streep’s performances. Roger Ebert writes in his review that “an awkward but friendly conversation leads to an offer of iced tea; then [Francesca] shyly asks [Robert] to stay for dinner.” I don’t think she’s doing it shyly. Streep’s acting suggests to me that she makes a cost-benefit analysis or asks on impulse. The ambiguity as to whether or not their characters are consciously aware of their mutual attraction creates a layer of sensual curiosity.
While Francesca and Robert are having dinner for the first time, he tells her, “I was more at home everywhere than just in one place, kind of like a citizen of the world…I’m a loner, I’m not a monk…You probably think of somebody like me as a poor, displaced soul who’s destined to wander the planet with not having a TV set or a self-cleaning oven.” Although this conversation reveals intellectual and philosophical differences between the two characters that reach a boiling point, Clint Eastwood is so tender and romantic in his demeanor, which is a contrast to Inspector 211, Harry Callahan.
Also known as Dirty Harry, Callahan is a detective with the San Francisco Police Department who prioritizes apprehending criminals over law and procedure. Made and set in the cultural, historical context of Vietnam, Watergate, and the emergence of the violent psychopath, “Dirty Harry” is critical of the kind of reasoning that would allow the rights of the accused to overshadow the rights of the victims. Were Detective Callahan portrayed by an actor other than Eastwood, the attitude of “screw civil rights when there’s a sniper, serial killer on the loose” would lose its deeper meaning: obsessive attention to administrative details is the enemy of the greater good when there is a serial killer to be stopped.
Why do people call Callahan Dirty Harry? Because he does every “dirty job,” which is one that could end very badly no matter what the police do. Harry knows what to do in these instances; he’s not afraid to damage public property or ask punks if they feel lucky. Siegel’s film was important because it addressed crucial social and political issues, but it was also a star-making transition for Eastwood’s career and persona from the Western to urban streets. David Denby remarks in his article “Out of the West: Clint Eastwood’s Shifting Landscape” (March 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker), that “An actor may work for years without becoming a star, as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart did throughout the nineteen-thirties. Then suddenly, looks, temperament, and role all come together…and the public sees the actor, sees what it desires. He becomes not only a star but a myth…What the public needed from Eastwood by the time of ‘Dirty Harry’ was both physical and, in a convoluted way, moral” (55).
Clint Eastwood had already been a part of thirty-some-odd film and TV productions by the time “Dirty Harry” was released. Seven years before Harry Callahan patrolled the streets of San Francisco with a Magnum. 44, Eastwood had strolled through and permanently altered a small desert town called San Miguel in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western, “A Fistful of Dollars.” Eastwood is a man with a horse, a pistol, and no set destination. He arrives in San Miguel, which is controlled by the gun-selling Baxters and the liquor-doling Rojos boys, and plays each gang off of the other in order to make a few bucks and right a couple of wrongs he witnesses along the way.
In addition to Ennio Morricone’s idiosyncratic musical score and the manner in which Leone reinterprets Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic “Yojimbo,” what I found especially memorable is what Ramon of the Rojos boys quips about Eastwood’s lone gunslinger: “When someone with that face works with his gun, you may count on two things: he’s fast on the trigger, but he’s also intelligent.” Eastwood’s character isn’t just quick and smart in the moment; he’s also careful and prepared. Therefore, as uncomfortable as it is to see the Rojos boys pummeling and bloodying him, you know that his pain is nothing he can’t handle.
Eastwood’s thirty-four year-old self in “A Fistful of Dollars” looked like it could take a mean beating without needing a long recovery period. What about his seventy-eight year-old “Gran Torino” self? In this socio-politically aware drama, Eastwood slips into the shoes of Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran who makes the most out of the numbered days he has left to live. Reluctantly at first and then urgently over time, Walt mentors his next-door neighbor Thao (Bee Vang), a Hmong teen whose cousin harasses him and tries repeatedly to pull him into a life of gang-banging.
“Gran Torino,” a reference to Walt’s treasured car, opens at Walt’s wife’s funeral service. Immediately the viewer learns that Walt is disconnected from his two sons and their families. They think their father is stuck in the mindset of the 50s; he cringes at the sight of his inappropriately dressed granddaughter. For better or for worse, Walt’s children are right about him. He is set in his ways and won’t amend them for anyone.
It’s unnerving in the beginning to see Eastwood speak like a curmudgeon. By no means feeble or cognitively unsteady, he coughs up blood and is unmistakably vulnerable to the wear-and-tear of aging. It’s hard to watch because it’s so convincing. A brief period of adjustment is required; Eastwood’s performance makes us believe and accept Walt’s behavior. The unfamiliar is normalized.
Stretching one’s comfort zone is not just an actor’s exercise. The viewer’s comfort is also affected by an actor’s choice to explore artistic horizons. An actor who has consistently played a villain may go good (or vice versa). Eastwood’s repertoire doesn’t call for protagonist-villain role-reversals, though. Expanding characterization for him entails varying back-stories confronted with different sets of decisions.
When I finished “Gran Torino” I kept turning in my mind the implications of Walt’s birthday scene. One of his sons and his wife come over with a cake, a “gopher” device and a phone with gigantic numbers on the keypad. The juxtaposition of Walt’s son and daughter-in-law ’s perception of him with what the viewer knows to be true is both humorous and significant. It also enables the viewer to reconcile the initially discordant image of Eastwood playing the part of Walt and Eastwood the screen legend.
Actor, director, cultural icon, and fixture of post-war masculinity, the 20th and 21st centuries would be a very different place without Clint Eastwood’s voice, likeness, and corporeality.
Robert Kincaid’s photo run, Dirty Harry’s magnum, outlaw hero goes solo, and a widower like none.
Happy Birthday, Clint Eastwood.