Thursday 17 February 2011

A Hollywood Icon Lays Down the Law: Wall Street Journal Interview, Jan 2011

A Big thank you to our American friend Jerry Whittington who recently sent me this interview with Clint.
The Wall Street Journal, Jan 29th 2011, Michael Judge, Carmel, Calif.
It's high noon at Mission Ranch, and the haze is just beginning to burn off the meadow. One couldn't ask for a better setting for a conversation with an actor who's played some of Hollywood's most iconic outlaws and lawmen, and who is today, at the age of 80, perhaps the most respected filmmaker in the industry.
Clint Eastwood pulls up in a silver Audi SUV. He extends his hand and says simply, "Nice to meet you." His voice is softer, more lilting than in his films, but his presence—he stands a full 6 feet 4 inches tall—is formidable. The Italian director Sergio Leone once said he had "an indolent way of moving," similar to a cat's. There's a calmness to him that puts one at ease.
"Where should we do this?" he asks, with a smile. "Somewhere quiet," I reply. "It's quiet everywhere here," he says, gesturing to the meadow and the towering eucalyptuses that border it. He should know—he owns the place. He bought the 150-year-old, 22-acre ranch in 1986, partly to save it from developers and partly out of nostalgia. When he was a young man in the Army, he tells me, he had his first "legal" beer here at the Mission Ranch bar and restaurant. That's where, nearly 60 years later, we settle into a small table with a view of the meadow and, beyond it, the white surf of Carmel Bay.
Mr. Eastwood is deep into his latest project, a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial and secretive founder of the modern FBI. "If you're doing a biography, you try to stay as accurate as possible to reality," he says. "But you really don't know what was going on in the person's mind. You just know what was going on in the minds of people around him."
The Hoover screenplay was written by Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning writer of the 2008 film "Milk" about the life and 1978 murder of gay-rights activist and San Francisco City Councilman Harvey Milk. When I ask if the screenplay addresses reports by former FBI employees that Hoover was a cross-dresser and perhaps a closeted homosexual, Mr. Eastwood says not really. In fact, what attracted him to the screenplay was the fact that it "didn't quite go down that road."
As with all his films, Mr. Eastwood didn't rely on others to do his research. "I went back and read probably all the material that [Mr. Black] had read. . . . I went and visited with the FBI in Washington, D.C., and tried to find out as much as I could about people who had worked with Hoover."
Mr. Eastwood's main interests are the workings of a sprawling, crime-fighting bureaucracy and how a young man—Hoover was 29 when he was made director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924—survived to serve eight presidents, from Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon. Hoover was, in many ways, "the most powerful guy in the country," says Mr. Eastwood, "at a time when America was by far the most powerful country" in the world.
The film spans Hoover's entire career, from the 1919-20 Palmer Raids, which saw thousands of suspected anarchists, socialists and other radicals detained or deported; to the Gangster Wars of the 1930s that resulted in the shooting deaths of such arch-criminals as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson; to the wiretaps and secret dossiers of the 1950s and '60s on "subversives" that included leftists and Communist Party members but also political rivals, celebrities and civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.
I ask if Hoover—like Mr. Eastwood's Dirty Harry character of the '70s and '80s, or the brutal sheriff Little Bill in his Oscar-winning 1992 film, "Unforgiven"—hadn't overstepped his bounds as a lawman.
"Sometimes they do," Mr. Eastwood says. "And that's what I always loved about the 'Unforgiven' script. Little Bill is not treated as just a guy with a dark hat and a sinister villain. He was villainous only because of his excesses. He had dreams that everybody else has. He just wanted to sit on the porch of the house he was building and have a nice life and watch the sunset and smoke his pipe. And he believed in gun control in the town that he controlled. But he had also gone over into a cruel streak along the way. . . .

"You could say Hoover might be that way, too. I'm sure he had his excesses. . . . He was obviously a very detailed guy all his life, starting as a very young man. He had some great ideas—modern-day investigative techniques [like fingerprinting and forensic science]. But he also liked the glory of it all."
I ask Mr. Eastwood about the final scene in one of his earlier Dirty Harry movies, when his character throws away his badge after shooting one more "scumbag." Marshall Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, does the same thing at the end of "High Noon" when the townspeople abandon him to face a murderous gang alone. It's a classic theme in Westerns: Does society expect too much from its lawmen, only to spurn them when they deliver?
"Society is at odds with itself," says Mr. Eastwood. "They want law and order but . . ." he pauses, perhaps thinking he sounds too much like Dirty Harry. "I was always intrigued by this guy who was frustrated by not being able to solve problems due to the obstacles put up by society itself—by the bureaucracy in society. . . . That didn't mean I was against a criminal's right to justice, to a defense, and all that sort of thing. Though a lot of people interpreted it that way because when you do those roles people go, 'Hey, that's the way the guy thinks.' That's kind of a left-handed compliment in a way, you think, 'Oh, I convinced you that much? Good!'"
Mr. Eastwood has called his 1976 Civil-War era Western "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (which tells the story of a Missouri farmer avenging the murder of his family by Union soldiers) an "antiwar" film. Does he see parallels with his more recent films, such as "Letters from Iwo Jima" (2006) that tells the story of the epic battle for that South Pacific island largely from the Japanese perspective?
When it comes to war, he says, it's hard not to think about the "poor slob" fighting for the other side. In the case of the Japanese conscripts fighting on Iwo Jima, some were as young as 14 or 15, "sent to an island and told don't plan on coming back. You're going to defend your country because of all our philosophies. . . . I mean, that's a big request, but it happens in every country. . . .
"I was drafted during the Korean War. None of us wanted to go, It was only a couple of years after World War II had ended. We said, 'Wait a second? Didn't we just get through with that?' An atomic bomb, the pacification of Japan . . . and here we are back in it again. . . . But everybody went. You objected but you went. You said, OK, this is what we're supposed to do."
Mr. Eastwood says he wasn't shipped out to Korea with the rest of his outfit due to an airplane accident. He was stationed at Fort Ord, not far from Carmel, and had hopped a Navy plane to visit his folks in Seattle. On the return trip, the plane crash-landed in the ocean near Drakes Bay, just north of San Francisco. He wasn't injured—he and the pilot swam to safety—but he was ordered to stay behind and await a Navy hearing, which never came, on the cause of the crash. "Typical of the service," he says.
"As for Josey Wales, I saw the parallels to the modern day at that time. Everybody gets tired of it, but it never ends. A war is a horrible thing, but it's also a unifier of countries. . . . Man becomes his most creative during war. Look at the amount of weaponry that was made in four short years of World War II—the amount of ships and guns and tanks and inventions and planes and P-38s and P-51s, and just the urgency and the camaraderie, and the unifying. But that's kind of a sad statement on mankind, if that's what it takes."
After 9/11, I suggest, the country was unified, but that soon faded. "Yeah it did," he says. "A couple years afterwards everybody goes, 'Oh well, OK, that's over with.' And of course you can't do that. You've got to always keep that kind of memory alive, so it doesn't happen again."
But he says he wasn't one of those guys saying the U.S. should go to Iraq and "kick ass and take names," because too often we just "stick a toe in" and risk too many lives. Still, he appreciates the sacrifices made by our military personnel: "It all comes back to the grunt. The guy who's in the trenches, the guy who's walking along the roads . . . in a country where you don't speak the language, you don't know the customs that much, and you're just sort of at the mercy of what the chain of command is up along the line."
He also appreciates the dilemmas faced by democracies when dealing with Islamist terrorism. "How many rights do you want to give to people who are trying to kill you just because you're you? You may be of a different religious sect, or you may be an agnostic, or you may be anything. But you're not one of them, so you're an inferior being. . . . Do you fight on 21st-century ideas or 17th-century, like the people who are against you?"
Closer to home, what does this onetime Carmel mayor think of the return of California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has pledged to get rid of the "smoke and mirrors" in Sacramento and balance the state's $25 billion budget deficit?

"He's got an interesting opportunity now because most fantasies in this world are based around 'If I only knew then what I know now, imagine what I could have done,'" he laughs. "But I'll tell you when I liked him—and I wasn't a registered Democrat—but I liked him when he was running for president [in 1992] on the flat tax. . . . A ton of economists, both liberal and conservative, have argued for a flat tax, but nobody's ever had the nerve to do it. . . . It would simplify things, but simplification doesn't seem to be in the human psyche."
If he wasn't a Democrat back in 1992, was he an independent? "No, I was a registered Republican," he confesses happily. "I became a Republican in 1951, the first year I could vote. Eisenhower was running [for president] and we were all in the Army. He ran on the fact that he'd go to Korea [and end the war]. I don't know if that was anything more than a show, but he went there, and the Korean War did end." He then adds with a smile, like the easy-going Eisenhower Republican he is, "But I've supported Democrats along the way."

Mr. Eastwood is a product of what he calls the "Not So Great Depression." Born on May 31, 1930, in San Francisco, his father, Clinton Eastwood Sr., was a steelworker and migrant laborer; his mother, Margaret Ruth Runner, a part-time factory worker and full-time mom. "It was a tough time. My parents and my sister and I, we all travelled around the West Coast with a trailer on the back of the car. My dad would get a job that would last three months and then he'd have to go look for another one. Once in a while he'd get one that lasted six months."
His first big break came in 1958 with the role of Rowdy Yates in the Western TV series "Rawhide." In the mid-'60s, he left Hollywood to star in the Italian-made Western "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), the film in which he originated the "Man with No Name" character—the mysterious, avenging gunslinger he later resurrected in films he directed himself, like "High Plains Drifter" (1973) and "Pale Rider" (1985).
In 1992, his revisionist Western "Unforgiven" won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, sending his career to new heights at an age when most film stars typically retire. He's since directed and sometimes also starred in "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Invictus" and "Gran Torino," to name a few that have had critical and commercial success. "My whole life has been one big improvisation," says Mr. Eastwood. He started his own production company, Malpaso Productions, in the mid-1960s, gaining the freedom to experiment and take greater risks than other Hollywood stars of his generation.
With the Hoover movie about to start filming, I ask if he's ever come in over budget. "Not that I know of," he says. "Maybe once or twice. I usually stay on schedule. And when I was mayor here of Carmel we always had a reserve and we never spent more than we took in. . . . That's the first thing you're taught when you're a kid from the Not So Great Depression—don't spend it all in one place."

*All photos added from my own collection for illustrative purposes