Clint Eastwood: Man with no equal

Directors and stars have come and gone: Clint Eastwood has endured. And he’s never stopped working. Joe Queenan salutes the Hollywood great, who turns 80 next month

Directors in the United States may occasionally be shown respect, perhaps even asked for their autograph, 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 adored.

At a certain point he, like Elvis Presley, crossed over into a land beyond reproach. No blemish would ever go on his personal record, no matter how many Sondra Locke movies he made. It was okay to dislike this or that Eastwood movie—Pink Cadillac, Tightrope, The Gauntlet—as long as you did not dislike the man himself.

Next month Eastwood turns 80. 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 likeable 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 1960s 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. 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 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.

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 successful—and nor is he liked by Middle America in the way Eastwood is. He is too dark, too strange, too Los Angeles. Eastwood has never been accused of that.

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 southeast 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. 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 said. “Eastwood was still digging swimming pools when he was 29. They were not John Travolta. They were not Tom Cruise.”

He pointed out that Eastwood’s high-quality work at such an advanced age is unprecedented. “Directors lose it around age 60,” he said. “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.”

Eastwood resembles the great directors who preceded him, such as Alfred 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 directorial 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 left-wing 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 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 the US 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 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.—

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