Our Man Clint

In Back to the Future, Part III, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) finds himself in the Old West, circa 1885. When the town’s lead outlaw asks for his name, Marty almost tells the truth and then desperately searches for an alternative that will make him look more fearsome. Marty exclaims “Clint Eastwood!” Audiences laughed, but I don’t think anyone was surprised that Marty picked that name. For more than 45 years Clint Eastwood has represented quiet strength and toughness. As his character in Gran Torino explains, “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have f-cked with? That's me.”

So it was strange to see Eastwood as a punching bag the past few weeks. His strange, improvised “talk to a chair” at the Republican National Convention drew nationwide scorn and ridicule. Roger Ebert called it “sad and pathetic.” Saturday Night Live spoofed it. Many media outlets focused more on Eastwood than on Mitt Romney, who gave his RNC acceptance speech the same night as Eastwood talked. The controversy did not seem to bother Eastwood too much. He recently remarked that “I figure if somebody's dumb enough to ask me to go to a political convention and say something, they're gonna have to take what they get.”

Yes, Eastwood’s conversation with an imaginary President Obama was ill-conceived and badly executed. Does that warrant all the ridicule and derision? After all, it’s not as if Eastwood is the first person to give a bad convention talk. More importantly, he’s not running for anything. He doesn’t have to.

It’s so very easy to take Clint Eastwood for granted. For any post-Baby Boomer, Eastwood has always been around: starring in movies, directing movies, or both. Perhaps neither task looks too difficult when Eastwood is the one doing it. The characters he played often said few words. Eastwood often glowered as much as he talked. Still, how many actors could blend the steely determination, fierce resolve, and controlled anger that defined The Man With No Name (actually, he had a name, but never mind) or Dirty Harry? Eastwood never had the widest range, but, like many of the classic era film stars he admired, he found an archetype that fit him.

Once Eastwood found that archetype and became one of the biggest stars on the planet, he could have easily played it safe and regularly turned out boilerplate films. In 1988, it looked like he might grow stale, as he appeared in The Dead Pool, his fifth Dirty Harry movie. However, in that same year Eastwood’s name appeared on another film, Bird, a biopic of the great jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker. Eastwood started directing films in 1971, initially directing his own star vehicles. With Bird, Eastwood for the first time directed a film he did not act in. Bird was both a tribute to the music Eastwood loved, and a searing character study, with a virtuoso performance by Forrest Whitaker as the brilliant but self-destructive Parker.

Bird showed that Eastwood had no intention of playing it safe as a director. What about as an actor? He had shown signs in films like Bronco Billy that he was moving away from his Western/Cop movie bread and butter. When he starred in and directed Unforgiven, he made a cleaner break. He played Bill Munny, a gunslinger who could have easily been The Man With No Name 25 years later. But where his earlier heroes were confident in their actions and felt justified in their anger, Munny was shaken, guilty, and doubtful. Munny actively questioned and regretted his own past, as the film cast a critical eye on the traditional movie Western ethos. As David Denby of The New Yorker wrote, “Old myths dissolve into the messy stupidity of life, which, as rendered by Eastwood, becomes the most challenging kind of art.”

Eastwood challenged himself as both an actor and a director. More importantly, he challenged audiences’ preconceptions. Take the end of Gran Torino. Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, shares many of Dirty Harry’s prejudices and, at least in appearance, his violent tendencies. Now he has declared that he’s going to put a stop to the gang that’s threatening the neighbors he befriended. You see Kowalski preparing. He strides with determination to the front of the gang’s hideout. Surely this will be the final glorious gunfight for Kowalski/Eastwood/Harry. He exchanges threatening words with the gang, reached into his pocket, and takes out a ... cigarette lighter. Audiences were surprised, and so was that gang, which riddled Walt with bullets. Of course the police were on their way, and, by killing Walt, the gang sealed its own fate. The gang was finished and Kowalski’s friends were safe, albeit in a far different way than anyone expected.

Subverting expectations can sometimes result in not receiving deserved credit. Denby, in his excellent Eastwood profile also wrote that “Being underestimated is, for some people, a misfortune. For Eastwood it became a weapon.” Local film critic Bill Henry was one of those who underestimated Eastwood. He told me that, when he was younger, he read Eastwood explaining that the main job of a director was to keep the actors happy and comfortable. In the age of auteurs like Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola, that Eastwood statement seemed underwhelming. Great directors were geniuses and visionaries, not people who just made actors happy. Of course Eastwood, by his own admission, never bought into the auteur theory.

Henry later came to understand that Eastwood was in no way shortchanging the many other aspects of filmmaking. But Eastwood had a fine team of craftsmen working with him from movie to movie. So, on the set, he was able to focus on the actors. From his own acting experience, he knew what actors needed to give their best. Eastwood has directed actors as diverse as Gene Hackman, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman to Oscar wins. Stars who were not even born when Eastwood began in movies, such as Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio, have lined up to work with him.

Eastwood has used his cache and power to take even more risks. While researching a planned film on the battle of Iwo Jima, Eastwood discovered letters and stories about the Japanese soldiers fighting there. So as he worked on Flags of our Fathers, about the American soldiers at Iwo Jima, Eastwood simultaneously developed what became Letters from Iwo Jima, told from the Japanese point of view. How many big-time directors would make a film with actors largely unknown in the US, about an army fighting the US? And make that film in a foreign language, no less? Clint Eastwood did.

Did I mention that Eastwood made that film while he was in his mid-seventies? In fact Eastwood has directed ten films since turning 70, including Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby and other ambitious works such as Mystic River, Invictus, and the underrated Hereafter. Now past 80, Eastwood continues to make films quickly and economically. He has directed 32 films in all, making him among the most, if not the most, prolific filmmaker in the past 40 years. To put this in context, two other movie stars from his generation that became successful directors, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, made nine films and five films apiece.

Let’s face facts. Quigley Publications has conducted an annual poll of movie theater owners since 1932 on the top ten box office draws. Clint Eastwood has made the Quigley’s top ten list in 21 different years, second only to John Wayne. Eastwood is also one of only 18 directors to win two or more Best Director Oscars, putting him in the same group as Steven Spielberg, David Lean, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, George Stevens, and Oliver Stone. No one else has combined movie stardom and filmmaking excellence like he has. He has carved himself a singular place in film history. So, if he makes an occasional mistake, such as the one he made a month ago, I think we can, at the very least, give him a pass. Hasn’t he earned it?

Adam Spector
October 1, 2012

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