After 40 years in the saddle, Clint Eastwood is still forging new frontiers
By Kenneth Miller
It’s nearly 25 years since Clint Eastwood, as police detective Harry Callahan, dared a thug to start shooting – and gave the phrase “Go ahead, make my day” a whole new meaning. These days, the violence in Eastwood’s movies has a subtlety and impact that Dirty Harry could only dream of. After spending the better part of his career playing screen tough guys, Eastwood has become the gentle giant behind the scenes, directing a spate of critically acclaimed and award-winning films.
His two most recent movies, Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, took an unflinching look at war. Letters is a work of extraordinary empathy, one of the first US films to tell a World War II story from the perspective of Japanese soldiers. And unlike the propaganda films of the time, it grants as much humanity and complexity to Iwo Jima’s defenders as to the GIs who famously raised the US flag atop Mount Suribachi.
Eastwood released the two acclaimed films in the short span of just over a year. Not many 76-year-olds can conceive of that kind of success. But it’s not just the output; it’s also the distance that Eastwood has come. The action hero has transformed himself into an artist – a creator of stereotype-busting movies that provoke serious thought in audiences around the world. “The journey he’s made from his raffish beginnings is just astounding,” says film critic Richard Schickel.
So how did he get here? Did Dirty Harry take an anger-management class, perhaps? Eastwood bristles at the suggestion that he ever shared the shoot-’em-up instincts of his early movie characters. “I’m an actor playing a role,” he told biographer Douglas Thompson. “It’s a fantasy.”
Four decades ago, when peace and love were all the rage, Eastwood made his mark in A Fistful of Dollars, playing a hard-eyed, poncho-wearing drifter whose Colt .45 did most of his talking. Then came the ruthless San Francisco plain-clothes cop of the Dirty Harry movies, who favoured a .44 Magnum. But apparently in real life, Eastwood quite literally wouldn’t hurt a fly. “When we see a bug at our house,” his wife Dina has said, “we coax it out the window.”
Other aspects of his personality are more in line with his screen persona. What audiences love about Eastwood is that he embodies a certain ideal of manhood: quietly confident, stubbornly independent, street-smart, self-amused and – even in his darkest roles – essentially decent.
“That humanness comes through in all his work, both as a director and an actor,” says Gene Hackman, who first paired with him in Unforgiven (1992).
Like the protagonists of many of his films, Eastwood also possesses a relentless urge to claim new territory. “I was always reaching out for something different,” he told one interviewer. “Half the fun of making a movie is doing something that’s outside your experience.”
In an industry based on illusion, Eastwood has risen to Hollywood’s zenith largely by daring to be himself.
The long ride
The classic Eastwood character – detective or desperado, boxing coach or soldier – is a blend of dependable professional and intractable wanderer. That mix has roots in Eastwood’s own life. During the Depression, his father, a bond salesman, travelled between Washington State and California pursuing jobs that never seemed to last. Clint attended at least half a dozen schools and excelled at none of them. (Had he been a kid today, he has said, he might have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.) He wore a leather jacket, tinkered with cars and hung out with a tough crowd. Still, he learnt to value hard work as a source of pride, security and self-sufficiency. He packed groceries and delivered newspapers, worked as a logger and a steelworker, fought forest fires and dug swimming pools. A jazz fanatic, he taught himself piano and played for pizza and tips at a bar.
Drafted into the army during the Korean War, Eastwood did a stint at Fort Ord, south of San Francisco, where his fellow soldiers suggested that with looks like his, he really ought to try out for the movies. After enrolling at Los Angeles City College, he did. His chiselled cheekbones and 1.9m frame won him bit parts in Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula and a film starring Francis the Talking Mule, but soon he was back to digging pools. Then in 1959 he landed the part of Rowdy Yates, sidekick to the trail boss, in a new TV western series called Rawhide. He held on to the role for seven years.
The legend begins
Eastwood’s ambitious side, though, grew frustrated with the show’s constraints. (In private he described his character as “Rowdy Yates, idiot of the plains”.) In 1964, during a break in production, he found an escape route: the lead role in a low-budget cowboy movie, filmed in Spain by an iconoclastic Italian named Sergio Leone. Surreal, visually innovative and with minimal dialogue, A Fistful of Dollars featured Eastwood as the mysterious gunman who plays two criminal gangs off each other. The film became a smash hit in Europe, and he quickly shot two sequels with Leone. A new genre was born: the spaghetti western. The success of these films allowed Eastwood to quit his day job.
But he was not about to trade one trap for another. After a few more turns as an actor (Hang ’Em High, Coogan’s Bluff), he moved into the director’s chair. His debut, 1971’s Play Misty for Me, was a radical departure from his earlier films – the complex story of a womanising disc jockey stalked by a psychopathic female fan. He alternated such experimental work with crowd-pleasing fare, including the comedy Every Which Way But Loose , in which he shared top billing with an orangutan named Clyde.