Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.
Clint Eastwood’s greatest quality may well be his unfailing certainty that he can do whatever he wants. There’s a stoic confidence to the man that’s unbending—it’s not cockiness so much as courage and curiosity and “Sure, why not?” Whether as a star or a director, Eastwood has demonstrated the possibilities that exist when an artist just decides to keep trying new things, no matter how far afield they may seem. In his work, he’s rugged and sentimental, but he’s not pretentious. Even his bad movies are enlivened by his granite-like will, his belief that if he’s interested in making the film, maybe someone out there might be interested in seeing it.
Born in May 1930, Eastwood grew up during the Great Depression. (“I was raised during those dark years” was how he put it to interviewer Michael Henry Wilson in 1984.) His family moved around California, finally landing in Piedmont around the time he was 10. Growing up, he dabbled in piano, and he took disparate jobs like lifeguard and lumberjack. But in 1951, he was drafted into the Army, landing at a base in Central California. During his time in the military, he almost died—but not in the line of duty. He was flying back to the base after seeing his parents in Seattle, and the plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
“I saw a light shining on the shore,” he recalled in 2010, “and I was determined to swim as far as the beach to save myself—and share a beer with the people there.” According to Eastwood, that wasn’t his most frightening water experience. “I must have been four or five years old. One day in Southern California, my father took me out into the surf, and a wave knocked me off his shoulders. … I don’t remember much from that time in my life, but I do recall precisely the color of the water and the terrifying sensation of being swept away in the current.”
The terseness of those comments, flecked with the emotion of memories, is quintessential Eastwood: saying the bare minimum to get a point across, allowing no extraneous detail to get in the way. When he started acting for film, though, that simplicity was a detriment, relegating him to bit parts. “I was always the prison guard who brings the guy in to see the D.A.,” he told critic and journalist Rex Reed in 1971. Turning to TV didn’t change Eastwood’s fortunes: “[I] played a lot of motorcycle hoods and lab assistants, but all that time I never played anyone in a business suit.” The break came when he lucked into an audition for the Western series Rawhide, which launched in 1959 and ran for seven seasons. (“I was visiting a friend at CBS,” he said to Reed, “and an executive saw me drinking coffee in the cafeteria and came over and asked me to test. It was a fluke.”)
During his time on Rawhide, he was also cast in a Western by an Italian filmmaker named Sergio Leone. In the book Clint Eastwood: All-American Anti-Hero, Leone says this about why he hired the TV star for the role of the enigmatic gunslinger popularly known as “The Man With No Name”: “I looked at him and I didn’t see any character … just a physical figure.” But what could have been a backhanded compliment proved to be an asset in crafting an iconic onscreen presence.
Playing essentially the same character in three of Leone’s mid-’60s films (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Eastwood perfected a kind of taciturn cool that made other Western stars like John Wayne seem positively effusive by comparison. This was a grizzled, no-nonsense outsider perfectly in keeping with the social unrest sweeping America during the decade. The trilogy popularized the Spaghetti Western, launching Eastwood into a higher echelon of celebrity. It also demonstrated his storytelling smarts. According to Eastwood, Leone had wanted to create a sympathetic backstory to explain the gunslinger’s behavior, but the actor balked. “[I]t doesn’t matter where this guy comes from,” Eastwood recalled to film critic Richard Schickel in Clint Eastwood: A Biography. “We can leave it all in the audience’s imagination. We can just hint that there’s some little incident, some little parallel, and just kind of let the audience draw in the rest of the picture.” When that rationale failed to sway Leone, Eastwood appealed to the filmmaker’s artistic aspirations: “OK, Sergio, look. In a B movie we tell everybody everything. But in a real class-A movie we let the audience think.”
Eastwood’s Hollywood career was underway; he was the lead in American Westerns (Hang ’Em High) and war movies (Kelly’s Heroes). But perhaps just as important was his appearance in the famously terrible 1969 Western musical, Paint Your Wagon, which featured Eastwood as a singing gold prospector. As Schickel points out in Clint Eastwood: A Biography, the film’s absolute failure convinced the actor to be more hands-on when it came to his career path. He focused his energies on his production company, Malpaso, which still produces his films decades later, and on directing. “If these guys can blow this kind of dough and nobody cares about it,” Eastwood once said of Hollywood, “why not take a shot at it, and at least if I screw up I can say, well, OK, I screwed up, and take the blame on it.”
Eastwood still acted—his second great franchise launched in 1971 with Dirty Harry—but that same year, he made his directorial debut on Play Misty for Me, where he played a disc jockey stalked by an illicit lover (Jessica Walter) who proves to be unstable. “It’s got a lot of action and suspense, and I used a small crew and a low budget of only $800,000,” he told Reed before the film’s release, “but I think I got more than $800,000 on the screen.” Those have been his marching orders as a filmmaker ever since: no-nonsense productions delivered efficiently, on budget and on time, without a lot of shooting or revisions to the script. (Paul Haggis, who went on to win an Oscar for his Million Dollar Baby adapted screenplay, later marveled, “ He shot my first draft. We were really stunned that there wasn’t one blue page, one pink page; it was an all white script.”)
Still, audiences associated Eastwood with his onscreen roles: The Man With No Name, Harry Callahan, that guy who hung out with an orangutan in Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can. “Every advisor I had said, ‘Don’t do the orangutan movie. Don’t do Every Which Way But Loose. You can’t do this. This is not you,’” Eastwood mentioned to writer Tony Macklin in 2005. “I said, ‘Nothing’s me. I’m just plain.’ I said, ‘There’s something hip about a guy who tells his troubles to an orangutan, loses the girl, goes on and loses the fight.’ There was something kind of strangely hip about it at that time. And those films with the orangutan were successful from an audience point of view. For me, it was reaching out to a younger generation—a generation of kids who couldn’t go to R-rated detective dramas. So it offered a way of keeping and expanding the audience.”
But his greatest acclaim—both as an actor and filmmaker—started to come in the early ’90s, even if its origins stretched back almost two decades. In the mid-’70s, Eastwood optioned a script for a Western called The Cut-Whore Killings, about an aging killer who goes out for one more job to support his children. Eastwood didn’t sit on it because he wanted rewrites: He was waiting to be old enough to play the killer, William Munny. (In fact, the screenplay, written by David Webb Peoples, hardly changed from the page to the screen.) The film became Unforgiven, winning four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. (He was also up for Best Actor, the first time he’d ever been nominated for his acting.) A condemnation of violence and a sober rebuke to the romanticism usually associated with the Western, Unforgiven couldn’t help but be seen as Eastwood’s response to (and maybe even apology for) Harry Callahan’s vigilante justice and the swaggering cool of those Spaghetti Westerns. In the process, Unforgiven also ushered in a new era for Eastwood, that of a Major Filmmaker. (Not that he stopped doing star turns: He’s such fun in 1993’s In the Line of Fire as a haunted veteran secret service agent in pursuit of John Malkovich’s would-be presidential assassin.)
This does not mean that Eastwood entirely bought into the hype of being a Major Filmmaker. Someone self-conscious about his legacy probably wouldn’t have dared to do a sincere adaptation of the mawkish romantic novel, The Bridges of Madison County, or something as goofy as the seniors-in-space movie, Space Cowboys. Some of his films were critically lauded; some were Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. “For my part, I trust my instinct, and I make the films that I believe in,” Eastwood said in 1984. “If the public follows me, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, c’est la vie.”
A second wave of accolades followed the release of Mystic River, his 2003 crime drama that won Oscars for Tim Robbins (Best Supporting Actor) and Sean Penn (Best Actor). About a year later, he was wrapping up Million Dollar Baby, another Best Picture and Best Director winner. (Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank also won statuettes.) These are superb, affecting films, but they’ve somewhat overshadowed the work he’s done since. Flags of Our Fathers is a different kind of World War II movie, asking how we idolize soldiers so as to exploit their heroism for our own purposes. Its counterpoint, Letters From Iwo Jima, examines that same war from the Japanese perspective, resulting in a film of nightmarish austerity and grandeur. Even his somewhat maligned follow-ups are strong—in danger of being underrated, actually. Changeling is a quietly emotional period film that gave Angelina Jolie her finest role, Eastwood delivering an unabashed melodrama with precision. Invictus, Hereafter and J. Edgar are imperfect but resonant dramas that find Eastwood continuing to explore different terrain. Not unlike Woody Allen, his best films nowadays are the ones in which he doesn’t star. The public didn’t agree with that assessment, however: The ham-fisted Gran Torino was his biggest commercial hit, Dirty Harry as grumpy old man.
He’s still doing whatever he wants—and not just as a filmmaker. Perhaps his most famous contribution to popular culture in recent times was his bizarre, off-the-cuff performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention in which he came on stage with a chair, addressing it as if President Barack Obama was sitting there. The Internet made great fun of his awkward, impromptu banter for days. He didn’t care. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to come up with something different,’” remembered Eastwood, who had grown tired of hearing the same gushingly positive speeches all night about Republican nominee Mitt Romney. “So I just started working on it backstage. Then they were calling my name, and I said, ‘Just give me a chair.’ Some people loved it.”
His latest film, an adaptation of the hit musical Jersey Boys, shows that he remains committed to the unexpected left turn. And who can stop him? When he was 74, Eastwood related a story to an interviewer. “A friend of mine, a man in his 70s, says, ‘You know the great thing about being in your 70s? What can they do to you?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, there’s something to be said for that. What have you got to lose?’”
He then quoted a line from the song “Me and Bobby McGee”: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
“That’s a wonderful lyric,” Eastwood said. As usual, he didn’t need to say anything else.
(Note: Several quotes in this appreciation are taken from Clint Eastwood: Interviews, Revised and Updated. For Eastwood fans, it’s a book well worth owning.)
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.