Eastwood, Clint (1930—)

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Eastwood, Clint (1930—)

In the course of a career that, by the late 1990s, had spanned almost half-a-century, Clint Eastwood rose from obscure bit-part movie actor to America's number one box-office star, became a producer for his own highly successful company, Malpaso, and established himself as a film director of some accomplishment. He is often compared with Gary Cooper—both men have been frequently and accurately identified as long, lean, and laconic—but Eastwood's dark good looks and granite-like persona, often self-mocking under a cloak of grim impassivity, are very different from the earlier icon whose career ended as Eastwood's began.

Eastwood's own iconic associations are, most famously, the cheroot-chewing Man With No Name, poncho-clad, unkempt, and unshaven as he goes about his bloody business; he is also Harry Callahan, dark avenger of the San Francisco police force, clean-cut and neatly suited as he goes about even bloodier business. His true significance in the history of Hollywood filmmaking, however, attaches to the fact that, as both director and actor, he breathed new life into a dying American art form, the Western. Finally, with Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood subverted the myth of this historic canon, inverting his own practiced characterization to transmit a moral message for a modern age. His now reluctant avenging gunslinger was Harry Callahan or, more appropriately, Josey Wales, grown weary of violence—a capitulation that, perhaps, paved the way for Frank Horrigan protecting the American president (In the Line of Fire, 1993) or, further expanding his range, Robert Kincaid surrendering to a woman's love (The Bridges of Madison County, 1995).

Born in San Francisco on May 31, 1930, Clinton Eastwood Jr. passed an itinerant, Depression-hit childhood with schooling to match. After high school, he earned his keep variously logging wood, stoking furnaces, and pumping gas before joining the army for four years, where he coached athletics and swimming. Subsequently, he briefly attended Los Angeles City College, where he met his first wife, Maggie Johnson (the mother of his actress daughter, Alison). In 1955, on the strength of his looks and physique, Eastwood was signed to a $75-a-week contract—dropped after eighteen months—by Universal Studios, one of a standard, low-paid intake of good-looking men whose screen potential studios neglected to nurture. For four years he passed unnoticed in a string of parts, ranging from tiny to small, in ten or so largely forgotten films beginning with Revenge of the Creature (1955), ending with Lafayette Escadrille (1958) and taking in along the way the Rock Hudson vehicle Never Say Goodbye (1956) and his first (and some say worst) excursion into cowboy territory, Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958).

During this time, Eastwood supplemented his income with odd jobs until he was cast in a new TV Western series of uncertain future. In the event, Rawhide ran for eight seasons from 1959-1966 and Rowdy Yates, played by Eastwood, became a familiar figure to followers of the series. More importantly, he was noticed by the Italian director Sergio Leone, offered a part in Italy, and found himself launched as The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars/Per un Pugno di Dollari (1964). The film emerged from a genre newly popular in Italy during the 1960s that mined the ore of American cowboy films in a peculiarly bloody way and came to be known as spaghetti Westerns. A Fistful of Dollars, given a facelift by the presence of an American actor-hero and Leone's particular facility with celluloid violence, was astonishingly successful and two sequels—For a Few Dollars More / Per Qualche Dollari in piu and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly / Il Buono il Brutto il Cattivo —both starring Eastwood, followed in 1966 and 1967, bringing Leone a fortune and an invitation to Hollywood and catapulting Clint Eastwood to international stardom.

The first two of the Leone trilogy were released in America in 1967; the third followed a year later. The silent, detached, gun-comfortable bounty hunter of the films returned to America, set up his Malpaso production company and, in a lucrative deal with United Artists, relaunched himself on home soil with Hang 'em High (1968), an unashamed attempt to emulate the noisy gore of his Italian vehicles, in which the newly-minted star, saved from a lynching and appointed as a deputy sheriff, grimly sets out to take revenge on nine men. The film was slick, violent, and not particularly good but, coinciding as it did with the popularity of the spaghetti Westerns, it established Eastwood with the cinema-going public and, indeed, with hindsight, one detects the first seeds of the avenging angel—or devil—which would come to mark his more serious and ambitious mid-period Westerns.

When the box-office top ten list was issued in 1968, the cowboy star was in at number five, having begun his association with director Don Siegel in Coogan's Bluff (1968). This "urban Western" let Eastwood loose in Manhattan as an Arizona sheriff whose methods clash with those of Lee J. Cobb's city detective. It was an explosive crime melodrama with Eastwood seen, for the first time, in modern clothes and minus his hat. Attempts to broaden his range in 1969 took him to World War II in Where Eagles Dare and back to the Gold Rush days in the musical Paint Your Wagon. The first was a soldiering potboiler, the second a visually attractive failure, but neither dented his popular image. He retained his number five position and, by 1970, after the crude war film Kelly's Heroes and Two Mules for Sister Sara, in which he reverted to cowboy hat and five o'clock shadow to play a taciturn mercenary protecting a supposed nun (Shirley MacLaine) from rapists, he rose to number two.

Nineteen seventy-one was a key year in Eastwood's career. Displaying the business acumen and Midas touch that would in time make many millions of dollars for Malpaso, he rejoined director Don Siegel for Dirty Harry, bringing to the disillusioned Harry Callahan the same implacable qualities that had been displayed in his cowboy roles. The film is uncompromisingly brutal and raised questions in certain quarters as to its morality, perceived by some as favoring the vigilante methods of the ultra-conservative Right. A closer look confirms that it is, rather, a protest against messy loopholes in law enforcement. The moral message or otherwise aside, however, the film was monumentally successful, catering to audiences' taste for psychopathic serial killers and tough anti-heroes, and was followed by four increasingly formulaic and cynical sequels over the next 16 years.

More importantly for the long term, 1971 brought Eastwood's directing debut, Play Misty for Me. As he would continue to do in all but a couple of his self-directed films, he cast himself in the lead, here as a radio disc jockey who becomes the obsessive object of a murderously psychotic fan's infatuation. The film demonstrated that he had learned much from Siegel—it was taut, tense, entertaining, and very beautifully photographed in Carmel and Monterey. From 1971 to 1998, Clint Eastwood made 31 feature films, directing 18 of them and producing several. While bent, successfully, on proving he was not just a pretty face and a fine figure of a man, he veered alarmingly between the ambitious, the worthwhile, and the purely commercial. In the last category his intelligent judgment sometimes faltered, badly with the nonsensical tedium of The Eiger Sanction (1975); and although his screen presence only grew more charismatic with age—the body startlingly well-preserved, the seamed face topped by graying hair increasingly handsome—he made a number of films that were essentially worthless retreads of familiar ground (e.g. The Gauntlet, 1977, City Heat, 1994, The Rookie, 1990, and A Perfect World, 1993, in all of which he played cops of one sort or another).

At the same time, he experimented, not always successfully, with material that, in the context of his recognized oeuvre, was distinctly off the wall as in Every Which Way but Loose (1978), in which he crossed the country accompanied by an orangutan won in a bet. There was, however, a wistful sweetness about the small-scale Honkytonk Man (1982), in which he directed himself as an aging alcoholic country singer and allowed himself to play guitar and sing to touching effect.

During the 1980s, Eastwood the actor retained his superstar status, undamaged by the tabloid headline-making scandal of his affair with actress Sondra Locke, for whom he left his wife of 27 years. Indeed, he seemed to rise above gossip and escape mockery, despite court cases—Locke sued him, he sued the National Enquirer —and a liaison with actress Frances Fisher that produced a child, only for him to leave and marry Dina Ruiz in 1986, becoming a father for the fourth time. Eastwood the director, meanwhile, his best work yet to come, was held in increasing esteem by his peers, who acknowledged his unshowy professionalism. As early as 1980 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective of his films; in 1985 he was given a retrospective at the elite Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and made a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government. From 1986-1988 he served as the elected mayor of his beloved Carmel, where Malpaso is based. Also during the decade, he made Pale Rider (1985) which, with High Plains Drifter (1972) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), form a trio of classic Westerns, spare in execution against an epic landscape, in all of which the actor played the mysterious loner pitting himself against dark forces and giving no quarter.

Long a jazz aficionado (he played jazz piano in In the Line of Fire), in 1988 Eastwood made, as director only, Bird, a biopic of Charlie Parker (played by Forest Whitaker). Somewhat restrained and over-long—a recurring weakness of his more ambitious films—it was nevertheless lovingly crafted and raised his status as a serious director. He had his failures, too: the public did not respond to White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), an interesting faction about the making of The African Queen, while he was unable to find the key to capturing on film John Berendt's enthralling Savannah odyssey, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).

As the first century of the Hollywood film approached its end, Clint Eastwood had, however, earned universal respect and admiration for his achievements. The holder of four Academy Awards (including Best picture and Director) for Unforgiven, and presenting himself in public with gravitas and impeccably groomed dignity, he had become the elder statesman of the industry's creative arm, a position that was, as David Thomson put it, "rendered fitting by his majesty."

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Locke, Sondra. The Good, The Bad and the Very Ugly: A Hollywood Journey. New York, William Morrow, 1997.

Schickel, Richard. Clint Eastwood: A Biography. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Thompson, Douglas. Clint Eastwood, Sexual Cowboy. London, Smith Griffin, 1992.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1994.

Zmijewsky, Boris, and Lee Pfeiffer. The Films of Clint Eastwood. New York, Citadel Press, 1993.