Comparing Clint Eastwood to his contemporaries, Jonathan Heaf astutely observes in the March 2010 issue of British GQ, “Paul Newman was always too smooth, Marlon Brando too pretty; Steve McQueen too much of a hothead,” but “there is a stylish nonchalance about Eastwood; he drives home fervour [sic] and conviction without so much as flickering a smouldering [sic] cheroot from one corner of his mouth to the other” (100). Robert Redford, if I may add, was too untroubled.
Eastwood was an infant in the 1930s, a young man during the late 40s, and an indisputable movie star by the 70s. Having worked as both actor and director for Warner Brothers for thirty-five years, Eastwood has collaborated with great talents such as Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Hal Holbrook, Blake Edwards, Burt Reynolds, Rip Torn, Madeline Kahn, Bernadette Peters, Raul Julia, Tom Skerritt, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Scott Glenn, Kevin Spacey, James Woods, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, Anjelica Huston, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Laurence Fishburne, and Hilary Swank.
When I initially decided to write an article about Clint Eastwood in celebration of his 80th birthday, which also coincides with Memorial Day 2010, I had planned to incorporate biographical, historical, and thematic analyses of his body of work. After seeing “The Bridges of Madison County,” (Eastwood, 1995), “Dirty Harry” (Don Siegel, 1971), “A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964) and “Gran Torino” (Eastwood, 2008), though, I realized that any attempt to illustrate with the written word the man’s brilliance and significance would not do him sufficient justice. The proper and most satisfying way to appreciate his achievements is to watch his films.
Furthermore, the adage about being a man of few words fits Clint Eastwood’s onscreen presence. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, he is profound. My hope is that in sharing with you my impressions, instead of densely packed summaries and praises, your own budding (or continuing) acquaintanceship with Eastwood’s contributions to filmmaking will be more personal.
Based on Robert James Waller’s bestselling novel, “The Bridges of Madison County” centers on a passionate and transcendant bond that forms between Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), an Italian housewife, and Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), a photographer sent by National Geographic magazine to take pictures of Iowa’s Roseman Bridge. “The Bridges of Madison County” asks if people can spend just four days together and develop such a connection that they’d want to and seriously consider leaving their already-settled lives to spend ever after together.
The film’s mesmerizing pulse lies not in the plot but in Eastwood and Streep’s performances. Roger Ebert writes in his review that “an awkward but friendly conversation leads to an offer of iced tea; then [Francesca] shyly asks [Robert] to stay for dinner.” I don’t think she’s doing it shyly. Streep’s acting suggests to me that she makes a cost-benefit analysis or asks on impulse. The ambiguity as to whether or not their characters are consciously aware of their mutual attraction creates a layer of sensual curiosity.
While Francesca and Robert are having dinner for the first time, he tells her, “I was more at home everywhere than just in one place, kind of like a citizen of the world…I’m a loner, I’m not a monk…You probably think of somebody like me as a poor, displaced soul who’s destined to wander the planet with not having a TV set or a self-cleaning oven.” Although this conversation reveals intellectual and philosophical differences between the two characters that reach a boiling point, Clint Eastwood is so tender and romantic in his demeanor, which is a contrast to Inspector 211, Harry Callahan.
Also known as Dirty Harry, Callahan is a detective with the San Francisco Police Department who prioritizes apprehending criminals over law and procedure. Made and set in the cultural, historical context of Vietnam, Watergate, and the emergence of the violent psychopath, “Dirty Harry” is critical of the kind of reasoning that would allow the rights of the accused to overshadow the rights of the victims. Were Detective Callahan portrayed by an actor other than Eastwood, the attitude of “screw civil rights when there’s a sniper, serial killer on the loose” would lose its deeper meaning: obsessive attention to administrative details is the enemy of the greater good when there is a serial killer to be stopped.
Why do people call Callahan Dirty Harry? Because he does every “dirty job,” which is one that could end very badly no matter what the police do. Harry knows what to do in these instances; he’s not afraid to damage public property or ask punks if they feel lucky. Siegel’s film was important because it addressed crucial social and political issues, but it was also a star-making transition for Eastwood’s career and persona from the Western to urban streets. David Denby remarks in his article “Out of the West: Clint Eastwood’s Shifting Landscape” (March 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker), that “An actor may work for years without becoming a star, as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart did throughout the nineteen-thirties. Then suddenly, looks, temperament, and role all come together…and the public sees the actor, sees what it desires. He becomes not only a star but a myth…What the public needed from Eastwood by the time of ‘Dirty Harry’ was both physical and, in a convoluted way, moral” (55).
Clint Eastwood had already been a part of thirty-some-odd film and TV productions by the time “Dirty Harry” was released. Seven years before Harry Callahan patrolled the streets of San Francisco with a Magnum. 44, Eastwood had strolled through and permanently altered a small desert town called San Miguel in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western, “A Fistful of Dollars.” Eastwood is a man with a horse, a pistol, and no set destination. He arrives in San Miguel, which is controlled by the gun-selling Baxters and the liquor-doling Rojos boys, and plays each gang off of the other in order to make a few bucks and right a couple of wrongs he witnesses along the way.
In addition to Ennio Morricone’s idiosyncratic musical score and the manner in which Leone reinterprets Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic “Yojimbo,” what I found especially memorable is what Ramon of the Rojos boys quips about Eastwood’s lone gunslinger: “When someone with that face works with his gun, you may count on two things: he’s fast on the trigger, but he’s also intelligent.” Eastwood’s character isn’t just quick and smart in the moment; he’s also careful and prepared. Therefore, as uncomfortable as it is to see the Rojos boys pummeling and bloodying him, you know that his pain is nothing he can’t handle.
Eastwood’s thirty-four year-old self in “A Fistful of Dollars” looked like it could take a mean beating without needing a long recovery period. What about his seventy-eight year-old “Gran Torino” self? In this socio-politically aware drama, Eastwood slips into the shoes of Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran who makes the most out of the numbered days he has left to live. Reluctantly at first and then urgently over time, Walt mentors his next-door neighbor Thao (Bee Vang), a Hmong teen whose cousin harasses him and tries repeatedly to pull him into a life of gang-banging.
“Gran Torino,” a reference to Walt’s treasured car, opens at Walt’s wife’s funeral service. Immediately the viewer learns that Walt is disconnected from his two sons and their families. They think their father is stuck in the mindset of the 50s; he cringes at the sight of his inappropriately dressed granddaughter. For better or for worse, Walt’s children are right about him. He is set in his ways and won’t amend them for anyone.
It’s unnerving in the beginning to see Eastwood speak like a curmudgeon. By no means feeble or cognitively unsteady, he coughs up blood and is unmistakably vulnerable to the wear-and-tear of aging. It’s hard to watch because it’s so convincing. A brief period of adjustment is required; Eastwood’s performance makes us believe and accept Walt’s behavior. The unfamiliar is normalized.
Stretching one’s comfort zone is not just an actor’s exercise. The viewer’s comfort is also affected by an actor’s choice to explore artistic horizons. An actor who has consistently played a villain may go good (or vice versa). Eastwood’s repertoire doesn’t call for protagonist-villain role-reversals, though. Expanding characterization for him entails varying back-stories confronted with different sets of decisions.
When I finished “Gran Torino” I kept turning in my mind the implications of Walt’s birthday scene. One of his sons and his wife come over with a cake, a “gopher” device and a phone with gigantic numbers on the keypad. The juxtaposition of Walt’s son and daughter-in-law ‘s perception of him with what the viewer knows to be true is both humorous and significant. It also enables the viewer to reconcile the initially discordant image of Eastwood playing the part of Walt and Eastwood the screen legend.
Actor, director, cultural icon, and fixture of post-war masculinity, the 20th and 21st centuries would be a very different place without Clint Eastwood’s voice, likeness, and corporeality.
Robert Kincaid’s photo run, Dirty Harry’s magnum, outlaw hero goes solo, and a widower like none.
Happy Birthday, Clint Eastwood.
Trailer for “The Bridges of Madison County”
Trailer for “Dirty Harry”
Trailer for “A Fistful of Dollars”
Trailer for “Gran Torino”