Clint Eastwood will not be put to pasture.
Clint Eastwood turns 91 today, and it’s worth noting that he’s still producing work at a faster rate and of higher quality than almost anyone else in the industry. Granted, more isn’t always better, and it can be aggravating to see his followers hail each new picture as a new masterpiece when only a small percentage of them genuinely deserve it. But consider that he has given us 17 pictures since the turn of the century, including “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and “American Sniper” (the latter earned more than half a billion dollars, baby).
Eastwood made his directorial debut in “Play Misty for Me” five decades ago this year, and for a time, he was dismissed as one of those “actors who directs” — a dismissive label typically slapped on dilettantes who did the job only once, such as Marlon Brando (with “One-Eyed Jacks”) or Steven Seagal (“On Deadly Ground”).
But now, with 39 films under his belt — including Clint’s upcoming “Cry Macho,” a grizzled-cowboy-makes-good epic in which he also stars — the public has finally accepted Eastwood as a filmmaker first and actor second. Early on, press agent Pierre Rissient and other Paris-based allies insisted on recognising Eastwood as an auteur, which helped. Five of Eastwood’s works have been nominated for the Cannes Film Festival, including “White Hunger Black Heart,” in which he played a largely fictionalised version of John Huston, another “actor who directs” — and who did his greatest work behind the camera.
Eastwood, like Huston, defies categorization, having dabbled in a variety of genres, including action (you can see Don Siegel’s influence in “Sudden Impact”), romance (“The Bridges of Madison County”), war (“The Flags of Our Fathers”), musical (“Jersey Boys”), and, of course, Westerns. Apart from his “shoot first, ask questions later” Dirty Harry persona from the 1970s and 1980s, Eastwood is best associated with the Western genre, having effectively supplanted the old tradition of a pleasant, white-hat hero with a stoic, quiet persona with uncertain motives.
When he shot “A Fistful of Dollars,” the 1964 spaghetti Western that effectively made him a star, the actor was already 34 and had crow’s feet. When Eastwood’s Man With No Name squinted in that film, the skin around his eyes crumpled like leather, emphasising the notion that he wasn’t some twenty-something upstart receiving a break, but a man whose rough visage disguised a certain life experience. Rugged yet gorgeous, since Eastwood’s unmistakable beauty was also a factor — and the same one that “Dirty Harry” director Siegel used in Civil War melodrama “The Beguiled,” driving a house full of Southern females to fall over this wounded Union Army stud.
Early on, Eastwood didn’t have the same level of control over his films as we do now, which could explain an apparently bizarre outlier like “Every Which Way but Loose,” yet the orangutan buddy film was his largest box office hit, so it couldn’t have been a bad choice. Overall, Eastwood has carved out one of the clearest and most memorable cinematic identities of his generation through his choices. It also helps that he rarely appears in other directors’ films (his most recent appearance was in Robert Lorenz’s “The Trouble With the Curve”), allowing him to develop his own brand. Even his off-screen gaffes, such as the 2012 RNC convention scene in which he addressed an empty chair, felt like a logical continuation of the grumpy “Get off my lawn!” character he’d been creating in films.
“Unforgiven,” Eastwood’s most enduring film as both director and performer, makes particularly good use of the actor’s “baggage,” brilliantly deconstructing the image he’d constructed over the course of his career, all the way back to his Rowdy Yates character on the “Rawhide” TV series. That more nuanced recasting of the eager enforcer role first appeared in Eastwood’s trilogy with Sergio Leone, and became even grittier in “High Plains Drifter” and “Pale Rider,” before being completely inverted in “Unforgiven.” With that effort, Eastwood urged us to consider revenge intentions and the morality of individuals who use violence to solve problems, knowing we’d be pulling for him.
Unlike Leone, who took his filming style to self-aware extremes — dramatic angles, extreme close-ups, and music cues that threaten to overshadow the action — Eastwood has resisted this trend in his own approach. He supports the “less is more” concept as both a director and a star, and his style rarely draws attention to itself. He’s known for refusing to do numerous takes or shoot for long periods of time, instead committing to nearly any performance his actors give — which works well when dealing with professionals, but not so well when working with children (“Changeling”) or non-professionals (“The 15:17 to Paris”). He’s also not picky about screenplays, which is a shame because a few of his best-known films could have been so much better if their authors had put in more effort up front.
Personally, I like “A Perfect World,” the follow-up to “Unforgiven,” a 1960s-set crime thriller with a conscience in which Kevin Costner’s escaped prisoner character kidnaps a young Jehovah’s Witness and leads her on a cross-country chase. And, despite its critics, I believe “Mystic River” is Eastwood’s best picture of the century: a devastating, noir-toned look at the American Dream turned upside-down. That film, like the Dennis Lehane novel that inspired it, acknowledges the great effort that working-class parents put in to give their children a better life while also confronting the chaos that comes when someone breaks that chain of hope by injuring or killing a kid. It’s a Greek tragedy reimagined for Boston’s streets.
After a certain age, a lot of filmmakers lose their touch. That’s why Quentin Tarantino has said he’ll stop making movies after his tenth, fearing he won’t be able to maintain the quality over time. But, like a gunslinger with an apparently infinite supply of ammunition, Eastwood isn’t going anywhere, and he’s still shooting after all these years.