Clint Eastwood: Misunderstood master or machista?
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Less is more.
Despite the generally respectful reviews of Invictus, when this year’s Academy Awards are announced on March 7, Clint Eastwood will not be marching up to the podium.
He’s not even nominated in the best director category, which looks like a shoot-out between the former husband-wife team of Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and James Cameron (Avatar), though Morgan Freeman, who plays Nelson Mandela in the biopic, and Matt Damon, who portrays the captain of the Springbok soccer team whose win Mandela used to help solidify post-apartheid South Africa, are under consideration for best actor and best supporting actor, respectively.
While another Oscar might be nice to refurbish Clint’s well-appointed Carmel Valley spread, at this point, it’s an honor that seems irrelevant given the breadth, scope and depth of his remarkable career.
In fact, the case could be made that at the ripe old age of 79, Clint is the greatest – and almost certainly the least pretentious – director of our time.
Let’s take a look at the record, and the competition.
While Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg generally get the kind of accolades and reverence Eastwood has been denied, the truth is that their careers have been in varying degrees of decline for some time.
While no single work, with the possible exception of Unforgiven, has put him in the pantheon of The Godfather, Mean Streets or E.T., Eastwood’s workmanlike modesty, range and ability to subordinate larger-than-life cinematic effects to the demands of his subject matter have served him, and his audiences, well.
The reality is that Coppola has done nothing of remotely comparable value since his involvement with Mario Puzo’s saga, lo those many decades ago.
Spielberg’s most enjoyable movies were Jaws and E.T. and he has basically been dabbling in early elder statesman mode since making his obligatory bid for critical respectability with Schindler’s List.
Scorsese’s journey has been more complicated, but it’s hard to seriously argue that Good Fellas or Casino come close to matching Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. The Academy Award for The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, was more a lifetime achievement award than a serious argument that the movie will stand the test of time.
Long before Scorsese decided to adapt Dennis Lehane’s work in Shutter Island, recently released to almost universal critical disdain, Eastwood brought his low-key directorial skills in play, transferring Lehane’s Mystic River to the screen with masterful understatement, interweaving themes of child abuse, crime and class in blue-collar Boston with tracking shots that stand up to comparison with any of the screen masters – from John Ford to Hitchcock – and a rapport with his fellow actors that paid off in an Academy Award win for Sean Penn.
Ever since Eastwood’s directing debut, 1971’s Play Misty for Me, in which he played a Carmel-based DJ being stalked by a crazed admirer, he has seemed more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it.
After learning his trade in the television trenches of Rawhide and then watching, and learning, from mentors like Dirty Harry director Don Siegel, he’s eschewed special effects for narrative, swapped operatic excess for character, and traded the lean, stripped-down literary style of Million Dollar Baby for the clownish overstatements of one-time wunderkinds like Quentin Tarantino.
The February release of a new DVD boxed set, Clint Eastwood: 35 Films 35 Years at Warner Bros, provides a neat bookend to the remarkable accomplishments of a career which seems far from over. (He’s just wrapped The Hereafter, billed as a “supernatural thriller” penned by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon.) The guy just can’t stop working, apparently.
It’s a long way from the critical contumely heaped on after the the release of Dirty Harry (1971), which the late New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael famously described as “fascist medievalism… (a) right-wing fantasy [that is] a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values.” (Despite her political objections, Kael, who had a love-hate relationship with screen violence, championing the works of Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill, reluctantly conceded that the film was “trim, brutal, and exciting.”)
For his part, Eastwood has more than paid his dues.
Inspired more, he has said, by Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart than macho Hollywood forebears like John Wayne and Gary Cooper (the resemblance to the latter ends in the fact that they’re both laconic), his on-screen style has more in common with the late career performances of Paul Newman in movies like The Verdict, Nobody’s Fool and The Color of Money than anything that approaches the Eighth Deadly Sin: Overacting.
His biographer, Richard Schickel, has accurately described his later work as post-modern – no explanations, no speeches – an attempt to take life on its own terms, given more weight, as the decades pass, of the wisdom of life experience.
Walt Kowalski, the grizzled retired Michigan autoworker he portrays in Gran Torino, is as convincing when he’s snarling at his yuppie son and daughter-in-law’s attempts to get him to move into a retirement home as when he’s upset about the Laotian immigrants moving into his neighborhood. The honesty of the performance, and the script, make it that much more convincing when Kowalski finds a way to accept, and even befriend, his new neighbors and changed circumstances.
As safecracker Luther Whitney in Absolute Power, entertainingly lightweight fare about a jewel thief who accidentally witnesses a president’s cover-up of the murder of his mistress, Eastwood’s most absorbing moments come in his subtle portrayal of attempts to re-establish rapport with a long-estranged daughter.
At its heart, Million Dollar Baby is not a boxing movie – a genre that’s been done more directly in Fat City, The Harder They Fall and Raging Bull – but a portrait of the bond between Frankie Dunn, the burnt-out trainer Eastwood portrays, and Hillary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald, the up-and-comer he takes under his wing as they separately attempt to repair the gaps in their own dysfunctional families. Adapted by Paul Haggis from F.X. Toole’s little-heralded collection of short stories, it’s an example, like Unforgiven – which Eastwood shot word for word from David Webb People’s spot-on script after fiddling with it for awhile, then realizing the original was better than any of his “improvements” – of his respect for the written word.
His range of subjects have ranged from the well-received (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Pale Rider) to the critically praised, little-seen White Hunter, Black Heart, a hard-edged adaptation of Peter Viertel’s roman a clef about the director John Huston, and experiments like Bird, his passionate if overlong tribute to the life of Charlie Parker.
Like Huston, he has successfully mixed commercial fare with more experimental works.
The clout he commands has allowed him the freedom to make critically praised, if little-seen works like Flags of Our Fathers and Sands of Iwo Jima, which told the story of the famed World War II battle from the viewpoints of both the Americans and the Japanese.
Behind the scenes, the longtime jazz aficionado, whose passion for the form was nurtured during his days stationed at Fort Ord, has also been responsible for insuring that the financing was available for Round Midnight, Bertrand Tavernier’s film starring tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and co-producing Straight, No Chaser, a documentary about the life of Thelonious Monk.
He remains a fixture on the local scene, personally recruiting finds like up-and-coming pianist/vocalist Jamie Cullum, who sang the theme for Gran Torino, to the Monterey Jazz Festival. He also helps steer the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and is co-owner of Pebble Beach Company.
And just last week, he was named one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts, along with Bob Dylan, Maya Lin, Michael Tilson Thomas and other notables.
But what of Eastwood the man?
Rooting out the truth on someone whose career has become so mythically embellished by the press, and enhanced by his own studiously cultivated reserve, is probably impossible.
Reading Clint Eastwood – A Biography, Schickel’s authorized – and almost completely sanitized – account of his life, and Patrick McGilligan’s 1996 expose Clint – The Life and Legend is like entering parallel universes. (Yet another cut-and-paste biography, American Rebel by Marc Eliot, who did not attempt to contact Eastwood in the course of his research, has just been published, adding little or nothing to the genre.)
Which biographer is right? Damned if I know.
Whatever you think of Eastwood’s personal life, or of his political views, it’s ultimately irrelevant to his achievements as a filmmaker in the last 50 years.
He was philosophical with one interviewer about not being nominated in the best director category this year.
“Look, I’ve been around a long time, and probably they should give somebody else a look,” he said.
“I don’t think too much about that stuff,” he allowed, adding, in a perhaps unconscious paraphrase of his famed Dirty Harry line: “I didn’t think about it then [with Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby]. I just got lucky.”