In his 24th film since <i>Play Misty for Me</i>, Clint Eastwood is still working on Hollywood’s longest second act.

Once and Future King:

There are things on the Warner Bros. lot older than Clint Eastwood. The earliest sound stages, for example, date back to 1926, when First National Pictures broke ground on some former alfalfa fields the studio had purchased from a dentist by the name of David Burbank. But by the time Jack Warner bought First National and, in 1930, moved his own fledgling studio from Hollywood to the Burbank property, a few hundred miles away in San Francisco, a newly-minted baby boy called Clinton Eastwood, Jr. was already taking his first breaths. Forty-five years later, a handshake deal would see Eastwood move his production company into a modest bungalow on a leafy corner of the Warner lot, and he’s been there ever since, as reliable as the studio’s famous water tower. The company is called Malpaso, after a creek located near Eastwood’s Carmel home, and it is here that I don’t find Eastwood on the early December afternoon he has chosen for our interview. “Clint’s running a few minutes late—he’s still at lunch,” I’m told by an assistant.

“Clint,” of course, isn’t exactly your average interview subject. The recipient of Oscars for directing and producing 1992’s Unforgiven, the subject of career tributes by both the American and British film institutes, and a top box-office draw for the better part of his 50-year career, he is as close as one can get nowadays to being movie-industry royalty, an emperor in khaki pants, golf shirt and Panama hat. He is also Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name, and over the years such formidable personages as Muhammad Ali and Israeli diplomat Abba Eban have reportedly been reduced to abject fandom in his presence. Yet, as you step through Malpaso’s elegantly woodcut double doors, it’s hard not to be struck by the informality of the place. Magazines about airplanes and exotic cars, and a few picture books of the Monterey Peninsula, adorn a coffee table in front of a too-cushiony sofa. Over in the corner, a pair of adjustable-weight dumbbells rest upon their rack. It looks as much the lair of the former mayor of Carmel as it does one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Undoubtedly, it’s a place Harry Callahan would find far too cozy for comfort.

Moments later, that familiar, sandpapery whisper can be heard emanating from an interior room. A few minutes after that, Eastwood appears—all 6 feet, 4 inches of him. As many have remarked, Eastwood looks exceptionally good for his age—the result, no doubt, of his famously strict diet and exercise regimens, coupled with the requisite good genes. His dad was, after all, a steelworker, and his mother, Ruth, is still going strong in her 90s. (She was—along with Eastwood’s wife, Dina Ruiz—her son’s date to the 2004 Oscar ceremony.) But it should also be noted (and it is hardly news to anyone who has seen his recent films) that Eastwood does look his age—a good, even great, 74 is 74 nonetheless—in an industry where the notion of growing old gracefully is anathema.

• • •

“Other than a belt sander, there’s nothing they can do for me,” Eastwood jokes as we adjourn to his private office. “Plastic surgery used to be a thing where older people would try to go into this dream world of being 28 years old again. But now, in Hollywood, even people at 28 are having work done. Society has made us believe you should look like an 18-year-old model all your life. But I figure I might as well just be what I am.”

Indeed, just being himself—or, rather, an exhausted, vulnerable version of himself—has become something of an Eastwood specialty in recent years, and if it seems nearly impossible to talk about Eastwood without his age becoming a focus of the discussion, that’s largely his own doing. From the poked and prodded, over-the-hill astronaut of Space Cowboys to the detective who undergoes emergency heart surgery in Blood Work, it’s hard to think of another movie star who has taken such sly pleasure in chipping away at his own aura of granite invincibility.

Long before Clint earned his first gray hairs and wrinkle lines, however, he seemed drawn to material with an air of fatalism to it. Twice in his career—in High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider—he has cast himself as a kind of ghost. But even when their characters have been mere mortals, Eastwood has shown an affinity for outsider types striving to uphold some nearly extinct way of life—from the frontier towns of the Old West to the tight-knit Irish-Catholic neighborhoods of present-day Boston. Thus it was possible, when watching Eastwood’s 1990 White Hunter, Black Heart, to wonder if the director felt closer to his subject, John Huston, or to the elephant that was the object of Huston’s obsessive pursuit—a majestic creature forgotten by time. Such themes are also central to Million Dollar Baby, the 25th film Eastwood has directed, and one of his very best. (It is also, for the record, the 57th film in which he has acted, the 21st he has produced, and the 10th for which this noted jazz aficionado has composed some or all of the original music.) Grizzled and gray, Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn is a Los Angeles fight trainer and “cut man” forever shadowboxing with the demons of his past. Somewhere, there is a grown daughter who, for reasons the movie never feels compelled to specify, Frankie hasn’t seen or talked to in years. His best fighters have a habit of leaving him for other managers just before they hit the big time. His only real friend is a similarly washed-up ex-boxer (Morgan Freeman) whose career was cut short when he lost the sight in his right eye to a knockout punch. And though Frankie has attended Mass every day for the last 23 years, doing so has stirred up more questions than answers. It’s perhaps the most emotionally and existentially complex character Eastwood—who once told Meryl Streep, “People don’t want to see me cry onscreen”—has played, even if it is a variant on a character he has played many times in the past: the hard man in the ill-fitting suit, the eternal range rider who can’t be domesticated. It’s a role that so sparked Eastwood’s interest, he momentarily scuttled thoughts he had been entertaining of retiring from screen acting.

“I saw it as a challenge,” Eastwood says. “It’s one thing to play a soldier who goes out shooting at people. It’s another thing to play a soldier who’s got some other dimension as to why he’s there in the first place, where he’s been in the past, and where he’s going. This role had that. And it’s very ambiguous at the end—you don’t know where he is, you don’t know where it all goes.

“Look, I’m not going to go remake Every Which Way But Loose as a 74-year-old man. What’s the advantage of maturing as a filmmaker if you don’t take advantage of it, do things you haven’t done before? I couldn’t have played Frankie Dunn as a 35-year-old guy.”

• • •

Adapted from the short-story collection Rope Burns, by the late F.X. Toole (the pen name of veteran fight trainer Jerry Boyd), Million Dollar Baby focuses on the relationship between Dunn and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, in a brilliant performance), a promising female fighter whose passion causes Frankie to grudgingly lift his embargo on training “girls.” As they work together, Frankie and Maggie engage in a sort of ethereal ballet, between a father and the daughter he’s never known, and between a daughter and the loving father who died too young. (Perhaps Eastwood is here playing a ghost for the third time.) But those expecting to find, in Million Dollar Baby, an estrogen-intensive variant of Rocky or The Karate Kid are sure to be disappointed. Though the movie’s boxing sequences, in which Eastwood strips the soundtrack of nearly all but the heart-shuddering thunder of the fighters’ punches, rank among the most searing that have been put on film. Like Toole’s stories, Million Dollar Baby is also thick with the sweaty, hardscrabble reality of smalltime boxing clubs and undercard bouts. It knows how boxers fight their hearts out before audiences of mostly empty chairs for purses that are barely enough to pay the month’s rent, as they yearn for a title bout that may never come. While there is triumph in Eastwood’s film, it is of the sort that comes at a high price.

It’s tough medicine, and Million Dollar Baby was a tough picture to get made, despite Eastwood’s clout and the combined critical and commercial success of last year’s Mystic River (six Oscar nominations, two wins; more than $150 million at the box office worldwide). Which, as Eastwood is quick to point out, is nothing new.

“I liked the Million Dollar Baby script a lot,” he says. “Warner Bros. said the project had been submitted to them and they’d passed on it. I said, ‘But I like it.’ They said, ‘Well, it’s a boxing movie.’ And I said, ‘It’s not a boxing movie in my opinion. It’s a father-daughter love story, and it’s a lot of other things besides a boxing movie.’ They hemmed and hawed and finally said that if I wanted to take it, maybe they’d pay for the domestic rights only. After that, I’d be on my own. (The rest of the funding was eventually secured through the international sales company Lakeshore Entertainment.) We took it to a couple of other studios, and they turned it down, much like Mystic River was turned down—the exact same pattern. People who kept calling and saying, ‘Come on, work with us on stuff.’ I’d give it to them, and they’d go, ‘Uh, we were thinking more in terms of Dirty Harry coming out of retirement.’ And who knows? Maybe when it comes out they’ll be proven right.”

In the introduction to Rope Burns, Toole writes about “the magic of winning and losing in a man’s game, where men will battle with their minds and bodies and hearts into and beyond exhaustion, past their second wind, through cracked ribs and swollen livers, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas.” He might just as soon have been talking about making movies.

“I think I’m on a track of doing pictures nobody wants to do, that they’re all afraid of,” chuckles Eastwood. “I guess it’s the era we live in, where they’re doing remakes of Dukes of Hazzard and other old television shows. I must say, I’m not a negative person, but sometimes I wonder what kind of movies people are going to be making 10 years from now if they follow this trajectory. When I grew up there was such a variety of movies being made. You could go see Sergeant York or Sitting Pretty or Sullivan’s Travels—dozens of pictures, not to mention all the great B movies. Now, they’re looking for whatever the last hit was. If it’s The Incredibles, they want The Double Incredibles. My theory is they ought to corral writers into writers’ buildings like they used to and start out with fresh material.”

• • •

Asked to pinpoint the appeal of Eastwood’s films, the noted French film critic, publicist and distributor Pierre Rissient, who has known Eastwood personally since the 1960s and has worked on the promotional campaigns for a number of his films, says, “It’s their classicism. His pictures stand the test of time because they don’t try to be trendy or modernist. He just makes the films in the tradition of the great storytellers of the ’30s and ’40s.”

Clint Eastwood is now something of a classic himself, a cultural icon as chiseled into our collective consciousness as any of the faces on Mount Rushmore. Yet such was not always the case. A $75-a-week contract player at Universal in the 1950s, Eastwood floundered in bit parts in pictures like Revenge of the Creature and Francis in the Navy. Then, in 1959, he landed a supporting role in the Rawhide television series, where he would remain until the show’s 1966 cancellation—excepting one summer production hiatus when Eastwood, frustrated by the one-dimensionality of his character on the show, made the impulsive decision that would lay the groundwork for the rest of his career. Not speaking a word of Italian, and for a salary of only $15,000, he boarded a plane to Rome to play the lead role in a “spaghetti Western” with the working title The Mysterious Stranger. That film, of course, turned out to be Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the international success of which (coupled with that of its two celebrated sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) helped give Eastwood a second shot in Hollywood pictures—one he wasn’t about to squander.

Director and former film critic Curtis Hanson has recalled how, upon paying a visit to the production of Coogan’s Bluff (1968)—the first of Eastwood’s five collaborations with director Don Siegel—he was struck by Eastwood’s habit of remaining on the set in between setups and even during the filming of scenes he wasn’t in. Already, just two years before forming Malpaso and three before directing (at Siegel’s urging) his own debut feature, Play Misty for Me, Clint was an eager student and a tireless observer. No matter a business that religiously favors the present moment, Clint seemed to be planning for the future, as though, well before employing it as the ad line for his 1988 Charlie Parker biopic, Bird, he already had in mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s epigram “There are no second acts in American lives.”

“At that stage of life, you don’t know what old is,” Eastwood says. “When I was starting to do Play Misty, I thought, ‘In a few years, when I’m 45, I’ll be old, because I’m 40 now.’ I had no idea I’d still be working at this age. Great guys who I admired—Billy Wilder, for example, nobody was hiring him in his late 60s, and here’s a man who lived to be 95! You never know, either you go out of touch with reality or people just get tired of hiring you, figure there’s some young, 25-year-old guy who can do it better. I think you’ve got to always expand on what you’re doing. You’ve got to stay open-minded.”

And so Eastwood has managed to stay one step ahead of his own best game. In 1971, the same year Clint directed Play Misty and teamed with Siegel for the first of the Dirty Harry movies, he and Siegel also took time out to make The Beguiled, a deeply unsettling Southern Gothic about a wounded Union soldier who is rescued by the residents of a girls’ boarding school, only to find himself the catalyst in a churning spiral of duplicity and desire. The film was a commercial failure in the US, but it was compelling evidence that Eastwood longed to break away from (or at least play improvisations on) his image as the strong, silent type—that, like Charlie Parker, he wasn’t about to be pigeonholed.

“Maybe that’s why I have an affinity for jazz,” Eastwood says. “I grew up watching all those guys who didn’t seem to give a crap about what the latest style was. Musicians were playing what they wanted to play, what they were challenged by. If they were playing what the audience wanted, they would have done something much simpler. I remember the first time I ever heard Charlie Parker, I thought, ‘God, I don’t know what he’s doing, but I want to understand it.’ So I made the effort.”

Critics were less than quick to catch on. “You don’t get embarrassed by anything Clint Eastwood does; he’s so hollow you don’t have to feel a thing,” wrote Pauline Kael in the 1970s, maintaining a position on Eastwood she had staked out early on and would hold for the duration of her career (and, for that matter, into her retirement). But audiences too tended to steer shy whenever Clint tried to show he could be more than the “block of marble” to which Sergio Leone once likened him.

Two of his best films as director—the lyrical dustbowl tragedy Honkytonk Man and the quixotic rodeo comedy Bronco Billy—remain obscure to this day. For his part, though, Eastwood has maintained an ambivalent stance on the subject of recognition. “I’ve got to play my own hand,” he says, “and if somebody else sees me—be it today or 30 years ago—as one presupposed thing, that’s their prerogative. I can’t do anything about that. The fact that the work is now taken seriously, maybe it took a while, maybe there are certain things I’ve done that were stupid. Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe they’ve changed. Hopefully, everybody grows, everybody changes, life goes on.”

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In truth, there had been an unacknowledged tenderness and humanity in Eastwood’s work even before some, particularly in European cinephile circles, began to take note. Helping in no small measure to turn the tide was Clint’s fourth feature as director, 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Set at the end of the Civil War, Josey Wales is a picaresque odyssey in which the eponymous farmer, devastated by the murder of his wife and child, journeys across America searching for revenge, but also for a larger sense of purpose. It is a great film, marked by a Fordian eye for Western landscapes and a real feeling for how people might come to feel betrayed and displaced within the borders of their own country, from Josey’s Cherokee sidekick to his Confederate traveling companions to the denizens of the divided, post-Vietnam nation into which the film was released.

• • •

In the ensuing years, Eastwood has developed a reputation as a professional of the first rank, prized for the efficiency of his production methods, the lucidity of his directorial style, the familial atmosphere of his sets—he has repeatedly worked with the same artistic collaborators, including 89-year-old production designer Henry Bumstead—and for his mentoring of new talent.

“I didn’t realize until much later that not only was he giving me this incredible trust and this absolutely unbelievable chance, but that I was learning from him,” says Michael Cimino, whose debut feature, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, starred Eastwood and was produced by Malpaso. “He’s a natural teacher, and he doesn’t second-guess himself. It’s a combination of encouragement and discipline. He would say to me, ‘Look, if you need 20 takes of something, I’ll give it to you, but if I do 20 takes, don’t print take number one.’ I learned economy from Clint. And despite the amount of footage that was shot on Heaven’s Gate—and there were a lot of reasons for that—almost all of my other movies have been ahead of schedule and under budget.”

If Eastwood’s own career has hardly been immune to critical and commercial disappointments (like 1997’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), it has likewise been remarkable for its generous ratio of risk to reward, in which personal projects like Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart—both of which reside at the dark, unsentimental extreme of films made by “bankable” directors—have been balanced against more mainstream fare. Meanwhile, time and again, Eastwood returned to the genre where he had sowed his acting oats, before putting an elegant capstone on traditional Western storytelling with Unforgiven, a movie that is itself an elegy for the end of the American West. But even before Unforgiven, Eastwood was already involved in telling another type of Western story—stories in which the frontier had moved from the wide-open spaces of yesteryear to the cramped environs of our modern times. Until, in Mystic River—the most revisionist take on frontier life Eastwood has yet made—the frontier has all but vanished, leaving behind only its self-preservationist psychology. And with these new Westerns came new cowboys, in the form of John Huston, Charlie Parker and Frankie Dunn.

In some ways as bleak and morally ambiguous a film as Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby is also Eastwood’s most emotionally overwhelming achievement since his 1993 road movie, A Perfect World, which was about fathers and sons in much the same way Million Dollar Baby is about fathers and daughters. A full-blown character piece, freed from the procedural plotting that sometimes grounded Mystic River, it throws extraordinary, blindsiding counterpunches of brutality and tenderness, boxing movie and family melodrama, navigating perilous shifts in tempo and tone with the effortlessness of a veteran jazz soloist.

“He doesn’t have to prove anything anymore,” says Rissient. “He doesn’t have to worry about his career as a star, and he can really focus on filmmaking. He has a freedom—not a freedom in terms of studio support, but a freedom with himself.”

Eastwood agrees: “There’s a friend of mine who always says, ‘When you’re 70, what can they do to you?’ There’s something to that.”

Put simply, Million Dollar Baby finds Eastwood “in the zone,” both in front of and behind the camera, up to and including a haunting final image that feels very much like it could, if he wanted it to, be Eastwood’s way of saying farewell not just to acting but to movies in general.

• • •

“Everything shrinks with age,” remarks one character midway through Heartbreak Ridge, Eastwood’s felicitous 1986 satire about the changing face of the US Marine Corps. Well, maybe not everything, unless you count an inch or so off the top of Eastwood’s imposing stature. At 74, he’s already older than Leone and Siegel were when they directed their last films, and just about the age Ford and Hawks were when they bowed out. He’s had his shot, and he’s done more than all right. But as Eastwood finds himself the subject of substantial Oscar buzz for Million Dollar Baby and already prepping his next project, about the six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, he seems poised to do anything but call it quits.

Looking out at me with his famously narrow eyes and twisted half-smile, Eastwood muses, “Will I ride off into the sunset? Maybe. Will I be dragged off kicking and screaming? Probably.”

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