From the man with no name to Oscar-winning legend, Clint Eastwood has done it all
By john lui
Just a year shy of his 80th birthday, Clint Eastwood has released two new films that should stir the pot of debate as to what makes a 'Clint Eastwood' film.
The pre-World War II crime mystery Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie as a single mother whose child is kidnapped, opens tomorrow. The suburban revenge potboiler Gran Torino, which the Oscar-winning legend stars in and directs, opens on Feb 19.
As an actor, he has been all over the map, from space (Space Cowboys, 2000), to hell (High Plains Drifter, 1973). He has played a philandering deejay (Play Misty For Me, 1971), an orang utan-loving trucker (Every Which Way But Loose, 1978) and a singing gold prospector (Paint Your Wagon, 1969).
But two roles cemented his name in cinema history: The Man With No Name (1964-1966) and Dirty Harry (1971-1988).
The cowboy epics of the 1960s were shot in Italy and Spain, home of the cheap and cheerful spaghetti western. Many were shot in the dry, rocky Spanish region of Andalusia, where the landscape resembles the American south-west.
It has been said that he failed to move on to bigger things in Hollywood because one studio executive took a look at the 1.93m-tall, lean actor and said: 'His Adam's apple is too big.'
Whether that anecdote is true or not, the fact remains that his work with Italian director Sergio Leone, backed by music from the incomparable Ennio Morricone, turned the B-grade gunslinger yarns into box-office hits in the United States.
Born in 1930 in San Francisco to a steel worker father and a factory-hand mother, the college dropout spent some years drifting around California working in blue-collar jobs before trying acting. His biggest break came as a do-gooder cowboy in the TV series Rawhide (1959-1966). His career stalled until the call from Leone.
The director contacted Eastwood because other tough-guy actors such as James Coburn had turned down the work, citing low pay and hard working conditions as reasons.
The Italo-westerns reflected the mood of the times. Gone were the black-hat, white-hat John Wayne-style attitudes. The Man With No Name was a selfish, violent anti-hero. The flapping poncho, stubble and slim cigar clamped between thin, determined lips came to be as recognisable around the world as Elvis Presley, as did the first four notes of Morricone's soundtrack for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.
In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, Eastwood said: 'People love westerns worldwide. There is something fantasy-like about an individual fighting the elements. Or even bad guys and the elements. It was a simpler time.'
Ironically, though few other men have looked as good with a cigarette or cigar, the man himself has never been a smoker.
As an actor, he would revisit the western in a string of well-received movies in the 1970s, such as High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).
These movies with their more liberal message - God-fearing conservative townspeople are not all good, Indians are not savages - stand in contrast to his right-wing slant of the same period, 'Dirty' Harry Callahan.
'Do ya feel lucky, punk?' and 'Go ahead, make my day' are among the most oft-recited movie catchphrases, thanks to the quintet of Dirty Harry movies - Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983) and The Dead Pool (1988).
Dirty Harry would spawn a genre - everyone from TV's Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis in The Shield, 2002-2008) to the movies' Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, 1987) can trace their lineage to Harry Callahan.
More than any other work, it created the public idea that Eastwood the man is a gun-toting man's man unhappy with the liberal drift his country has taken since the end of the Vietnam War.
While he is a Republican who supports presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he describes himself as more of a freedom-loving libertarian, not a values-driven conservative.
Culturally, he is very much a hipster with a love of jazz and the movies to prove it, such as the biopic of saxophonist Charlie 'Bird' Parker, Bird (1988). Eastwood also received composer credits for his recent directorial work such as Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Changeling.
In fact, Changeling received two Golden Globes nominations - for Angelina Jolie's performance in the Best Actress category and for Eastwood in the Best Original Score. As it turned out at the awards ceremony on Monday, neither won.
Love it or leave it
The winner of Best Score, rocker Bruce Springsteen (The Wrestler, 2008) quipped: 'This is the only time I am going to be in competition with Clint Eastwood. It feels pretty good.'
Eastwood's acting output has slowed down in recent years but his directing work has gained critical acclaim, if not always commercial success.
The wave of praise began in earnest with the cowboy ballad of sin and redemption, Unforgiven (1992), which won four Oscars, including Best Director for Eastwood and Best Picture.
He would win one more directing Oscar for yet another redemption story, the boxing fable Million Dollar Baby.
He told CNN recently: 'I just make the pictures and where they fall is where they fall. If somebody likes them, that is always nice. And if they do not like them, then too bad.'
As a director, he is known for his economy. He does not do multiple takes and actors and crew are often surprised to find themselves done by early evening.
'Everything I do as a director is based upon what I prefer as an actor,' he has said.
His technique is decidedly old-school. He does not employ jiggly handcams, fast, impressionistic cuts or fancy 'fly-around' perspectives. His shots are usually wide and still. He lets the audience decide where to look.
Despite his early roles, he is not an action director. He prefers dramas where characters drive the plot, not the other way around. In such films as Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, he is drawn to people who are forced to atone for earlier mistakes.
He is meticulous about locations, he wants them to be as richly developed as the actors themselves.
In the period drama Changeling, for example, his team scoured California for authentic-looking pre-war locales. A working streetcar was built for one scene.
In spite of his artistic and critical successes as a director of stories about people seeking redress in old age for the sins of their youth, there is apparently still a deep hankering for the tough-guy Eastwood in these credit-crunch times.
His role as Walt Kowalski, the laconic, grizzled Korean War veteran forced to become a one-man army against street gangs, has become a hit.
Gran Torino grossed US$30 million (S$44 million) in its opening weekend in the United States on Sunday, putting it in top place and making it his highest-ever opening as an actor or a director.
Put a gun in his hands, a squint in his eyes and a sneer on his lips, as Gran Torino's posters do, and yes, it seems he will indeed make our day.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)
Why this spaghetti western works is a mystery, but it just does. The three main characters are unlikably selfish and conniving. The plot is jumbled and filled with incredible coincidences.
But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and this film has stood the test of time, inspiring young directors such as Quentin Tarantino to feel that good genre pulp and high artistic achievement are not incompatible.
Clint Eastwood's enigmatic loner character, much of it his own creation, was a new hero for new times.
Directed by and starring Eastwood, it put Hollywood on notice that a new directorial force had arrived and the town rewarded him with four Oscars, including one for directing.
His vision in the movie is as spare and still as his character, Bill Munny, an ageing gunslinger forced to break his promise to never kill again. The film was also a box-office success, grossing US$160 million (S$238 million) worldwide.
Mystic River (2003)
Actors Kevin Bacon (left) and Laurence Fishburne (centre) taking directions from Eastwood in Mystic River. --PHOTOS: VILLAGE ROADSHOW, SINGAPORE CABLE VISION
The Eastwood directorial trademarks are here: wide-angle photography, locations that become characters in themselves, spare dialogue and trust in actors' body language.
Thematically, there is his fascination with the young paying for the sins of the old.
The drama of three men whose present lives are haunted by a horrific incident in their childhood won a Best Actor Oscar for Sean Penn and Best Supporting Actor honours for Tim Robbins.