Eastwood: Screen Actor-Star–Durability and Impact

Americans are famous for overlooking their own art forms. The Western has had great moments of popularity in film history. At one time it was mainstream, but now people won’t take it seriously.
Clint Eastwood

Most of the accolades Clint Eastwood has received over the past decade are for directing great, quintessentially American films: the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” (1992), “A Perfect World”(1993), “Mystic River” (2003) and this year’s top Oscar contender, “Million Dollar Baby.”

However, he still has not received the critical acclaim he deserves for his acting, which has become better, deeper, and more resonant.

One of the main reasons “Million Dollar Baby” works so well is Eastwood’s superlative performance in a difficult and challenging role. If there’s any justice, Eastwood should receive his second Best Actor nomination for this movie. His first acting nod was for “Unforgiven,” which he lost to Al Pacino (“Scent of a Woman”)

Despite achieving international celebrity as a star at the young age of 35, Eastwood the actor is late bloomer, reaching the peak of his acting while well into his sixties. It’s an anomaly for an American actor to blossom so late, at an age in which most actors of his age have retired or move into playing secondary roles. Quite amazingly, Eastwood has always been the leading man of his pictures.

Arguably, Eastwood the actor is as indispensable to the success of his movies as Woody Allen is to his comedies. He should be celebrated as one of America’s great star-actors, an icon in the classic tradition of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, but not Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, or Bogart for that matter.

Younger than Monty Clift by ten years and Brando by five, Eastwood belongs to the age cohort of James Dean (younger by less than a year), though the idea of mentioning them in the same sentence is truly bizarre. Unlike stars of his generation, say, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, and James Caan, Eastwood is not by temperament an overtly verbal or outgoing actor. He always stood out in the landscape of American screen acting, which beginning with the 1950s, has been dominated by Method Acting, first by the trio of Clift, Brando, and Dean, then by the trio of De Niro, Pacino, and Hoffman, who are a decade younger than Eastwood.

A transitional figure between Cooper and Wayne one the one hand and Kevin Costner, on the other, Eastwood was an outsider-actor working within the mainstream, an actor hard to categorize by any conventional criterion. As a youngster, Eastwood suffered from having a small, inexpressive voice. Like Cooper before him, he became famous for saying little. On screen, what his characters did not say– what they withheld–became far more powerful and important than what they did say. Eastwood used his silence and taciturnity well in all of his 1960s and 1970s pictures, particularly Westerns.

Speaking of Westerns, with the notable exception of Eastwood’s work, the genre has been dead for two decades, ever since Peckinpah died. Indeed, for years it seemed as if Eastwood purposely set out to remind audiences of their unique tradition. Eastwood’s deep love of and understanding for the genre shows in every frame of his Westerns, beginning with his 1973 directorial debut, “High Plains Drifter,” in which he also starred.

Eastwood’s Acting Career in Perspective

There are five phases in Eastwood’s long, uneven acting career. It began inauspiciously exactly half a century ago, in 1955, with a quartet of B-pictures: “Revenge of the Creature,” “Francis in the Navy,” “Lady Godiva,” and “Tarantula.”

Contract actor
Eastwood once told me that for years he kept the letter from Universal, which terminated his services, in a prominent place. There was nothing to race about his dozen films in the late 1950s, which showcased him as a small-time actor. However, salvation came from the small screen, when Eastwood was cast in the TV Western series “Rawhide,” which had an impressive run from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.

Sergio Leone
Sergio Leone was the first director to understand Eastwood’s physical qualities, charisma, and star power. Indeed, it was in Italy that Eastwood first found fame and fortune as the laconic, super cool “Man With No Name” in three violent “spaghetti Westerns” by Leone: “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” (196466). Enormously popular worldwide, the trilogy catapulted Eastwood into top-ranking stardom and established his screen image as a lanky, tight-lipped, beleaguered hero. He continued to play the steely-eyed Westerner back in the U.S., in a succession of Don Siegel films and in his own films, mostly made by his own production company, Malpaso.

Dirty Harry
The film that established Eastwood as a superstar, and with which he remained most closely identified until the 1990s, was Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” (1971), in which played an aging detective, physically ravaged and suffering from Lord Jim’s Syndrome. This actioner was a smash hit, but it became controversial when some reviewers criticized its excessive brutality, whereas others labeled it a blatantly fascist propaganda. Nonetheless, the public thought otherwise, and “Dirty Harry” was followed by four sequels in a span of 17 years, covering the administrations of no less than four Presidents: Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.

In the “Dirty Harry” pictures, as the ultimate cool anti-hero, Eastwood went further than James Bond in revising the man of action’s code of ethics; Harry shot in the back and killed for personal reasons. Eastwood almost made revenge respectable, moving violence into mainstream Hollywood, which resulted in a cycle of revenge films, most notably the “Death Wish” series starring Charles Bronson.

Eastwood’s acting career in the 1970s continued to go against the grain. He was making genre movies, Westerns and actioners, in an era when the most innovative work (Penn, Altman, Scorsese, Lucas) was based on subverting and deconstructing old genres. Remarkably, Eastwood was riding tall in the saddle in an age of anti-heroes, as the laconic, favorite star of Nixon’s silent majority.

The Republican Era
Eastwood went through a bad phase, as director and actor, in the 1980s. He continued to play steely, tough-talking killing machines, but he was out of touch with the times. Most of his films of that era, “Heartbreak Ridge,” “City Heat,” “The Dead Pool,” “Pink Cadillac,” were disappointing. It was during this time that he suffered from the venom of more liberal critics like Pauline Kael, who never got him as an actor and filmmaker. It didn’t help that Eastwood’s growing ambitions, in movies such as “Bird” and “White Hunter, Black Heart,” exceeded his grasp.

The Mature Actor
Then came back-to-back three gems: “Unforgiven,” “A Perfect World,” and In the Line of Fire,” in all of which Eastwood excelled as an actor. “Unforgiven,” which hard to believe was a summer release, was Eastwood’s revisionist Western about alcoholism, violence, and the romantic myth of the outlaw. “Unforgven” presents a shaky, crumbling version of “The Man With No Name,” turning “Dirty Harry” on its head.

In this dark revisionist Western, Eastwood plays William Munny, a down on his luck hog farmer and a widower raising two children; in the very first scene, the haggard-looking Munny is seen on his knees deep in the mud. Haunted by his blood-soaked desperado past, he emerges from retirement for one final bounty hunt.

Some saw in the film’s Oscars for Picture and Director (but not Actor) a symbolic coronation of the common man, an under-appreciated foot soldier, who became king at Oscar night. The Oscars extended the critical view of Eastwood, setting him in iconic relief as a director but not an actor. After decades of being viewed as competent craftsman, Eastwood was seen as an artist, though few critics dwelled on his acting.

Eastwood followed up with a superlative performance in Wolfgang Petersen’s “In the Line of Fire,” as a morose alcoholic Secret Service agent, who gets an irresistible opportunity to make up for past sins when he is assigned to protect the safety of the President. “Unforgiven,” “In the Line of Fire,” and “Perfect World” represented the culmination of Eastwood’s acting choices–until “Million Dollar Baby.”

The Reflexive Actor

Eastwood’s natural instincts for morally troubling and emotionally ambiguous stories were good for him as an actor. They turned him into a newly born actor who demonstrated a relaxed command of acting style, without disclosing his technique. Subtle, understated, multi-nuanced, his performance in “Million Dollars Baby” is beautifully disciplined yet emotionally haunting.

Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, the owner of The Hit Pit, an old-school boxing gym in gritty downtown L.A. In the wake of a painful estrangement from his daughter, Frankie is reluctant to let himself get close to anyone. His only friend is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer who looks after the gym. Frankie has attended Mass almost every day for the past 23 years, seeking forgiveness that has eluded him. He has become ultra-conservative, unable to spot when his boxers are ready to fight. Though still training fighters, he’s basically retired. Prejudiced toward female fighters, he treats a newcomer named Maggie (Hilary Swank) frivolously. A traditionalist, Frankie thinks of boxing the old-fashioned way.

Watch Eastwood’s subtle acting and generosity with both Swank and Freeman. Scrap and Frankie’s comfortably cantankerous bond represents their only close friendship. The various disappointments in their lives have led to a relationship built on loyalty and respect; theyre like an old married couple. Frankie, Scrap, and Maggie find in each other a sense of family that was lost long ago. Their relationships are the key to their redemption, allowing each to experience a moral and emotional rebirth.

Eastwood represents something unprecedented in our culture: An action hero who used violence and brutality to attract the crowd, only to become in his older age, a more reflexive and meditative artist. Indeed, Eastwood has spent more years deconstructing his screen persona–literally tearing it apart– than he had spent shaping and selling it to the public.

Unlike Cooper and Wayne, Eastwood the actor has improved with age. More importantly, unlike Wayne, he found ways to integrate his natural aging into his stories, in the process making aging not only more acceptable but also more glamorous. Eastwood has aged gracefully enough to keep his preeminence from running away with his persona.

Being mainstream was always Eastwood’s curse, at least with American critics like Kael and her entourage. As always, the French were the first to acknowledge Eastwood’s mastery as a director–and actor. The first major retrospectives of his work took place at the French cinematheque.

Eastwood’s performance in “Million Dollar Baby” is the jewel in his acting crown, boasting the kind of depth, grace and intensity missing from previous acting jobs. After decades of being ignored or overlooked as a “serious” actor, it’s time for Americans to acknowledge Eastwood’s masterful acting. Hopefully, he will win the acting Oscar without having to sport a silver nose as Lee Marvin did in “Cat Ballou,” or wear an eye-patch as John Wayne did in “True Grit,” in their respective Oscar performances.