Make my day. Clint Eastwood has done just that across six decades and three generations as actor and director. Look at some of his memorable moments. As a cowboy in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a World War 2 lieutenant in Where Eagles Dare, a killer cop in Dirty Harry, a romantic in The Bridges of Madison County, a director in Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood personifies Hollywood. If that doesn’t crown him Hollywood Rex, there’s Pale Rider, Invictus and Gran Torino to burnish his achievement. No actor or director, except possibly Robert Redford, can challenge his iconic status.
It’s Eastwood’s personal Kaizen (quest for continuous improvement) that makes him an outlier. Sometimes, it’s an Eastwood way of doing things, choosing to pull his punches as actor or director. Between 2014 and 2019, we have seen the Eastwood touch in American Sniper, Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, The Mule, and Richard Jewell (2019). It was in 2003 and 2004 that Eastwood repeated his directorial prowess in Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, only proving that his 1992 achievement (Unforgiven) could be bettered. 1995 was an extraordinary synergy moment for Eastwood when the actor and the director effortlessly melded to create a piece of art: The Bridges of Madison County. True, there were many actor-director synergies in the Eastwood catalogue before, but what you see in The Bridges is near real.
At 93, Clint Eastwood leaves behind a body of work that is not just overwhelming; it’s intimidating. It explains why it’s difficult to categorise him. Is he a great actor or a great director? Is he good, bad or ugly? In Eastwood’s hands, directing is the art of enabling, not cutting in. The story and the characters decide the outcome.
Here’s a portrait of the artist in five minimalistic takes.
Eastwood is probably the greatest actor in the history of Westerns, especially when the genre has had a posse of talent: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Franco Nero, Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Steve McQueen, etc. What sets him apart is his natural swag, a Keanu Reeves-type cultivated silence, and likeable cynicism. The skepticism is mostly expressed as a squint and a scowl. Handsomeness and disinterest have made him the most adorable cowboy; even the Sundance Kid (Redford) comes second. The gunslinger image has endured for 28 years, from 1964 (A Fistful of Dollars) to 1992 (Unforgiven). Even in Gran Torino, a faux-Western that he made in 2008, the scowly gene is noticeable.
With Eastwood, the Westerns have got a fresh lease of life. In the Cold War era of the 1960s and 1970s, filled with Alistair MacLean, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth spinoffs, Eastwood managed to create a mass niche for himself. You could get started with the uber series (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), wade through Hang ‘em High, The Outlaw Josey Wales and High Plains Drifter, and finally enjoy the classics Pale Rider and Unforgiven. If Unforgiven is the ultimate Western thriller, or a Tombstone (1993) equal, it’s simply because of a great cast (Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Eastwood) and deft directing.
Eastwood was the best actor to have played the killer cop. Compare his Dirty Harry (1971) with some of the top cop performances in Hollywood by Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct), Al Pacino (Heat), Steve McQueen (Bullitt), Axel Foley (Beverly Hills Cop), Gene Hackman (The French Connection), Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon), and Morgan Freeman (Se7en). Each character holds his own, but Eastwood’s Harry Callaghan is genre-busting. Playing the character of Harry was a cinch for Eastwood who dragged his cowboy avatar right into the precinct, creating a Smith & Wesson-toting cop who is as vile as the killer.
Let’s taste pure action. The Eastwood vintage collection includes flicks like Where Eagles Dare, The Gauntlet, Firefox, Sudden Impact, Absolute Power, Blood Work, In the Line of Fire, etc. Even here, the shadow of the cowboy-turned-cop looms large. The handsome cynic is a one-size-fits-all trick that can be suitably tweaked for most action-packed genres.
Where Eagles Dare (1968), a Richard Burton-Eastwood World War 2 drama, is a thrill above the star-studded The Guns of Navarone (1961) and probably more popular than the other flicks in the MacLean series. An American lieutenant (Eastwood) playing second fiddle to an English major (Burton) in Eagles would have gone unnoticed. But Eastwood, like David Niven in Navarone, manages to carve out star space for himself.
Perhaps Eastwood’s biggest contribution to cinema is his unique style of directing; he’s already won two Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. He could have bagged another two for The Bridges and Mystic River. Mystic’s script is based on Dennis Lehane’s intensely psychological novel. But the Eastwood movie retains — and sometimes deepens — the tenseness, the stress, and the horror of the original.
Few directors are adept at converting popular literature into pulsating cinema. Fred Zinnemann, of High Noon fame, achieved that directorial feat in The Day of the Jackal (1973), which is based on a Forsyth thriller.
Over the years both directors displayed their obsession for detail and their ability to set the right pace for suspenseful drama.
The Bridges tells you more about Eastwood than any of his other movies: a micro actor who underplays his craft and a director who likes to be a beacon rather than a coach. If you want to court style, Quentin Tarantino is the man for you. If you want to sense lucidity, go see Eastwood. In one of those lucid moments in The Bridges, when lovers part ways, Eastwood allows the moment to flow and grow. Not much is said in the sequence, nothing is overplayed, it appears to be director-less. And yet it is as pristine as it is complex.
Eastwood’s most famous line in Dirty Harry sums up his life. “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kinda lost track myself.” We kinda lose track when we start closing in on a legend like Eastwood. And the mystique grows with each passing year.
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