Clint Eastwood: ”Wherever I came from, I always came out of left field


the wind groaned with a sound-studio’s boosted resonance, and halfway through a night frozen white and jagged, an outtake from a Sergeant Preston of the Yukon movie, a Rolls and a couple of big- boss BMWs discharged a small group of men at the bottom of the stairway of a private plane at Riem Airport in Munich. Luftwaffe bombing runs to Coventry or Rotterdam were called off on nights like this, but The Clint Eastwood Magical Respectability and European Accolade and Adulation Tour moved on. The Gulfstream’s jet engines rumbled, a ground-crew type pleading, in German, for an autograph was shown to the door, and the plane lifted itself into the gale, carrying the actor and director, the world’s most popular film star over the last 15 years, to England.

The tour had started in Paris in January with a retrospective at the Cinemath eque, and Eastwood’s decoration by the Ministry of Culture as a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. Then it shifted to Munich for more of the same: the start of a retrospective at the Filmmuseum there, and, as in France, the deep, wet embrace of at least part of the country’s film intellectuals.

As enterprises go, the tour was an intriguing one, bones being consciously fitted under the flesh of Clint Eastwood’s new, public embodiment as a very important American film maker. As cultural, or political, phenomena go, it was plain fascinating. Until a couple of years ago, Eastwood, actor or director, had been consistently reviled as a cinematic caveman, a lowbrow and lunkhead credited with a single, frightening trick: his Dirty Harry cop pictures seemed to tap straight into the part of the American psyche where the nation’s brutal, simplistic and autocratic reflexes were stored. The great, foul audience, guzzling diet cola and wolfing down whole cartons of Milk Duds, had been seduced into roaring with base delight as Dirty Harry cleaned up murderers the authorities would have left free. If you paid attention to many of the critics, this was do-it-yourself justice, and pandering to redneck mindlessness. Eastwood’s approach, some Americans and Europeans insisted, was that of a potential or proto-fascist; his Dirty Harry films were deeply, truly immoral. A French writer pushed further: Eastwood was pure bully, pure bigot, America looking for a new Vietnam. Hollywood, the argument ran, had finally cloned John Wayne.

Then something changed, and the times, perhaps, caught up to Clint Eastwood. Jane Fonda did knee bends; Yves Montand began to talk like Alexander Haig. Encounter groups became a joke, Jimmy Carter told of beating off an assault by an attack rabbit, the rhetoric of the 1960’s fell through the floor, and the critics switched direction on Eastwood’s work like a crowd doing ”the wave” at a football game. Perhaps his best film, ”The Outlaw Josey Wales” – all outrage, and, most of all, fury against killing, brutality, and war – was made in 1976, but no matter. Suddenly, in 1985, Dirty Harry, for some, is funny, ironic, a fantasy, operatic in tone and politically prescient. ”Honkytonk Man” gets compared to ”The Grapes of Wrath” (”My God,” the actor-director says). The Eastwood acting style has evolved, adjectivally at least, from wooden to spare or economical. Someone writes that he is a feminist film director. The Guardian, the left-wing British newspaper, invites him to lecture on film, and offers a half-page explanation of his tenderness under the mysterious headline, ”A Die-Hard Liberal Behind the Magnum Image.” Uncharacteristically discreet about such political transgressions, The Guardian spares its readers news of Eastwood’s occasional telephone conversations with President Reagan, a man the newspaper treats as a knave or an ogre. Everywhere, all the good, warm, trust-words come raining down: alienated, vulnerable, sensitive, self- deprecating. Even Norman Mailer visited Eastwood for a beer and a little talk: ”He’s one of the nicest people you ever met.” ”Eastwood is an artist.” ”He has a Presidential face.” ”Maybe there is no one more American than he.”

The Gulfstream is bucking forward someplace over France, heading for Luton Airport, outside London, and Eastwood is being asked to talk a bit about respect and his new respectability, about being deemed vulnerable, generous and terribly significant, almost overnight, at age 54. He comes at answers slowly, hedging, digressing, stalling artfully until he figures out what he wants to say. A man with a good mind and a good memory, he has a knack for suspending a question, like leaving a pot at the edge of burner, before pushing it back on the fire when he is good and ready. The Munich segment, Eastwood agrees, keeping the pot well from the flame, had not really followed the ”serious philosophy” of the tour (a Warner Brothers P.R. man’s expression), but he considers it no great loss because it had degenerated amusingly. There was a Spanish countess who had gotten to interview him, asking questions about whether he wanted to act with Greta Garbo – ”Who me, I don’t have a foot fetish,” comes Eastwood’s exhausted reply – and there was a television appearance on a variety show with an M.C. described by Lennie Hirshan, Eastwood’s agent, ”as the kind of guy Dirty Harry would have shot if he had the opportunity.” It could have been Joe Franklin on a Tuesday afternoon: the actor’s TV slot was between a kid who was going to see how long he could swim in an icy river and a rock group called the Kane Gang. A flack named Horst, who had been specifically told that Eastwood did not want to receive a plaque on the show (a fan-mag job, and not consistent with the new film-archives image), jimmied open a car’s trunk to make sure he got one.


The Warner Brothers’ jet descends and the conversation flattens, no clear answers at hand. A digital altimeter on the passenger-cabin bulkhead ticks down, 800, 700, 500. Nothing to see through the windows except basic black. At 400 feet, a strange nonsound, a sense of nonmotion envelops the cabin. It is as if the jet engines had been cut and the aircraft is adrift and powerless. Suddenly, the plane tilts backward, and the passengers are jolted against the backs of the seats. The Gulfstream pulls up hard and away.

A reporter on the tour, realizing that the plane had dropped to ground level and then backed off when the pilot noticed the airport was invisible, broke into a terrified sweat. When he looked around, he saw Eastwood climbing out of his seat and heading for the cockpit. He was gone quite a while, and during that time, the reporter, remembering that Eastwood as a soldier in the 1950’s had been in a plane that crash-landed off northern California, thought that if he were going to see the man at all, well, here was his shot.

The plane ran through its approach again, the altimeter blinked down, and the runway lights finally broke through the black. Eastwood returned. ”Were you scared?” he was asked.

”No,” he said.

Either Eastwood was wholly bogus, a liar, which seemed unlikely, or he was answering the question about vulnerability, and explaining why so many people attach their fantasies to him, and why certain others have detested him so completely. ”I just went up to watch the pilots work,” he said. Painful as it may be to some of his new admirers, Eastwood seems to be exactly what he’s told us about himself as Dirty Harry, or Josey Wales: cool, resolved, in control, self-reliant, somehow not quite in reach. No need to read him too deeply. No need to chisel tortured ambiguity, restlessness, into the granite of the distant hero’s face. With Clint Eastwood, you get what you see, what you’ve always seen.

Up close now, bearded, Eastwood’s face has something legendary about it. Driving past the Houses of Parliament in London, someone says that there is a statue of Abraham Lincoln there, and someone else recalls a man telling Eastwood that he looks more like Lincoln these days than Dirty Harry.

The remark seems to make him uncomfortable. He says nothing. He looks out the window. Needled, kidded, treated like a third-rater for so long, respected so late, he is essentially a wary man. He finds none of Dirty Harry’s easy derision, no one-line dart, to call on to make the Lincoln talk disappear. Eastwood is condemned to saying what he thinks.

”You know,” he says after a while, ”I’d like to know what the economics of that were. I mean freeing the slaves. I’d like to know what was behind it.” HAT IS THIS JERK doing directing films we’re not going to like when we don’t even like him as an actor?” Clint Eastwood said that of himself recently, trying to sum up the prevailing critical view of his work over the last 15 years. It’s an old story. The cover of Life magazine on July 23, 1971, carried the actor’s picture and the caption, ”The world’s favorite movie star is – no kidding – Clint Eastwood.”

Mostly, Clint Eastwood has been a surprise and afterthought, even to himself. He comes from an America where it is bad form to take yourself with gravity, to sound too analytical, an America that will accept risk and loss but likes pretense as little as it likes being pushed around. In hours of talking, the phrase ”the body of my work” comes out of his mouth once, and he looks embarrassed, as if he wants it right back, so grand and unlike him does it sound. He does not treat the metaphysical in any conventional way, and does not make movies for dealers in subtexts, deep-readers, or people writing term papers; his films work backward in terms of theme: They are stories first, ones with human relationships that make Eastwood feel comfortable; later, someone, perhaps himself, can come and say that one is about loyalty, or about responsibility. Eastwood’s thought process, he explains, runs to small units, frame after frame. It’s the way the family was, he says, looking for an irony. ”My dad’s dream was to have a hardware store. I’m his son.” The pride is there, but the doubts dilute it every day.

”Did you once describe yourself as a bum and a drifter?” someone asked him in Paris.

”No,” Eastwood answered.

”Then what are you?”

”A bum and a drifter.”

That was Paris, and the line was not so much thrown but flipped away in Eastwood’s modified Smothers Brothers, California deadpan. But the subject returned in London, and Eastwood rubbed it again, a man massaging an old ache that he assumes will last as long as he does.

”Wherever I came from, I always came out of left field. I wasn’t predicted to do anything. So it was easy to say that this guy was going nowhere. And then when he does try to do something, maybe that disappoints the soothsayers who’ve decided his type isn’t supposed to do anything at all.”

His pride, his sense of what is right, is intense and at times it comes close to a kind of puritanism. For an extraordinarily rich man, he gets extravagantly upset about the money and time spent on making films. His own, financed and distributed by Warner Brothers, and usually made by Malpaso, his production company, are expedited as if there were Oscars for the fastest shoots and most firsttakes to reach a final print. For a man who lives in the very protected elegance of Carmel, Calif., his clothes often look like K Mart and Sears, but this could be a kiss blown at his audience, the people who came to Clint Eastwood pictures when Rex Reed was describing them as a ”demented exercise in Hollywood hackery.”

Talking to people, he is gracious, tolerant, almost courtly. But he wants to be left alone about his former wife, whom he divorced after 25 years of marriage, and his friend, Sondra Locke, the actress, who frequently appears in his films. Little bits of himself work loose though. ”I’m always appalled, just knocked out by disloyalty,” he says. ”I never think it’s coming.” He tends to trust people, and sometimes wonders why:

”I was driving around my place in Carmel, and I saw this guy and his girl camping on it. I thought, ‘What the hell, they’re probably having a great time, let ’em stay.’ Later, I went back, and they had left the place a mess. I felt I had been had.”

When he talks about actors and films he likes, the names are not the Waynes and the Stewarts, like himself, the redwoods of the American movies. Instead, they are Montgomery Clift and James Cagney, Simone Signoret and Maggie Smith, ”Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and ”Breaker Morant.” His descriptions of them are kind but cool, with Eastwood saving his passions for his audience, the single element, along with his instincts, that he seems to trust totally.

”I never second-guess audiences, because many times they’re just so much further ahead of you. And then sometimes, they miss what you think you’ve been explaining so simply. So you can’t second-guess. All you do is build on your own instinctive reactions. That tells you what to do. You do it the best way you know how, and you hope, of course, that somebody likes it.”

He insists he is ”no great intellect” and is uncomfortable with ”analyzing things too much.” It is not a sham retreat by an intelligent man into some kind of yokelism, but a very measured view of his own skills. He has always cut dialogue out of his films, and limited exposition because he feels the audience will catch on without it. Eastwood describes acting and directing as ”interpretive” functions, activities at a somewhat lower rung on his creative scale than writing a script. He waits for scripts, rather than commissioning them on a theme that interests him. The character of Dirty Harry, for example, was developed from a story by Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink. The script was originally meant for Frank Sinatra, but he got sick, and Eastwood took over the project, changing the personality of the detective. His next film, ”Pale Rider,” a western, is an exception to the pattern – Eastwood’s notion of a theme came first, and the movie was written to fit it. When he says he can pick out a good script, but does not have the ability to write one from scratch, it is as if he is drawing lines and saying: ”This is me. This isn’t me. My limitations are real.”

He harbors considerable anger against the critics who described him as an apologist for violence and no-nothingism. ”Those are the kind of people who become dictators and think they should run everybody. There’s an awful lot of people out there who want to tell everybody else what to do. . . . They’re always thinking in terms of all those poor lonely people who don’t know anything out there. It’s just a giant ego running around. . . . They’re putting themselves above and looking down saying this is what the masses see.”

Eastwood insists that he does not fully understand the reversal in the critical current about his work. The pattern of his films has not changed over the years – a smaller, more detailed, more complicated film, and then a popular one, broader in approach, the kind of enterprise that Graham Greene refers to as an ”entertainment,” as opposed to a novel. The same critics who notice that Wes Block, the cop in ”Tightrope,” is vulnerable and has ”problems,” may not have paid much attention to the fact that Josey Wales, almost 10 years earlier, had ”problems,” too: His entire family was wiped out by marauders. Sometimes, Eastwood says, he has the impression ”a couple of gray hairs don’t hurt.” Other times he assumes that the relative lack of commercial success of a couple of his more ambitious films probably has been a positive factor – ”Some critics just don’t approve of too much effective screen presence or too much success.” There is also the accumulation of continued effort: No one in Hollywood of any stature works as much.

John Vinocur The New York Times.


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