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Clint Eastwood—just so fantastically cool

In The Guardian, Joe Queenan has written a pean to Clint Eastwood that is worth a read, whether you love Eastwood or not. Maybe especially if you don’t love Eastwood – after reading it, you may be forced to reconsider your (muddled-headed, misguided, deeply wrong) position; at the very least, you’ll have a better understanding of why so many people do love him:

Profile of a Hollywood legend: “Directors may occasionally be shown respect, perhaps even asked for their autograph, in America, but no one actually likes them. People may admire or envy James Cameron or Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese, and a significantly smaller group of filmgoers may look forward to Woody Allen’s next outing, but they don’t have much of an emotional connection with them. This is what makes Clint Eastwood’s career so singular.”

(Via guardian.co.uk.)

If you do love Eastwood, you may find some things to dislike about the profile. (That’s also true to a certain extent simply if you like excellent writing about film.) The profile isn’t short of praise, and makes some intelligent observations (even if not necessarily new ones), but it is not without flaws.

On a purely personal level, I was annoyed by Queenan’s failure to mention one of my favorite Eastwood movies – Kelly’s Heroes (1970), surely a landmark in the Clint Eastwood oeuvre – a caper movie set in World War II starring Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Don Rickels and many more. It’s the movie, I think, that really shows the comic potential of Eastwood’s screen persona, more so than the “Every Which Way” orangutan movies (1978 and 1980). The way in which his steely gaze, deadpan delivery and tiny twitches of the mouth and eyes, can be funny – in a serious way, if you see what I mean, not ironically or cynically – when played off against the right people, in the right situations. Watch Eastwood as Kelly in his three-way exchanges with the hippie tank commander Oddball, played wonderfully by Sutherland, and Savalas as a standard-issue tough, cynical soldier. Or the sequence at the end when they convince the German tank commander to switch sides. Very fun, and funny.

(I will no doubt have more, much more, to say about Kelly’s Heroes in the future.)

He does mention that other oddity in Eastwood’s career, Paint Your Wagon, (1969) which he describes (correctly) as insane, though he fails to tell you why – it’s a musical western comedy about gold mining that stars Eastwood and Lee Marvin, both of whom sing. Further details would seem superfluous – at least for establishing its craziness. This is a movie that a small, embarrassing part of me loves, I suppose because I saw it when I was a little kid, and also precisely because of those things that make it crazy (which Queenan correctly cites as its redeeming virtue): it’s a musical western comedy about gold mining that stars Eastwood and Lee Marvin, both of whom sing.

It’s funny that he should repeatedly refer to the orangutan movies and Paint Your Wagon, but omit Kelly’s Heroes, which is shown far more often on television and has probably been seen by many more people in recent years (revivals of Clyde the orangutan being noticeably few and far between, and Paint Your Wagon even rarer). I suppose it is easy to make fun of those others – “the orangutan movies,” “a musical western” – whereas Kelly’s Heroes while not a great movie does require some serious discussion, not only of Eastwood’s ability to do something approaching real comedy, but also of the film’s relationship to both the WWII and the caper film genres, and its successful and interesting blending of the two at a particular moment in American film history. Though that would be a subject for another article, not a profile of Eastwood.

Eastwood’s ventures into comedy, however, do deserve more than the somewhat derisive dismissal that Queenan gives them, and Kelly’s Heroes should be, I think, a part of that more generous consideration of Eastwood as funny guy. Queenan’s only real point about Eastwood and comedy is to cite it as the reason he hasn’t made more bad films:

The number of truly bad films Eastwood either starred in or directed is surprisingly small. This is mostly because he avoided comedies: cop movies can only be so bad, but with comedies, the sky’s the limit.

That may be sufficient for a fairly brief profile in a general paper, but any serious consideration of Eastwood has to go further than this. Why did Eastwood do those orangutan movies? And at that particular point in his career? And how indebted to those movies, and Kelly’s Heroes and even Paint Your Wagon, is the more emotionally vulnerable and occasionally funny Eastwood of later years, in movies such as In the Line of Fire (1993) and Heartbreak Ridge (1986 – another film Queenan doesn’t mention – maybe he dislikes Eastwood as soldier since he fails to mention a single war pic)? I think the answer is “very much” – the comedy let through a side of Eastwood that seems to me to be reasonable for a lot of the appeal and success of some of his later roles.

The secret to Eastwood’s comedic successes, such as they are (and he will never be considered a comic actor), rests on a combination of playing with his own screen persona and on timing. And Eastwood’s timing is superb – not just or even particularly in comedies, but in all his work. The laconic delivery of a one note line – “Yep” – a squirt of chewing tobacco a squint, the lazy turn. And in his career moves as much as his performances – the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that really made his career, Dirty Harry (1971), Unforgiven (1992), the shift to portraying aging men and their vulnerabilities in both serious and not so serious (Space Cowboys (2000)) movies – all of these choices were perfectly timed and speak of real intelligence, about films and other matters as well.

There are a number of other problems with Queenan’s piece, but in fairness they mostly seem like acceptable shortcuts for a medium-length popular profile. Some of the shortcuts, however, are more problematic. For instance, he writes

To the extent that Westerns can be taken seriously, there are only two cowboys worth talking about: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

No one with an interest in or knowledge of the Western – or indeed of American film in general – could take this comment seriously or let it pass uncorrected. What about Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper – just to take the first three that come to mind? Perhaps for a general audience of movie-watchers who know the Western mostly through TV and secondary sources, the pairing of Eastwood and Wayne makes a certain amount of sense – even if it makes me deeply sad, thinking of what those movie-watchers may be missing, of people who haven’t seen My Darling Clementine (1946, dir. John Ford), High Noon (1952, dir. Fred Zinneman) or Shane (1953, dir. George Stevens). On the other hand, saying they haven’t seen them really means “they haven’t seen them yet” – how lucky to still have a first watching of My Darling Clementine to look forward to, like your first strawberry – assuming, that is, you can see a really good print in a decent theatre. (Keep an eye on UCLA, which has a great print, and the PFA in Berkeley, which shows it often.)

Of course with that bit about “the extent that Westerns can be taken seriously,” Queenan pretty clearly indicates that he doesn’t take them seriously, which may explain his dismissal of perhaps the genre of American film as consisting of nothing more than Eastwood and Wayne. Maybe he hasn’t seen My Darling Clementine.

Queenan makes other telegraphic arguments – collapsing big, complicated discussions into sound-bites – that are almost as troubling as his blithe and indefensible dismissal of a huge portion of the Western genre. These telegraphic arguments are particularly lamentable in a profile of Eastwood because they obfuscate some of what is most important and interesting about Eastwood as an actor and director:

In A Fistful of Dollars, the movie that made him a household name, a tall, lanky, enigmatic stranger comes to the aid of poor, downtrodden Mexicans. In Gran Torino, a tall, lanky, enigmatic stranger comes to the aid of poor immigrants from south-east Asia. Some things change. Some things don’t….

the Dirty Harry movies that some found so objectionable were little more than Hang ‘Em High transferred to modern times.

Obviously, there is some superficial validity to these points, but to suggest that Eastwood has been doing the same thing over and over, that his portrayal of Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino is the same as his work in the Leone spaghetti westerns is to do Eastwood a tremendous disservice. And suggesting that these movies are essentially the same runs roughshod over most of what makes them worthwhile and interesting.

This suggestion that Eastwood is doing the same thing over and over brings us to what I think is the biggest problem for this piece as a laudatory profile of Eastwood. Despite the fulsome praise it seems to heap on him, at the end of the day what that praise mostly boils to is just that he’s made a lot of movies.

Next month, Eastwood turns 80. He has made more than 50 films as director or actor. He has been a fixture in American life since 1959, when he charmed his way into the bosom of the Republic by playing the likable cowboy Rowdy Yates on the TV series Rawhide….

Redford, De Niro, Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand, among others, also experienced a measure of success as directors, but not on the scale of Eastwood, who has directed 30 films, and is thought of as a serious, full-time director in a way they are not….

A true child of the Depression, Eastwood understood that the only unforgivable crime was to stop working. So he never did. He made all kinds of movies and he made them fast….

Eastwood resembles the great directors who preceded him, such as Hitchcock and John Huston and Don Siegel, in that he never stopped punching the clock. Unlike sensitive auteurs, who will take a few years off to contemplate their next project, Eastwood has not stopped making films since his debut in 1971.

Okay, okay. He has made a lot of movies. He has a powerful work ethic, unlike those effete auteurs. He’s been working steadily as an actor and director for a long time. But surely there is more to our love of Eastwood than simply quantity. It takes more than volume or even longevity to make someone a national treasure – which Queenan is correct in calling Eastwood.

His likableness as Rowdy Yates is certainly part of it. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of Rawhide, and that when I was very young, but I can still recall his face – perhaps because of my mother’s gushing over it. She came to loathe Eastwood’s politics, and it wasn’t until Unforgiven that she got over the “Dirty Harry” movies and learned to appreciate him as an actor and director. But she never stopped loving Rowdy Yates.

Another crucial aspect of Eastwood’s appeal is the complexity of his portrayal of the heroic man of action, something that Queenan touches on but doesn’t really explore:

Eastwood always played a gunslinger with something dark in his past. This is the way people who grew up in the 60s liked their leading men – Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Little Big Man, De Niro and Pacino in everything. People in that era still wanted heroes. But they no longer wanted monochromatic ones such as Wayne and Gary Cooper. They liked it if their heroes were a tad neurotic, with a bit of history. The Man with No Name fitted the bill perfectly.

Queenan is correct that after the 60s people were looking for something different, edgier, darker, in their leading men and heroes. But to describe “the Man with No Name” as “a tad neurotic, with a bit of history” seems to me to miss the mark, and also to be a bit dismissive and belittling of this tendency as a whole. If Eastwood’s comedic work would benefit from a bit more explication, his role as the dark hero – a “dark knight” avant la lettre – certainly needs far more discussion if we are ever to make sense of why Eastwood matters – which he certainly does – and why he is so loved, which is surely a key factor in the length and productivity of his career. Eastwood is not a national treasure because he “has made more than 50 films” – he has made so many films because he is a national treasure. And that is what a real profile needs to explain.

Queenan does get another aspect of Eastwood’s success exactly right, and it is so central to Eastwood and his appeal that it seems a fitting place to end:

Eastwood – with the poncho and the cigarillo – was just so fantastically cool.

Filed under: Movies,

2 Responses

  1. [...] time ago, waxing a bit rhapsodic about Clint Eastwood, I mentioned the weirdness that is “Paint Your Wagon” (1969) – a musical Western [...]

  2. [...] -Dr. Dre -Clint Eastwood -Jack Nicholson -Samuel L. Jackson -Richard Branson -Eric [...]

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Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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