For a Few Million More . . . 

In his 24th film since Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood is still working on Hollywood’s longest second act

Thursday, Dec 16 2004
Photo by Michael Powers

There are things on the Warner Bros. lot older than Clint Eastwood. The earliest sound stages, for example, date back to 1926, when First National Pictures broke ground on some former alfalfa fields the studio had purchased from a dentist by the name of David Burbank. But by the time Jack Warner bought First National and, in 1930, moved his own fledgling studio from Hollywood to the Burbank property, a few hundred miles away in San Francisco, a newly minted baby boy called Clinton Eastwood Jr. was already taking his first breaths. Forty-five years later, a handshake deal would see Eastwood move his production company into a modest bungalow on a leafy corner of the Warner lot, and he’s been there ever since, as reliable as the studio’s famous water tower. The company is called Malpaso, after a creek located near Eastwood’s Carmel home, and it is here that I don’t find Eastwood on the early December afternoon he has chosen for our interview. "Clint’s running a few minutes late — he’s still at lunch," I’m told by an assistant.

"Clint," of course, isn’t exactly your average interview subject. The recipient of Oscars for directing and producing 1992’s Unforgiven, the subject of career tributes by both the American and British film institutes, and a top box-office draw for the better part of his 50-year career, he is as close as one can get nowadays to being movie-industry royalty, an emperor in khaki pants, golf shirt and Panama hat. He is also Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name, and over the years such formidable personages as Muhammad Ali and Israeli diplomat Abba Eban have reportedly been reduced to abject fandom in his presence. Yet, as you step through Malpaso’s elegantly woodcut double doors, it’s hard not to be struck by the informality of the place. Magazines about airplanes and exotic cars, and a few picture books of the Monterey Peninsula, adorn a coffee table in front of a too-cushiony sofa. Over in the corner, a pair of adjustable-weight dumbbells rest upon their rack. It looks as much the lair of the former mayor of Carmel as of one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Undoubtedly, it’s a place Harry Callahan would find far too cozy for comfort.

Moments later, that familiar, sandpapery whisper can be heard emanating from an interior room. A few minutes after that, Eastwood appears — all 6 feet, 4 inches of him. As many have remarked, Eastwood looks exceptionally good for his age — the result, no doubt, of his famously strict diet and exercise regimens, coupled with the requisite good genes. His dad was, after all, a steelworker, and his mother, Ruth, is still going strong in her 90s. (She was — along with Eastwood’s wife, Diana Ruiz — her son’s date to the 2004 Oscar ceremony.) But it should also be noted (and it is hardly news to anyone who has seen his recent films) that Eastwood does look his age — a good, even great, 74 is 74 nonetheless — in an industry where the notion of growing old gracefully is anathema.

In the Ring: Hilary Swank
Photos by Merie W. Wallace

"Other than a belt sander, there’s nothing they can do for me," Eastwood jokes as we adjourn to his private office. "Plastic surgery used to be a thing where older people would try to go into this dream world of being 28 years old again. But now, in Hollywood, even people at 28 are having work done. Society has made us believe you should look like an 18-year-old model all your life. But I figure I might as well just be what I am." Indeed, just being himself — or, rather, an exhausted, vulnerable version of himself — has become something of an Eastwood specialty in recent years, and if it seems nearly impossible to talk about Eastwood without his age becoming a focus of the discussion, that’s largely his own doing. From the poked and prodded, over-the-hill astronaut of Space Cowboys to the detective who undergoes emergency heart surgery in Blood Work, it’s hard to think of another movie star who has taken such sly pleasure in chipping away at his own aura of granite invincibility.

Long before Clint earned his first gray hairs and wrinkle lines, however, he seemed drawn to material with an air of fatalism to it. Twice in his career — in High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider — he has cast himself as a kind of ghost. But even when their characters have been mere mortals, Eastwood has shown an affinity for outsider types striving to uphold some nearly extinct way of life — from the frontier towns of the Old West to the tight-knit Irish-Catholic neighborhoods of present-day Boston. Thus it was possible, when watching Eastwood’s 1990 White Hunter, Black Heart, to wonder if the director felt closer to his subject, John Huston, or to the elephant that was the object of Huston’s obsessive pursuit — a majestic creature forgotten by time. Such themes are also central to Million Dollar Baby, the 25th film Eastwood has directed, and one of his very best. (It is also, for the record, the 57th film in which he has acted, the 21st he has produced and the 10th for which this noted jazz aficionado has composed some or all of the original music.) Grizzled and gray, Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn is a Los Angeles fight trainer and "cut man" forever shadowboxing with the demons of his past. Somewhere, there is a grown daughter who, for reasons the movie never feels compelled to specify, Frankie hasn’t seen or talked to in years. His best fighters have a habit of leaving him for other managers just before they hit the big time. His only real friend is a similarly washed-up ex-boxer (Morgan Freeman) whose career was cut short when he lost the sight in his right eye to a knockout punch. And though Frankie has attended Mass every day for the last 23 years, doing so has stirred up more questions than answers. It’s perhaps the most emotionally and existentially complex character Eastwood — who once told Meryl Streep, "People don’t want to see me cry onscreen" — has played, even if it is a variant on a character he has played many times in the past: the hard man in the ill-fitting suit, the eternal range rider who can’t be domesticated. It’s a role that so sparked Eastwood’s interest, he momentarily scuttled thoughts he had been entertaining of retiring from screen acting.

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