By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Director and former film critic Curtis Hanson has recalled how, upon paying a visit to the production of Coogan’s Bluff (1968) —the first of Eastwood’s five collaborations with director Don Siegel — he was struck by Eastwood’s habit of remaining on the set in between setups and even during the filming of scenes he wasn’t in. Already, just two years before forming Malpaso and three before directing (at Siegel’s urging) his own debut feature, Play Misty for Me, Clint was an eager student and a tireless observer. No matter a business that religiously favors the present moment, Clint seemed to be planning for the future, as though, well before employing it as the ad line for his 1988 Charlie Parker biopic, Bird, he already had in mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s epigram "There are no second acts in American lives." "At that stage of life, you don’t know what old is," Eastwood says. "When I was starting to do Play Misty, I thought, ‘In a few years, when I’m 45, I’ll be old, because I’m 40 now.’ I had no idea I’d still be working at this age. Great guys who I admired — Billy Wilder, for example, nobody was hiring him in his late 60s, and here’s a man who lived to be 95! You never know, either you go out of touch with reality or people just get tired of hiring you, figure there’s some young, 25-year-old guy who can do it better. I think you’ve got to always expand on what you’re doing. You’ve got to stay open-minded."
And so Eastwood has managed to stay one step ahead of his own best game. In 1971, the same year Clint directed Play Misty and teamed with Siegel for the first of the Dirty Harry movies, he and Siegel also took time out to make The Beguiled, a deeply unsettling Southern Gothic about a wounded Union soldier who is rescued by the residents of a girls’ boarding school, only to find himself the catalyst in a churning spiral of duplicity and desire. The film was a commercial failure in the U.S., but it was compelling evidence that Eastwood longed to break away from (or at least play improvisations on) his image as the strong, silent type — that, like Charlie Parker, he wasn’t about to be pigeonholed. "Maybe that’s why I have an affinity for jazz," Eastwood says. "I grew up watching all those guys who didn’t seem to give a crap about what the latest style was. Musicians were playing what they wanted to play, what they were challenged by. If they were playing what the audience wanted, they would have done something much simpler. I remember the first time I ever heard Charlie Parker, I thought, ‘God, I don’t know what he’s doing, but I want to understand it.’ So I made the effort."
Critics were less than quick to catch on. "You don’t get embarrassed by anything Clint Eastwood does; he’s so hollow you don’t have to feel a thing," wrote Pauline Kael in the 1970s, maintaining a position on Eastwood she had staked out early on and would hold for the duration of her career (and, for that matter, into her retirement). But audiences too tended to steer shy whenever Clint tried to show he could be more than the "block of marble" to which Sergio Leone once likened him. Two of his best films as director — the lyrical dustbowl tragedy Honkytonk Man and the quixotic rodeo comedy Bronco Billy — remain obscure to this day. For his part, though, Eastwood has maintained an ambivalent stance on the subject of recognition. "I’ve got to play my own hand," he says, "and if somebody else sees me — be it today or 30 years ago — as one presupposed thing, that’s their prerogative. I can’t do anything about that. The fact that the work is now taken seriously, maybe it took a while, maybe there are certain things I’ve done that were stupid. Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe they’ve changed. Hopefully, everybody grows, everybody changes, life goes on." In truth, there had been an unacknowledged tenderness and humanity in Eastwood’s work even before some, particularly in European cinephile circles, began to take note. Helping in no small measure to turn the tide was Clint’s fourth feature as director, 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Set at the end of the Civil War, Josey Wales is a picaresque odyssey in which the eponymous farmer, devastated by the murder of his wife and child, journeys across America searching for revenge, but also for a larger sense of purpose. It is a great film, marked by a Fordian eye for Western landscapes and a real feeling for how people might come to feel betrayed and displaced within the borders of their own country, from Josey’s Cherokee sidekick to his Confederate traveling companions to the denizens of the divided, post-Vietnam nation into which the film was released.
In the ensuing years, Eastwood has developed a reputation as a professional of the first rank, prized for the efficiency of his production methods, the lucidity of his directorial style, the familial atmosphere of his sets — he has repeatedly worked with the same artistic collaborators, including 89-year-old production designer Henry Bumstead — and for his mentoring of new talent.