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
"I didn’t realize until much later that not only was he giving me this incredible trust and this absolutely unbelievable chance, but that I was learning from him," says Michael Cimino, whose debut feature, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, starred Eastwood and was produced by Malpaso. "He’s a natural teacher, and he doesn’t second-guess himself. It’s a combination of encouragement and discipline. He would say to me, ‘Look, if you need 20 takes of something, I’ll give it to you, but if I do 20 takes, don’t print take number one.’ I learned economy from Clint. And despite the amount of footage that was shot on Heaven’s Gate — and there were a lot of reasons for that — almost all of my other movies have been ahead of schedule and under budget."
If Eastwood’s own career has hardly been immune to critical and commercial disappointments (like 1997’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), it has likewise been remarkable for its generous ratio of risk to reward, in which personal projects like Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart— both of which reside at the dark, unsentimental extreme of films made by "bankable" directors — have been balanced against more mainstream fare. Meanwhile, time and again, Eastwood returned to the genre where he had sowed his acting oats, before putting an elegant capstone on traditional Western storytelling with Unforgiven, a movie that is itself an elegy for the end of the American West. But even before Unforgiven, Eastwood was already involved in telling another type of Western story — stories in which the frontier had moved from the wide-open spaces of yesteryear to the cramped environs of our modern times. Until, in Mystic River — the most revisionist take on frontier life Eastwood has yet made — the frontier has all but vanished, leaving behind only its self-preservationist psychology. And with these new Westerns came new cowboys, in the form of John Huston, Charlie Parker and Frankie Dunn.
In some ways as bleak and morally ambiguous a film as Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby is also Eastwood’s most emotionally overwhelming achievement since his 1993 road movie, A Perfect World, which was about fathers and sons in much the same way Million Dollar Baby is about fathers and daughters. A full-blown character piece, freed from the procedural plotting that sometimes grounded Mystic River, it throws extraordinary, blindsiding counterpunches of brutality and tenderness, boxing movie and family melodrama, navigating perilous shifts in tempo and tone with the effortlessness of a veteran jazz soloist. "He doesn’t have to prove anything anymore," says Rissient. "He doesn’t have to worry about his career as a star, and he can really focus on filmmaking. He has a freedom — not a freedom in terms of studio support, but a freedom with himself." Eastwood agrees: "There’s a friend of mine who always says, ‘When you’re 70, what can they do to you?’ There’s something to that." Put simply, Million Dollar Baby finds Eastwood "in the zone," both in front of and behind the camera, up to and including a haunting final image that feels very much like it could, if he wanted it to, be Eastwood’s way of saying farewell not just to acting but to movies in general.
"Everything shrinks with age," remarks one character midway through Heartbreak Ridge, Eastwood’s felicitous 1986 satire about the changing face of the U.S. Marine Corps. Well, maybe not everything, unless you count an inch or so off the top of Eastwood’s imposing stature. At 74, he’s already older than Leone and Siegel were when they directed their last films, and just about the age Ford and Hawks were when they bowed out. He’s had his shot, and he’s done more than all right. But as Eastwood finds himself the subject of substantial Oscar buzz for Million Dollar Baby and already prepping his next project, about the six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, he seems poised to do anything but call it quits.
Looking out at me with his famously narrow eyes and twisted half-smile, Eastwood muses, "Will I ride off into the sunset? Maybe. Will I be dragged off kicking and screaming? Probably."