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

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In the introduction to Rope Burns, Toole writes about "the magic of winning and losing in a man’s game, where men will battle with their minds and bodies and hearts into and beyond exhaustion, past their second wind, through cracked ribs and swollen livers, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas." He might just as soon have been talking about making movies. "I think I’m on a track of doing pictures nobody wants to do, that they’re all afraid of," chuckles Eastwood. "I guess it’s the era we live in, where they’re doing remakes of Dukes of Hazzard and other old television shows. I must say, I’m not a negative person, but sometimes I wonder what kind of movies people are going to be making 10 years from now if they follow this trajectory. When I grew up there was such a variety of movies being made. You could go see Sergeant York or Sitting Pretty or Sullivan’s Travels — dozens of pictures, not to mention all the great B movies. Now, they’re looking for whatever the last hit was. If it’s The Incredibles, they want The Double Incredibles. My theory is they ought to corral writers into writers’ buildings like they used to and start out with fresh material."

Asked to pinpoint the appeal of Eastwood’s films, the noted French film critic, publicist and distributor Pierre Rissient, who has known Eastwood personally since the 1960s and has worked on the promotional campaigns for a number of his films, says, "It’s their classicism. His pictures stand the test of time because they don’t try to be trendy or modernist. He just makes the films, in the tradition of the great storytellers of the ’30s and ’40s." Clint Eastwood is now something of a classic himself, a cultural icon as chiseled into our collective consciousness as any of the faces on Mount Rushmore. Yet such was not always the case. A $75-a-week contract player at Universal in the 1950s, Eastwood floundered in bit parts in pictures like Revenge of the Creature and Francis in the Navy. Then, in 1959, he landed a supporting role in the Rawhide television series, where he would remain until the show’s 1966 cancellation — excepting one summer production hiatus when Eastwood, frustrated by the one-dimensionality of his character on the show, made the impulsive decision that would lay the groundwork for the rest of his career. Not speaking a word of Italian, and for a salary of only $15,000, he boarded a plane to Rome to play the lead role in a "spaghetti Western" with the working title The Mysterious Stranger. That film, of course, turned out to be Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the international success of which (coupled with that of its two celebrated sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) helped give Eastwood a second shot in Hollywood pictures — one he wasn’t about to squander.

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."

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