For a Few Million More . . .
|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 hes been there ever since, as reliable as the studios famous water tower. The company is called Malpaso, after a creek located near Eastwoods Carmel home, and it is here that I dont find Eastwood on the early December afternoon he has chosen for our interview. "Clints running a few minutes late hes still at lunch," Im told by an assistant.
"Clint," of course, isnt exactly your average interview subject. The recipient of Oscars for directing and producing 1992s 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 Malpasos elegantly woodcut double doors, its 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, its 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 Eastwoods wife, Diana Ruiz her sons 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.
"Other than a belt sander, theres 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, thats 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, its 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 Eastwoods 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 Hustons 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, Eastwoods 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 hasnt 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. Its perhaps the most emotionally and existentially complex character Eastwood who once told Meryl Streep, "People dont 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 cant be domesticated. Its a role that so sparked Eastwoods interest, he momentarily scuttled thoughts he had been entertaining of retiring from screen acting.
"I saw it as a challenge," Eastwood says. "Its one thing to play a soldier who goes out shooting at people. Its another thing to play a soldier whos got some other dimension as to why hes there in the first place, where hes been in the past and where hes going. This role had that. And its very ambiguous at the end you dont know where he is, you dont know where it all goes. Look, Im not going to go remake Every Which Way but Loose as a 74-year-old man. Whats the advantage of maturing as a filmmaker if you dont take advantage of it, do things you havent done before? I couldnt have played Frankie Dunn as a 35-year-old guy."
Adapted from the short-story collection Rope Burns, by the late F.X. Toole (the pen name of veteran fight trainer Jerry Boyd), Million Dollar Baby focuses on the relationship between Dunn and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, in a brilliant performance), a promising female fighter whose passion causes Frankie to grudgingly lift his embargo on training "girls." As they work together, Frankie and Maggie engage in a sort of ethereal ballet, between a father and the daughter hes never known, and between a daughter and the loving father who died too young. (Perhaps Eastwood is here playing a ghost for the third time.) But those expecting to find, in Million Dollar Baby, an estrogen-intensive variant of Rocky or The Karate Kid are sure to be disappointed. Though the movies boxing sequences, in which Eastwood strips the soundtrack of nearly all but the heart-shuddering thunder of the fighters punches, rank among the most searing that have been put on film. Like Tooles stories, Million Dollar Baby is also thick with the sweaty, hardscrabble reality of smalltime boxing clubs and undercard bouts. It knows how boxers fight their hearts out before audiences of mostly empty chairs for purses that are barely enough to pay the months rent, as they yearn for a title bout that may never come. While there is triumph in Eastwoods film, it is of the sort that comes at a high price.
Its tough medicine, and Million Dollar Baby was a tough picture to get made, despite Eastwoods clout and the combined critical (six Oscar nominations, two wins) and commercial success (more than $150 million at the box office worldwide) of last years Mystic River. Which, as Eastwood is quick to point out, is nothing new. "I liked the Million Dollar Baby script a lot," he says. "Warner Bros. said the project had been submitted to them and theyd passed on it. I said, But I like it. They said, Well, its a boxing movie. And I said, Its not a boxing movie in my opinion. Its a father-daughter love story, and its a lot of other things besides a boxing movie. They hemmed and hawed and finally said that if I wanted to take it, maybe theyd pay for the domestic rights only. After that, Id be on my own. [The rest of the funding was eventually secured through the international sales company Lakeshore Entertainment.] We took it to a couple of other studios, and they turned it down, much like Mystic River was turned down the exact same pattern. People who kept calling and saying, Come on, work with us on stuff. Id give it to them, and theyd go, Uh, we were thinking more in terms of Dirty Harry coming out of retirement. And who knows? Maybe when it comes out theyll be proven right."
In the introduction to Rope Burns, Toole writes about "the magic of winning and losing in a mans 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 Im on a track of doing pictures nobody wants to do, that theyre all afraid of," chuckles Eastwood. "I guess its the era we live in, where theyre doing remakes of Dukes of Hazzard and other old television shows. I must say, Im 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 Sullivans Travels dozens of pictures, not to mention all the great B movies. Now, theyre looking for whatever the last hit was. If its 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 Eastwoods 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, "Its their classicism. His pictures stand the test of time because they dont 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 shows 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 Leones 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 wasnt about to squander.
Director and former film critic Curtis Hanson has recalled how, upon paying a visit to the production of Coogans Bluff (1968) the first of Eastwoods five collaborations with director Don Siegel he was struck by Eastwoods habit of remaining on the set in between setups and even during the filming of scenes he wasnt in. Already, just two years before forming Malpaso and three before directing (at Siegels 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 Fitzgeralds epigram "There are no second acts in American lives." "At that stage of life, you dont know what old is," Eastwood says. "When I was starting to do Play Misty, I thought, In a few years, when Im 45, Ill be old, because Im 40 now. I had no idea Id still be working at this age. Great guys who I admired Billy Wilder, for example, nobody was hiring him in his late 60s, and heres 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 theres some young, 25-year-old guy who can do it better. I think youve got to always expand on what youre doing. Youve 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 wasnt about to be pigeonholed. "Maybe thats why I have an affinity for jazz," Eastwood says. "I grew up watching all those guys who didnt 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 dont know what hes doing, but I want to understand it. So I made the effort."
Critics were less than quick to catch on. "You dont get embarrassed by anything Clint Eastwood does; hes so hollow you dont 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. "Ive 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, thats their prerogative. I cant do anything about that. The fact that the work is now taken seriously, maybe it took a while, maybe there are certain things Ive done that were stupid. Maybe Ive changed. Maybe theyve changed. Hopefully, everybody grows, everybody changes, life goes on." In truth, there had been an unacknowledged tenderness and humanity in Eastwoods work even before some, particularly in European cinephile circles, began to take note. Helping in no small measure to turn the tide was Clints fourth feature as director, 1976s 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 Joseys 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.
"I didnt 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. "Hes a natural teacher, and he doesnt second-guess himself. Its a combination of encouragement and discipline. He would say to me, Look, if you need 20 takes of something, Ill give it to you, but if I do 20 takes, dont print take number one. I learned economy from Clint. And despite the amount of footage that was shot on Heavens 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 Eastwoods own career has hardly been immune to critical and commercial disappointments (like 1997s 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 Eastwoods 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 doesnt have to prove anything anymore," says Rissient. "He doesnt 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: "Theres a friend of mine who always says, When youre 70, what can they do to you? Theres 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 Eastwoods way of saying farewell not just to acting but to movies in general.
"Everything shrinks with age," remarks one character midway through Heartbreak Ridge, Eastwoods 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 Eastwoods imposing stature. At 74, hes 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. Hes had his shot, and hes 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."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.