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.


“I saw it as a challenge,” Eastwood says. “It’s
one thing to play a soldier who goes out shooting at people. It’s another thing
to play a soldier who’s got some other dimension as to why he’s there in the
first place, where he’s been in the past and where he’s going. This role had
that. And it’s very ambiguous at the end — you don’t know where he is, you don’t
know where it all goes. Look, I’m not going to go remake Every Which Way
but Loose
as a 74-year-old man. What’s the advantage of maturing as a filmmaker
if you don’t take advantage of it, do things you haven’t done before? I couldn’t
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 he’s 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 movie’s 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 Toole’s
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 month’s rent, as they yearn for a title bout that may
never come. While there is triumph in Eastwood’s film, it is of the sort that
comes at a high price.

It’s tough medicine, and Million Dollar Baby was a tough
picture to get made, despite Eastwood’s clout and the combined critical (six
Oscar nominations, two wins) and commercial success (more than $150 million
at the box office worldwide) of last year’s 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 they’d passed on it. I said, ‘But I like it.’ They said, ‘Well,
it’s a boxing movie.’ And I said, ‘It’s not a boxing movie in my opinion. It’s
a father-daughter love story, and it’s a lot of other things besides a boxing
movie.’ They hemmed and hawed and finally said that if I wanted to take it,
maybe they’d pay for the domestic rights only. After that, I’d 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.’ I’d give it to them, and they’d go, ‘Uh, we were thinking more in terms
of Dirty Harry coming out of retirement.’ And who knows? Maybe when it comes
out they’ll be proven right.”


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
— 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.”


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

“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
), it has likewise been remarkable for its generous ratio of risk to
reward, in which personal projects like Bird and White Hunter, Black
— 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

In some ways as bleak and morally ambiguous a film as Mystic
, 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.”

LA Weekly