Clint Eastwood: The Man, The Glare, The Movie Star

Clint Eastwood Clint Eastwood in "The Mule."

A tribute to one of the greatest icons in movie history.

Is he Blondie or Coogan? Or Callahan? No? 

Is he Josey Wales then? Or Kowalski? No? 

Will Munny perhaps? Or Frankie Dunn? 

When he stops making movies it’ll be only because he’s stopped walking, stopped talking, stopped breathing. And it won’t matter. For under our noses Clint Eastwood will have been them all: charismatic, cranky, charming, cynical, cussed. All at the same time. And with all things Clint, he only made it seem easy. 

If you squinted at supporting actors like they were sunbeams bouncing off a .44 Magnum, you wouldn’t last five seconds on any film set. Yet Clint has acted in over 50 movies, with squint – and eyebrow – to spare. Only twice did he have an orangutan as co-star (Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can) to justify anything close to a glare. Yet glare he did. Fiercely. In film after film. 

If you spat out your lines from behind clenched teeth you wouldn’t last five minutes in front of a camera. Yet Clint has played lead for over 50 years, clenching his teeth – and spitting – in equal measure. 

Later that repertoire (if that’s the word) widened, a bit – from taunt and one-liner to wink. Then it widened again – to a smug grin, bringing home funny or bitter irony.

Clint Worthington

Why does Clint ring so true? 

He’s been playing himself, to a greater or lesser degree depending on whether shooting (with gun or camera) was before breakfast or after lunch. It’s why he never got around to playing the villain – he couldn’t muster enough villainy from within to lug on to the screen. 

At his best, he was the character. 

Or the character was him. His restraint, his regret, his rage, his rancour, his resolve, his righteous indignation in all the right places. As someone may have said: just about enough there to love but not quite enough there to hate. 

Clint notoriously laughs off his incisive approach with a: “Let’s not go and ruin it by thinking too much.” Perhaps we weren’t paying attention to his “too” but many of his scenes did leave us thinking. Re-thinking. 

On-screen, Clint grew up in black-and-white, he then dominated colour. His storytelling? Almost always, grey. Lying between calm and chaos, between clarity and confusion. His most irascible protagonists etching out their good from evil, often long after the deed. Sorting out their muddled, imperfect decency even amidst powerlessness. 

When his lead characters did their darndest to be detested we somehow found a part of them endearingly unfussy, unrehearsed, unhurried: true when he was merely an actor, truer when he became a star, truest as he matured into a master filmmaker. 

After all these years, you still want to watch a Clint Eastwood movie. A brand by itself. 

You expect to be moved, engrossed. Always surprised.  

Clint enjoyed being ‘comfortable’. He also enjoyed making you just that little bit ‘uncomfortable’. Not shocked or repulsed in Tarantino fashion. Just uncomfortable. He didn’t want to grab you by the throat. Just look you in the eye until you flinched with some private regret. Or cursed or wept inwardly. Softly, even secretly. 

Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking has stayed insistent but quiet. Resolute but gentle. His violence in later years, brief, only implied. Punchline (not punch) delivered an inch from a guy’s face. He hauls a guy up nearly off his feet – clenched fist all right but he doesn’t strike. 

In Unforgiven, Clint’s empathy (as Munny) is impossible to reconcile with his earlier screen-image of callous violence. 

You can actually hear Munny first cursing inwardly at his thoughtlessness, then uttering one of the most tender on-screen lines: “You ain’t ugly like me. It’s just that we both got scars”

Sometimes Clint is just slapping characters around. He finger-pistols too: empty fist as mock-gun and thumb-click goes ‘bang’ – Gran Torino

At other times he’s in the frame even when he isn’t: it’s Morgan Freeman who whips the bully in Million Dollar Baby but it’s Clint’s fury you see exploding, even when he’s nowhere in that frame. 

Often his characters open their mouths to speak, then don’t – they don’t need to or simply can’t. Or they wordlessly watch themselves, others, actions, reactions, moments. 

For all that silence, Clint’s spoken more on-screen with his incredulous stare and parted lips than more voluble actors weighed down by their Academy Awards. 

This abiding sense of restraint saw him make films that were memorable yet never lavish, with time or money. 

Melvyn Bragg once got Clint to elaborate on this wisdom “of paring down, of being much sparer”:

“It’s all punctuation, with editing. Once you learn that process and you like that process, you act within that process. Your acting becomes part of that punctuation. If the director doesn’t punctuate, it reflects on the piece. However, you have to develop an inner life that’s driving a character. Or it shows. You can’t hide it. If you do develop that inner life hopefully you become convincing. And people believe, ‘yeah, that’s what he’s thinking’. They don’t have to hear every word. People are there for a visual experience. If they don’t hear the words, they’ll write the words in with their own mind.”

How he loved the drama in conflict. 

In White Hunter Black Heart, before his character’s own ‘implicit’ prejudice unravels later in the movie, just watch him have a go at ‘explicit’ prejudice:

Barbara Walters once asked him: “To many, you represent man against the system. You see it that way?” 

Clint: “To some, I represent a dying individuality within the system. I feel there’s a crying out for individuality. I’m for the system but against its inequities.” 

Clint Eastwood’s movies weren’t subversive. But they allowed him the freedom to play provocateur – questioning power, demanding justice, pleading for fairness. Counter-intuitively, a lot of Clint’s success as an actor, director, scriptwriter, composer had nothing to do with fairness but just being in charge. He wouldn’t have been half the monumental success he’s been if he hadn’t been in control of pretty much everything. And boy, am I grateful.

In A Perfect World, Chief Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint) spars with criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) in a turf-settling chat that does nothing of the sort. What it does, though, is spell out with some accuracy Clint’s code of relative unilateralism – even if no one’s yet figured out what’s ‘relative’ about it.

Sally: “I expect to be allowed to do the job assigned to me by the Governor.”

Red: “I like the Governor. He and I go quail huntin’, least once a year. But he knows and I know that win, lose or draw this is my ship. You understand that?”

Sally: “Oh yeah. You know what that is? Anarchy. And I call that horseshit.”

Red: “No, I’ll tell you what’s horseshit Missy. Horseshit is responsibility. That’s the guy who has the sleepless nights. The guy who has the ulcers. If this thing goes bloody…and it just might…the Governor? He loses a few votes. Me? I’m the one who….” 

Red breaks off open-mouthed, staring at his coffee mug and rounds off: “I’ll tell you what. You see me makin’ a wrong move? You go ahead and speak up. I might not agree but I’ll listen. As for steppin’ on people’s toes and wounded pride, I’ll buy all the drinks when this is over but right now I’ve got better things to think about. That fair?”

In her world, Sally might have repeated: “Horseshit!” 

In Clint’s universe – loaned to movie character Red – she says, “yeah.”

Clint Eastwood was fond of playing down his iconic status by repeating Dirty Harry: “Man’s got to know his limitations.” 

Punks or not we sure “feel lucky” that as he kept reminding himself – of his limitations – he kept forgetting them. Or he’d never have kept nudging those boundaries a little bit each year. He’d never have lived so fully, so enduringly through his art. 

Clint once moaned to writer Andrew Purcell, “I’ve watched wonderful directors stop working in their 60s and you think, ‘How can you stop working in your sixties? You should be in your prime’.” Purcell continues, “Eastwood is in fine shape for his age, but at 84 [Clint’s age at the time] it’s fair to wonder whether he has another great film in him.”

Well, since Purcell’s observation, Clint went on to make another five films – American Sniper, Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, The Mule. His latest film Richard Jewell comes out this week. How wrong to think of him as some old man who’s just gone on and on because he hasn’t yet been done in by boredom or bankruptcy or sickness or scandal. 

Clint Eastwood is his very own Mount Rushmore – staring and scaring the daylights out of circumstance. It’s hard to think of any Hollywood icon whose, “Yeah”, “OK” and “I don’t know” are so laden with meaning. When he’s gone and the movie set’s gone ‘awful quiet’, don’t blame us if we’re still listening for that whisper. That unmistakable signal for crew and actors to begin, before – and behind – the camera. You can barely hear it, but it’s there.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez (@RudolphFernandz) is an independent writer writing on pop culture, including film, music, and sport.

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