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Clint Eastwood, Movie Legend: Happy 50th Anniversary!

In celebrity, film, ideology, morality on March 27, 2008 at 11:44 am
Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel (1971)

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel (1971)

Let me be the first to congratulate Clint Eastwood for reaching fifty years as a star. At least, 1958 marked his first appearance in a featured/ensemble role, in Lafayette Escadrille, about the famous flying squadron, alongside Tab Hunter, David Janssen and Darren McGavin. It was only a moderate attraction considering it was directed by that air-ace movie expert William Wellman. But Clint seems to have taken it to heart because for the fifty years since he’s specialised in man’s-man movies with women used as not much more than decoration at best, often as rape fodder. I get the idea he made The Bridges of Madison County just so he could finally win the women over.

There’s no doubt in my mind that, along the way, he superseded the all-American hero that Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Wayne once represented. All of them had other strings to their bows of course, Cooper being the most limited in range; I’ve never seen him in a comedic role but for Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941), a romantic comedy with Barbara Stanwyck in which he employs his standard “Aw shucks” shtick as a naive professor this time: a classic of conception and writing by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett. Clint, apart from a couple of ape-slapstick movies, the same.

Clint’s first starring role on tv, Rawhide, which began screening in the New Year of 1959, had some whimsical moments. Mainly, as the ramrod of the trail drive, he was a tough guy again, but in the early years of the series ranged too to a little goofy and awkward at times to contrast with the older (only five years separated them in reality), experienced and hardened trail boss Gil Favor played well by Eric Fleming. (Given that Sergio Leone came to Hollywood in 1964 first to meet Fleming, who had made a huge impression on everybody in the command of his role, and “settled for” Clint for his spaghetti westerns, it’s irresistibly tempting to wonder, “What if…?” See my separate column on Rawhide and Eric Fleming.) And when Clint became a full-fledged star in 1967, on the big screen, via the “Man With No Name” trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he represented the all-American for a totally new generation where most of the time it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Gable and Coop were dead, Fonda and Stewart semi-retired, the Duke at 60 still active but slowing down. That year Duke Wayne starred with Robert Mitchum and James Caan in El Dorado, one of Hawks’ finest westerns that can stand alongside any other in the Sixties. But the new generation of Kennedy-King survivors were anarchists thriving on (on-screen) violence, taking over from disillusioned peace-lovers — who probably weren’t moviegoers anyway, judging from box-office results.

My favorite Clint period must be his first decade, where he showed as much variety as he was capable of, before narrowing his focus down to what might be called “The Clint Eastwood Genre”; Sylvester Stallone and then Arnie Schwarzenegger further focused down to an ‘action’ formula that would infect Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, even Anthony Hopkins among many others. Following on from his opening western series, Clint did war movies Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes, the musical Paint Your Wagon — not as bad as it’s made out to be — and created the classic character Dirty Harry. Play Misty for Me and The Eiger Sanction were interesting and showed more variety, but his cowboys got ever nastier — Joe Kidd, High Plains Drifter — until the reformed outlaw, Josey Wales. For me this picture did what Unforgiven (1992) was hailed for doing, more artificially, sixteen years later. Here Clint plays a reformed gunfighter, a conspicuous man of peace, who in the last five minutes of screen time reverts to the Clint we all know, blazing away indiscriminantly with his six-guns: “Killed most anything that walked or crawled, one time or another…”

In between, amid a lot of dross, came the engrossing Escape from Alcatraz (1979), another of his best directed by Don Siegel, and spy thrillerFirefox (1982), almost as good in a low-key way. Toward the end of that decade he worked his way more into direction (Bird, etc).

This brings us to In the Line of Fire following up Unforgiven, when Clint was 63. This week must be the fourth time I’ve watched it on tv. Written by Jeff Maguire, it always seemed to me a well-plotted thriller with all the necessary suspense, etc, but only now am I grasping its underlying message, which is none too inspiring. And I would dispute Leonard Maltin’s assertion that Eastwood has never been better.

As far as the theme goes, it makes a hero of a pretty dumb guy, despite his conspicuous jazz snobbery and ability tickling the ivories. I think the lesson of the movie is that you can bumble your way through life (he loses his wife and daughter) and your career (apparently in thirty years in the Secret Service he has never rated a promotion) and still qualify as an all-American hero. Throughout, he is pathetically led by the nose by the villain Mitch Leary, a.k.a. “Booth” played by John Malkovich; bullies his young partner (Dylan McDermott) to stay on the force through serious panic attacks and ends up directly responsible for his death; and despite being an obnoxious old fart wins the knockout gorgeous woman as usual — in this case Rene Russo, an exception in being only one generation adrift from Clint’s age.

It helps that his boss is his buddy (John Mahoney) and has saved his ass a hundred times from being terminated from the Secret Service since bungling his first big assignment: protecting JFK in the motorcade at Dallas. Never mind, despite the fact that there are “229” people guarding the president at a banquet, Clint and girlfriend Rene are somehow at the center of things, barking orders at everyone in sight to ensure the president is saved. Clint also pulls through, unlike genius “Booth”. I can’t help thinking this is a movie deliberately contrived for a male audience that might vote in a dumb president because he is the one they “would most like to have a beer with”, even though someone as unexciting as genuine war hero cum intellectual John Kerry slaughtered him in a series of tv debates on the issues. Is it an accident that the genius is a paranoid, homicidal maniac and the hero a dumb, ordinary screw-up? Even catching a glimpse of his own personal file at some stage — Clint calls himself “a borderline burnout with questionable social skills” — doesn’t give him any insight into himself. Somehow, Clint’s character, Frank Corrigan, in his mid-fifties, the age he is playing, retains his professional confidence fully intact, even overblown to the point of arrogance; to say nothing of his sexual confidence, able to draw much younger women though coming out with some juvenile lines of sexual innuendo.

It only got better for Clint in the sex department at the end of the millennium, as he crowded seventy. I once did a review of a movie from 1999 where he seemed to have stepped into a Brad Pitt role that Clint had to take over at the last minute — an alcoholic this time, a full burnout, having lost his wife and child again, but showing off saggy abs and having nubile 23-year-olds falling all over him. I’ll have to dig it up some time.

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