Exploring the incomparable and still vital career of Clint Eastwood.
Clint Eastwood is 86 today, and to commemorate the occasion of his ongoing and still-vital career as a filmmaker I offer the proposition that there’s never been anyone like him, and never will be again. This isn’t a subscription to some kind of theory that every human being is a special snowflake – and good God, can you imagine the squint and growl Clint Eastwood would give forth if you called him a snowflake? – but a recognition that the timing of his ascent led to a place in the history of cinema that would have been impossible at any other point, and this is even before his durability and versatility come into discussion. (In fact, I have a theory as to the source of both of those qualities, that we’ll address shortly.)
After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Eastwood pursued a career in acting, and in fairly short order was cast as the lead on the TV Western Rawhide. The role, while one Eastwood never particularly enjoyed playing, nevertheless paved the way to his crossover into movie stardom in the form of Sergio Leone’s epochal “Dollars” trilogy. Purely in terms of stardom, the rest is history. As far as the nature of Eastwood’s stardom, he was the first major actor to parlay television celebrity into film stardom, which was bound to happen eventually but he was still the first. The time that this all happened, thanks to historical syncronicity, was at the exact time that world cinema – particularly in Europe – was taking a collective look back at its history and applying a critical eye to genre traditions. Leone’s work with the Western was a major part of this cinematic moment, and in Eastwood, he had the perfect actor for such work.
Not only had most of his career been spent essaying a traditional example of the Western hero in a commercial genre, Clint Eastwood as an actor has always trafficked in a kind of minimalism that works with a given film and its aims. He takes an approach grounded in the same philosophy to his film directing. In terms of process it consists of paring down all extraneous material until only the essential elements remain. Whether coincidence or not it results in a situation where the interior process matches his physical body: lean, still, possessed of a laconicism so profound and indivisible from his body, process and career that he has proprietary rights to the word “laconic.”
This lack of effect enables film audiences to project themselves onto Eastwood as a means of filling whatever expository gaps grow in his silences. He has been successfully working in commercial film as both an actor and director for seven decades for just this reason, that audiences, to a large extent, see what they want to see in Eastwood. This should not be mistaken for deeming him an inert object: it takes great skill and self-awareness to cultivate this quality in one’s physical and emotional bearing, and enormous discipline to adhere to it for so many years. Working in commercial forms is often derided as a selfish and degraded path for an artist but there is a humility in painstakingly considering the audience in every step of the artistic process. The simplicity in Eastwood’s work begets elegance, and the matter of fact diligence with which he continues to direct an average of a film a year for this many years suggests that the work has long since transcended being work and is simply part of his organic being.
His tendency to not overthink his films and value spontaneity does occasionally lead Eastwood astray. Some of his films can be thin to a fault and even in his best work one might occasionally yearn wistfully for a third take. Candidly speaking his mind sometimes leads him to cringe-inducing statements like blaming the commercial struggles faced in 1988 by his brilliant but bleak Charlie Parker biopic Bird on black people no longer listening to jazz. More recently there was his odd appearance at the 2012 Republican convention, where he delivered an off-the-cuff performance art piece, involving an empty chair standing in for President Obama, that no one – including, based his own account of the thing, Clint – got. His more conservative-leaning fans may find similar discomfort in Eastwood’s support for gun control, civil rights, marriage equality, and a woman’s right to choose.
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But none of this comes into conflict with Eastwood’s artistic work, which while concerned with morality and ethics is so in broad, mainly apolitical ways. Even Dirty Harry, easily read (if you overlook the final shot) as an indictment of due process as an impediment to law enforcement, indicts Harry’s lawless tactics as, if useful in one specific case in removing a bad man from polite society, an obviation of pure heroism. This embrace of duality and nuance, central to Eastwood’s individualistic worldview, makes it impossible to pigeonhole him into simplistic political categories, and is just as essential, in how it influences the extratextual perception of his work, to his continued success as the work itself.
While the occasional lull or reversal of fortune is inescapable in any career, particularly one as long as Clint Eastwood’s, there has been no prolonged period since he started working in the 1950s in which he has been on the outs professionally. He has never had to come back, because he’s never gone away. He owes this, counterintuitively, to never having been fashionable. Orson Welles is often quoted as saying “I think an artist has always to be out of step with his times,” which certainly applies to Clint Eastwood’s contradictory status as both an immutable force of geological Americanness and post-modern prism of European-derived genre criticism. Really, though, this wordiness is inept at getting at Clint Eastwood. He is who he is, often for better, rarely for worse. There will never be another like him, and long may he continue.