Like his eponymous Man with No Name character, Clint Eastwood has survived the slings and arrows of film industry snubs and the derision of East Coast critics to have the last laugh. Though recognized early on by French cineastes, Eastwood’s quirky, character-driven stories were generally dismissed by the same tastemakers in his own country who stumbled over themselves to embrace similar fare by more obscure and less-talented filmmakers.
The stigma of being an action hero with incorrect politics has made the road to recognition a rocky one, but Eastwood’s choices have always been refreshingly free of fashionable statements and commercial trends. Despite the occasional misfire and some lapses in taste, Eastwood maintained an artistic integrity unusual for the town he works in. He remains a true maverick.
Born at the beginning of the Great Depression, Clint had a vagabond childhood as his ne’er do well father spent much of the 1930s moving his family up and down the California coast looking for work. Clint continued to struggle as a young man, taking on a series of hard labor jobs before he joined the Army Special Services at the age of twenty.
Once out of the army, his dashing good looks got him work in Hollywood as a bit part actor in several films before he secured a gig in the hit TV show Rawhide playing cowboy Rowdy Yates. After scuffling for years, the undemanding role of a ramrod was a welcome relief and gave Eastwood the opportunity to settle down to quiet domesticity with his new wife.
Rawhide ran for eight years, but as Clint was only the second lead there was no guarantee he would find future work as the studio system ground to a close. Eastwood was further hamstrung by the fact he was being typecast as a Western-type just as the genre was dying out.
In 1964 Eastwood chose to accept a far-flung offer from a novice Italian director to spend his summer vacation starring in a Western to be filmed in Spain, of all places. Based on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Yojimbo, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was wildly successful at the box office and helped rejuvenate the genre. Quite unlike the gung-ho Westerns still being made in Hollywood, Leone’s approach was bitter and dark and the cool, morally ambiguous Eastwood turned out to be his perfect muse.
The second and third Leone-Eastwood collaborations, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were increasingly baroque exercises and box office triumphs that put its star on the Hollywood A-List. But after Eli Wallach succeeded in the stealing The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly from under his nose, Eastwood opted out of working with his first mentor in future projects.
A professional divorce was inevitable as Leone and Eastwood clashed philosophically about filmmaking. The master was obsessed by creating a perfect mise-en-scene while the protégé was more intrigued by what motivated people to do the curious things they do.
Freed from his obligations to Rawhide the hot film star made up for lost time by acting in a pair of WWII adventure epics (Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes), an infamous gold rush musical (Paint Your Wagon), a couple of hard-nosed westerns (Hang ‘Em High, Two Mules For Sister Sara) and a macabre Civil War horror flick (The Beguiled) directed by the man who would become his new, and true, mentor Don Siegel.
Indeed, the Hollywood veteran gave Eastwood the right amount of encouragement to ask Universal Studios head Lew Wasserman if he could act and direct his newest project, a story that chillingly anticipated the celebrity stalkings of the 1980s and ‘90s.
In Play Misty for Me Eastwood drew from experience to play Dave Garver, a self-possessed disc jockey from Carmel, California. Dave’s local celebrity gives him ample chance to bed plenty of women, but his love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude gets its sternest test when he hooks up with a pretty but seriously disturbed fan, Evelyn (the superb Jessica Walter).
After a one night stand, Evelyn refuses to leave Dave alone and her unannounced visits to his home begins to threaten his relationship with Tobie (Donna Mills), the woman he really loves. Dave’s indifference only makes Evelyn more delusional before she finally becomes unhinged in the shocking and bloody finale.
In Misty, director Eastwood struck an uneasy balance by giving Evelyn a girl next door quality and portraying Dave as something of an unfeeling heel. To give his film a sense of immediacy Eastwood eschewed the artificiality of studio filmmaking to shoot almost on locales in and around picture postcard Carmel. From the get-go, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a director who knows what he’s doing.
Eastwood’s fluid camera (manned by the talented Bruce Surtees) is almost always in the right place and the fluidity of the performances (typically shot in one or two takes) only adds to the nervous quality of the dark content. The results made for a surprisingly edgy horror-thriller that drew comparisons to Hitchcock upon its release.
Eastwood’s independent streak took an unusual turn with a May-December romance in the altogether charming Breezy. Set in the hills of Los Angeles during the dying days of Flower Power, Frank Harmon (William Holden) is a cynical, 50something real estate agent who against his better judgment gives a lift to Breezy (Kay Lenz), a teenage hippie. After a bewildering ride that finds Frank drawn into an argument over morality the girl demands they stop to give comfort to a dog hit by a car.
Frank’s mean demeanor finally forces Breezy to flee, so he is later surprised when he encounters the free-spirited girl on his doorstep the same night. Frank’s cynical reserve crumbles to Breezy’s warm heart and he enters into an affair with a girl most assume to be his daughter. Experiencing old sights and sounds through Breezy helps Frank’s heart come out of hibernation but there’s a part of him which remains concerned about what his smug, middle-aged friends will say.
Universal did little to promote the sweet little film so it was no big surprise it flopped at the box office. With its gentle but very pointed take on the giant divide between Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation Breezy turned out to be ahead of its time. Since Eastwood avoided false sentimentality his film never generated the cult following of the similarly-themed Harold and Maude.
While Eastwood continued to make popular Westerns in the early 1970s, his role as Detective Harry Callahan in Don Siegel’s blockbuster hit Dirty Harry opened up new vistas for him as an actor and a director. Although the brash cop’s vigilante demeanor hurt Eastwood’s reputation in critical circles the role solidified his status as one of Hollywood’s top draws and gave him the opportunity to branch out.
On paper, The Eiger Sanction looks like an espionage thriller reminiscent of such recent hits as Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack) and The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann) but Eastwood’s Dr. Jonathan Hemlock turns out to be far more complex than the typical screen hit man.
A professor of art at a western university, Hemlock finances his collection of masterpiece paintings by working as a covert assassin. When Hemlock takes on a job to avenge an old friend, he is unaware he has become a dupe for the Dragon (Thayer David), an albino government official from whom he takes his orders.
After a promising opening The Eiger Sanction succumbs to a convoluted script, some crude dialogue and a truly bad performance by George Kennedy as the double agent who betrays Hemlock. In the hands of a master tactician (Hitchcock, Lang) or even a competent craftsman as Zinnemann, The Eiger Sanction might have turned into a top-notch thriller.
As is, the film remains memorable for Hemlock’s very real romance with the charming African-American agent Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee) and a spectacular climax carried out in the dangerous nooks and crannies of the Swiss Alps.
The Gauntlet found Eastwood back in a familiar role playing an over-the-hill cop assigned to escort a witness from a Vegas jail to trial in Phoenix.
After being passed-over for a promotion and worried about losing his job Ben Shockley (Eastwood) accepts the minor assignment to gain favor with his new boss, the by the book Police Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince). Shockley is surprised to find the witness, “Gus” Mally (Sondra Locke), is a college-educated hooker with a price on her head.
Chased by cops and hit men alike, the pair has barely made it out of town when Gus informs the dim Shockley that Blakelock has a good reason to make sure neither of them arrives in Phoenix alive. Eager to expose the corrupt Commissioner Shockley risks his life and new found happiness with Gus to run Blakelock’s Gauntlet.
Though Locke’s acting style can be bitter and strident it works to excellent comic effect, here, and Eastwood lets her steal the movie. This taut and relentless flick (written by Michael Butler and Dennis Shyrack) was released around the same time as John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 and Walter Hill’s The Warriors, two other action classics which also took mind-numbing violence to task.
The inexplicable commercial success of Eastwood’s orangutan comedies (Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can) didn’t win any grudging critics to his side but they did help finance two delightful personal projects Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man. Eastwood’s take on comedy is broad but it takes a heart of stone not to be charmed by the loveable losers he portrays in these two slices of Americana.
Bronco Billy McCoy (Eastwood) leads a band of miscreant carnies across the west in his traveling road show. But, the New Jersey-born Billy’s quaint and anachronistic take on the world doesn’t translate into good business and his show is forever on the verge of closing down.
After losing his latest female assistant he hires the spoiled Antoinette (Sondra Locke) to take her place. The sour Manhattan princess, left destitute by her husband on her wedding night, brings the road show even worse luck and the carnies are on the verge of mutiny when, finally, Antoinette shows her mettle.
Borrowing heavily from the screwball comedies of the 1930s the corny but winning, Bronco Billy aims to entertain and remains superior to most of the sickly-sweet family fare Hollywood would dump on an unsuspecting public in the coming decade.
After years of playing one-night stands across the southwest, singer-songwriter Red Stovall (Eastwood) finally gets his big break when he is offered to audition for a spot on Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry radio show. Years of self-abuse and advanced tuberculosis affects Red’s driving, so he talks his sister into letting his fourteen year old nephew Whit (Kyle Eastwood) become his chauffeur for the arduous journey.
Along with Whit’s Grandpa (John McIntire), the unlikely trio shares a series of shaggy-dog adventures from the lonesome plains of Oklahoma to the backwoods towns of Arkansas. Whit gets first-hand experience of his uncle’s free and easy ways with women and the law, but he idolizes Red and hopes that he, too, can touch people with music someday.
Red’s failing health keeps him from landing the Opry gig, so Whit escorts him back to their Nashville flat where he gives his dying uncle comfort. But, fate appears in the person of a recording engineer with an offer that could lead to immortality.
The roguish Red Stovall is one of Eastwood’s most complex anti-heroes. Clint even gets to show-off his pleasant, drawly singing voice in several songs, including a swan song duet with the great western crooner Marty Robbins. Like Red, Eastwood’s film was a victim of bad timing as it seems likely this rich and ambitious slice of Americana might have found more receptive audiences during the country and western renaissance of the 1990s.
While creating the screen persona of a kinder and gentler Clint, Eastwood was looking for a thriller to direct. He found a ringer in Firefox, a complex and surprisingly good Cold War caper in which he plays Mitchell Gant, a retired and reclusive air force pilot recruited to steal a hi-tech Soviet fighter plane.
If utilized by the Russians, the super vessel could threaten security in the free world. To get behind the Iron Curtain Gant must become a master of disguise but his efforts to impersonate an American businessman and Soviet worker go terribly awry placing in danger the brave volunteers who are already risking their lives in getting him to the plane.
Even after taking off from the heavily-guarded hangar, Gant’s chances of survival are slim. He has to fly the unfamiliar plane several hours over Russian soil until he reaches an arctic refueling station. To make matters worse, the Soviets quickly send out an identical fighter plane with orders to take Gant down.
The thrilling air battle between Gant and the Soviet pilot borrows liberally from the Star Wars series and with the help of George Lucas’ special effects team the state of the art technology helps the action soar beyond reservations audiences may have had about the plot.
Although Eastwood was taken to task for not casting Russians and interpreting this serious subject in what many perceived to be a frivolous manner, he created a brisk, entertaining film. Thirty years on, Firefox doesn’t feel as dated or didactic as similarly-themed cold war thrillers (Fail-Safe, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, etc.) and deserves critical reconsideration.
Eastwood’s character-driven films took a tumble at the box office. Cuddly Clint didn’t appeal to audiences who liked their movies crunchy and their tepid reception convinced him to return to more tried and true material. The much anticipated Sudden Impact was the first Dirty Harry film in seven years. Though the series had flattened-out in terms of quality over the years it remained a cash cow for Warner Brothers.
While sent on “vacation” from the San Francisco police, the still crazy after all these years Harry Callahan is assigned to look into a murder mystery set in the posh suburb San Paolo. A local low-life has been killed, but the local police commissioner (Pat Hingle) doesn’t want Harry’s help in solving the case. After another execution-style killing, Harry finds the commissioner has ties to the murdered men and he begins to suspect a local artist (Sondra Locke) may hold the key to the mystery.
For better or worse, Sudden Impact is almost unrecognizable as a Dirty Harry film. The nihilistic cop from the original Don Siegel film is now just a curmudgeonly detective looking to cut through the new political correctness which has made him a dinosaur on the force. Again, Eastwood gave the most interesting role to Locke, who is chilling as the disturbed, abstract artist out to avenge two brutal rapes.
The film’s stylized violence carried over to Eastwood’s next project Tightrope where he plays a New Orleans detective on the trail of a serial killer of young women. Screenwriter Richard Tuggle’s was also slated to direct but when the novice became indecisive on the set Eastwood stepped in to help “supervise” the production.
Detective Wes Block (Eastwood) is assigned to investigate the savage murder of a young prostitute he plunges into the city’s seedy underworld and, to his surprise, what he finds there appeals to his dark side. Inadvertently, Wes brings the ugliness to his home where is bringing up two young daughters who ultimately will get in harm’s way.
Upon release Tightrope got much praise from critics who welcomed the psycho-sexual variance from Eastwood but aside from some nice interplay between Clint and daughter Alison, the film is something of a jumble.
Eastwood lacked the courage of his convictions by not exploring Wes’ inner demons to the hilt. Some of Eastwood’s reticence can be chalked-up to his limitations as an actor but it’s also likely the producer in Clint was wary of just how much his tried and true audience would be willing to accept him as a backstreet creeper.
Now in his mid-fifties Eastwood was well-aware his days as a matinee idol were drawing to a close so he made the interesting decision to transition his screen persona from lone wolf to grizzled mentor. By doing so, he could bring on young lions to play his wet behind the ears sidekicks and maintain his appeal to a new generation of film audiences.
Some of his attempts to keep hip felt awkward then and look quite embarrassing today, but both Heartbreak Ridge and The Rookie occasionally transcend much of the mindless action-adventure fare Hollywood was churning out in the 1980s.
In the uneven but entertaining Heartbreak Ridge Eastwood plays the gruff Marine Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway, a much decorated veteran of two unsuccessful American wars that has left a foul taste in his mouth. The non-conforming, beer-swilling Highway is assigned to train a hopeless recon unit. Piqued by his condescending Commanding Officer (Everett McGill), the sergeant goes above and beyond the call to instill battlefield discipline into his motley troops.
Initially, Mario Van Peebles’ portrayal of Marine Stitch Jones seems ludicrously out of step with the hard-ass world of Sergeant Highway but this Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla comes to respect the old soldier and slips under his wing just as the company is called on to rescue a community of Americans in Grenada. The crusty Highway turned out to be one of Eastwood’s best creations and his confrontations with the spiteful McGill and the multi-racial members of his unit are pure gold.
The Rookie, an over-the-top cop thriller co-starring the preposterous Charlie Sheen, may look like junk to the indiscriminate viewer but this is the rare occasion where director Eastwood threw caution to the wind and seemed to be having as much fun as his fellow leads. Clint plays cigar-smoking Nick Pulowski, a former race car driver assigned to the LAPD’s grand theft auto unit.
After Nick’s partner is killed by a German chop shop hooligan Strom (Raul Julia?!) he is assigned the newly-promoted investigator David Ackerman as a replacement. Haunted by the childhood death of his brother Ackerman aims to find peace of mind as a cop, but he is stalemated by Pulowski doesn’t want the younger man’s help in tracking down the killers.
Given his recent transgressions Sheen is hard to take seriously as the poor little rich boy who rebels against his unfeeling daddy (Tom Skerritt) and the time spent navigating Ackerman’s back story and current crisis creates a black hole from which the film never entirely escapes.
Perhaps sensing he had turkey on his hands, Eastwood pulled out all the stops in a berserk thirty-minute finale in which Ackerman, who has since won Nick’s respect, joins his partner in a mad chase to bring down Julia and his sexy, gun-toting sidekick, Sonia Braga.
Eastwood realized a longtime dream of filming the story of another musical legend with Bird, a multi-layered take on the genius of Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker). A radical innovator and gifted improviser on the alto saxophone Parker practically re-invented jazz with his fiery and harmonically-advanced solos. But, the sensitive musician became a victim of manipulative nightclub owners, vindictive cops and his own self-destructive behavior before dying at the age of thirty-four.
Eastwood and screenwriter Joel Oliansky chose to structure their film around Parker’s relationship to his wife Chan (Diane Verona), who struggles to keep Charlie off drugs and out of shock treatment. Eastwood and his new cinematographer Jack N. Green spun plenty of magic recreating NYC’s vibrant 52nd Street scene, giving a thumping heartbeat to a form of jazz which continues to be misrepresented in Hollywood and neglected by mainstream culture. To his credit Whitaker threads plenty of self-deprecating humor into his sensitive, down to earth portrayal of a jazz God.
Eastwood’s next take on a creative monster, White Hunter Black Heart, was based on screenwriter Peter Viertel’s experiences with John Huston on the set of The African Queen. Here, Eastwood plays John Wilson, a successful Hollywood film director who does not play by the book. Though Wilson is under contract to make a big-budget film in Africa, he blows off working on pre-production and the script to pursue his dream of shooting an elephant while on safari in Africa.
Along the way, the perverse Wilson steamrolls his well-meaning secretary (Charlotte Cornwell), his hapless producer (George Dzundza), his “white hunters” (Martin Jacobs & Conrad Asquith), and his closest companion, the screenwriter Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey), who all fail in talking sense to the unshakeable Wilson.
When his obsession contributes to the senseless killing of Kivu (Boy Mathias Chuma), a pillar of the local community, Wilson finally has to face up to his selfishness and irresponsibility.
Much criticized upon its release—in a good part because of Eastwood’s insistence in aping Huston’s flowery manner of speaking—White Hunter, Black Heart has aged surprisingly well as a portrait of ego run amuck.
For a Hollywood icon so closely associated with the Western it comes as a surprise Eastwood has only directed four films in the genre. His first, High Plains Drifter, is certainly influenced by the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, but it is enough of a character-driven piece to give it a distinct Eastwood flavor.
Clint plays another mysterious stranger who rides into a frontier town consumed by paranoia. The opportunistic townsfolk have hired a band of gunmen to protect them against three outlaws who murdered their sheriff, but when the cocky “lawmen” make the unwise decision to confront the stranger they pay with their lives.
Looking to cover their hides, the community quickly hires the fast gun-toting drifter who takes advantage of the situation to humiliate his cynical hosts. In anticipation of the outlaws release from prison, the stranger literally paints the town to give the killers a welcome home they will never forget.
High Plains Drifter is Eastwood’s least ambiguous western—it has some very real elements of horror—and it is clear from the get-go everyone is out for themselves. But conscience seeps through in the persons of the frustrated hotel owner’s wife (Vera Bloom) and the much-maligned dwarf Mordecai (Billy Curtis) whom the stranger promotes to town sheriff then mayor. In the end, the stranger eliminates the outlaws, but not before the bad men have rid the town of the human rot that threatened its chance for survival.
In The Outlaw Josey Wales Eastwood plays a Missouri farmer whose family is massacred by Union soldiers in the waning days of the Civil War. Looking to avenge himself upon the killers, he joins a band of brigands led by Fletcher (John Vernon) who continue the fight against the Army. But when the Rebel guerrillas are coerced into surrendering, Josey chooses to fight on.
While vaguely touching on some of Jesse James’ experiences as a raider, Eastwood’s film evolves from its bloody beginnings into a story of community. During his odyssey Josey mentors an angry young rebel (Sam Bottoms), befriends an old Cherokee (Chief Dan George), takes over a wagon train of settlers, and makes peace with a warring Comanche tribe before leading his rag-tag followers to an idyllic home in the valley. But when Josey’s past finally catches up with him, his new friends don’t let him down.
Co-written by Phillip Kaufman (who was initially slated to direct) and magnificently filmed by cinematographer Bruce Surtees, The Outlaw Josey Wales plays small but gains considerable storytelling power through its massive sprawl. Eastwood borrows as freely from classic westerns, namely John Ford’s Wagon Master and Arthur Penn’s revisionist Little Big Man, making for a fresh and original take on a fading genre.
It seemed curious Eastwood would take another ten years before making another Western, but the haunting Pale Rider proved well-worth the wait.
When a group of gold prospectors are threatened by a mining company with a posse of killers, they find an unlikely ally in a mysterious Preacher (Eastwood). After the Preacher stands up to a group of a trio of local thugs, he is offered room and board by Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), the mild-mannered leader of the prospectors.
Hull’s girlfriend Sarah (Carrie Snodgrass) and her teenage daughter Megan (Sydney Penny) take a shine to their new lodger, but Sarah fears the prospectors will be routed by the mining company’s gunmen if the Preacher makes good on his promise to leave town. But the would-be holy man wreaks vengeance on the combine by blowing-up their mine and picking-off the gunmen until a final confrontation with a ghost from his past.
Owing to the Leone-esque confrontations the starkly beautiful Pale Rider turns out to be much tighter— if less ambitious—than Eastwood’s personal favorite western Josey Wales.
Eastwood’s vision of the old west grew more ominous in his next, and likely final film in the genre, Unforgiven.
Former outlaw William Munny (Eastwood) lives in anonymity on a poor farm on the open plain with his two children. The retired killer of women and children is approached by a cocky young gunslinger (Jaimz Woolvett) who tries to interest Munny in a $1000 bounty offered up by prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey to kill two cowboys who sliced up one of the women. The born again widower is reticent but with his kids’ future in mind, he takes on the job.
Since Munny is no longer sure about his ability with a gun, he enlists his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) to join them. Meanwhile, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), the sadistic sheriff of Big Whiskey, uses strong-arm tactics to fend off all strangers who come to town looking to cash-in on the bounty. When the would-be assassins arrive in town the ailing Munny fails to turn over his guns on arrival and is treated to a savage beating from Little Bill.
The men re-group outside of town to give Munny time to recover. They are visited by the prostitutes who give them encouragement to carry out the grim task. The men succeed in cornering and shooting one of the cowboys, but after Ned decides he wants no part of any more killings he is captured by Little Bill’s deputies and subsequently is beaten to death by the sheriff.
Playing an angel of death Munny unleashes his fury on the sheriff and the townsmen, leaving fire and bodies in his wake. Despite the gory finale, a pacifistic streak runs through Eastwood’s gloomy and terrifying anti-western. Munny grapples with a past filled with senseless and unconscionable violence but, in the end, he will have to play the role of killer one more time to rid the town of the cancer that has engulfed it.
Eastwood’s coronation at the 1993’s Oscar ceremonies for Unforgiven vindicated an important American filmmaker. Members of his loyal crew (Joel Cox, cinematographer Green and set designer Henry Bumstead) were all nominated for Academy Awards with Cox winning for best editing. But for the rest of the decade, it often felt as if Eastwood had lost his way.
His films took on an impressionistic palette due in a large part to Eastwood’s restless camera, his one-take method of shooting, and a habit to let scenes run past their natural conclusions. Eastwood also began adapting best-selling books, a few of which (Absolute Power, True Crime & Blood Work) clearly required a meatier directorial hand to deliver the pulpy goods. Although the output during this period is spotty, there are still plenty of nuggets to mine.
Set in the innocent days before JFK’s assassination, A Perfect World follows the plight of prison escapee Butch Haines who bonds with his young hostage during a road odyssey in rural Texas. Butch (Kevin Costner) and his partner Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) make a clean break from prison but they run into trouble when the psychopathic Pugh assaults a housewife prompting Haines to kidnap her eight year old son Phillip (T. J. Lowther) as escape insurance.
The boy turns out to be a Jehovah’s Witness and lives a sheltered existence free of Halloween, cotton candy and roller coasters. Haines shoots Pugh after he attempts to molest Phillip but the fatherless young boy chooses to stay with the outlaw and gets first-hand experience of all the excitement and danger life has to give.
Fueled by a love-hate relationship with his own missing father Haines crosses the line when it appears he is going to execute a child-abuser who has offered them board and breakfast. The terrified Phillip shoots Haines but stays to comfort his grievously-wounded friend leading to an inevitable confrontation with the law.
Haines and Phillip are given a lukewarm chase by the unlikely team of Texas Ranger Eastwood and his Governor-appointed assistant Laura Dern who bicker about old and new school methods of criminal science and a woman’s place in the world.
Since Haines’ sudden drift towards violence is never completely believable the film goes off the rails, but the tenderness between the convict and the innocent boy provide for some of the most touching sequences in Eastwood’s body of work.
The film opens in present day Iowa where the 40something Johnson siblings (Annie Corley & Victor Slezak) reconvene at their childhood home in Iowa to hear the reading of their mother’s will. They are shocked to hear their dutiful mom didn’t want to be buried next to her long-deceased husband and requested cremation so they could spread her ashes next to one of the county bridges. Hoping to get to the bottom of this mystery the distraught pair investigate Francesca Johnson’s trunk where they find evidence of a great passion and unfulfilled life.
The story takes up in 1965 where we find the Italian housewife Francesca (Meryl Streep) finishing her daily tasks on a sleepy Iowa farm. Her husband and two children prepare for a road trip to the Illinois State Fair but Francesca isn’t going, in fact she is looking forward to a few days of peace and quiet. Just as she is ready to curl up with a volume of Yeats Francesca is surprised to find herself host to Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), a free-spirited National Geographic photographer.
Charmed by Francesca’s reserve and intelligence, Robert is careful to keep their new friendship a platonic one but he has already lit a fire in her lonely heart. After two romantic dinners at the Johnson home the star-crossed pair falls hopelessly in love. Suspicious of her lover’s free and easy lifestyle and unwilling to hurt her decent husband, Francesca is incapable of taking the plunge to run away with Robert.
These four blissful days together will have to be enough to sustain them for the rest of their lives. The affair inspires Kincaid to finally publish a book and make Francesca’s children do some soul-searching on their own.
Streep (looking like a shiksa Anna Magnani) and Eastwood (who has never been more at ease) give tactful and sexy performances that transcend the sappy source material in a big way.
Eastwood chose another bestseller as source material for his next film Absolute Power, a timely thriller about a philandering president and the frightening aftermath of his indiscretions. Based on the novel by David Baldacci and a screenplay by William Goldman this glossy production was bolstered by one of the most talented casts to ever work on an Eastwood film.
Clint assigned himself the role of Luther Whitney, an expert thief who finds himself trapped inside a mansion from which he has just liberated five million dollars-worth of jewelry and cash. Hiding out in a secret room Luther witnesses some kinky sex play between a young woman (Melora Hardin) and a much older man. When things take a rough turn the knife wielding woman is shot by a pair of secret service men who fear for the life of the man, U.S. president Allen Richmond (Gene Hackman).
The crime is covered up by Richmond’s chief of staff Gloria Russell (Judy Davis) who directs the agents to make one last sweep of the house of Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall), the elderly philanthropist whose wife they just killed. The men discover Luther and give chase to the bandit but he manages to escape with the booty.
Police detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris) thinks there is more to this murder-robbery than meets the eye. After pinpointing the elusive Luther as a prime suspect Seth contacts his daughter Kate (Laura Linney) in the hopes of bringing him in and learning the real truth. When the secret servicemen and Sullivan fail in assassinating Luther the pissed-off thief decides to take matters into his own hands.
As far as high concept potboilers go this character-driven entertainment holds up well and the connect-the-dots storytelling kept Eastwood from wandering too far off the track—a problem which plagued his next project.
A staple on the NYT’s bestseller list for several years John Berendt’s true story of sin and murder in Savannah, Georgia, Midnight in Garden of Good & Evil, was thought to be un-filmable. When presented with a dramatically-linear screenplay by John Lee Hancock, Eastwood threw caution to the wind and headed below the Mason-Dixon Line to film the gothic murder mystery.
Town and Country magazine reporter John Kelso (John Cusack) is assigned to cover the Christmas party thrown by a flamboyant local resident Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). After arriving in town Kelso is enchanted and confused by all the bizarre sights and sounds of a town that seems from another time and place. He strikes up a friendship with the charming Williams but things take a dark turn when the nouveau riche businessman shoots his violent lover (Jude Law) to death.
Kelso sticks around Savannah for the trial but his confidence in the defendant takes a tumble when the two-faced Williams contradicts his testimony on the stand. Given the rich mix of ingredients it was disappointing when Eastwood delivered such a flat film.
As evidenced by his awkward dabbling on the dark side in both Tightrope and The Rookie Eastwood was the wrong director for bringing salacious topics to the big screen. The wisest choice Eastwood made in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was to give free reign to Lady Chablis, a charismatic cross-dresser who knows all the town’s dirty little secrets.
Eastwood the actor returned to the screen in True Crime, an old-fashioned potboiler about an alcoholic newspaper reporter who has only a half day to save a wrongly-convicted man from a date with the executioner.
On the downside of a distinguished career as a journalist, Steve Everett (Eastwood) takes time away from sleeping with his bosses’ wives to trek out to San Quentin’s death row and interview the condemned to die Frank Beecham (Isaiah Washington) for a human interest piece for the Oakland Tribune.
Something about Beecham’s conviction rubs Everett the wrong way and against his better judgment he launches his own investigation into the murder of a young cashier. Along the way, Steve meets resistance from his jealous boss (Dennis Leary) and the mother of the now-deceased man who Everitt thinks did the crime.
Eastwood’s admiration for the snappiness and grit of old Warner Brothers films is on display here but Everitt’s mad race against the clock is a stretch for even the least discerning fan of Cagney and Bogart. True Crime finds Eastwood hitting rock bottom.
Approaching the ripe old age of seventy, Eastwood wasn’t exactly leading man material anymore and his last few films didn’t have much appeal to, as Clint put it, the MTV crowd. He needed a hit but he didn’t want to have to kowtow to the studio bean counters. Space Cowboys seemed a perfect project to placate his bosses and a new generation of audiences.
After being forced to sit on the sidelines during the U.S.-Soviet space race in the 1960s, retired air force colonel Frank Corvin (Eastwood) is recruited by his former superior Bob Garson (James Cromwell) to repair a Russian space station that is threatening to crash back to earth. Corvin agrees to help but only if he can bring along his old crew on the mission. Owing to a thorny history with Corvin Garson is reluctant to agree to his demands but since the colonel is the only person familiar with the design of the Russian satellite he signs off on the request.
Garson assigns a pair of younger, MIT-educated pilots to glean all the necessary information from Corvin and his cohorts (Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner), so they can take over operations when the older men fail their vigorous training. To Garson’s surprise the men pass their physicals and when their story is leaked to the press Corvin and his geriatric crew becomes a hit with the American public.
When it is revealed pilot Hawk Hawkins (Jones) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer Corvin threatens to quit the mission unless his friend and former rival can remain on the team. After a successful lift-off and engagement with the satellite Corvin is appalled to find the wounded space ship is rigged with nuclear missiles programmed to take out several American cities. Not surprisingly, the two young astronauts succumb to folly and inexperience and it’s up to the old pros to save the world from nuclear holocaust.
Eastwood plays another highly-skilled professional past his prime in the thriller Blood Work, based on a novel by Michael Connelly. After former FBI investigator Terry McCaleb has been fitted with a new heart, a woman shows up on his boat asking for his help in finding the killer of her sister. As the victim was the donor of his heart Terry feels obliged to assist Wanda (Graciella Rivers) track down the masked murderer. Ignoring the protests of his doctor (Anjelica Huston) Terry enlists his neighbor Buddy Noone (Jeff Daniels) to be his driver and he sets off to reconstruct the crime that took the lives of two innocent people.
Terry thinks there is more than meets the eye to this case and his suspicions are confirmed when he links the killing of Wanda’s sister to another random murder victim who shares her rare blood type. Terry links these latest crimes to the madman who drove him to a heart attack years earlier on a bloody, unsolved case.
This low-key whodunit stalled at the box office, but it was the best Eastwood films in years and put him on the fast track to re-assume his place among the top echelon of American filmmakers.
Eastwood’s current “renaissance” has been sparked by better source material, a reinvigorated focus and, ironically, a willingness to phase out his iconic screen persona. At first glance, Mystic River seemed like another high-concept thriller but Dennis Lehane’s somber tale of dark secrets and forbidden crimes turned out to be right up Eastwood’s alley.
When the nineteen-year-old daughter of local hooligan Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is found murdered suspicion soon falls upon Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), a local loser and old friend of Jimmy’s who returned home the night of the murder with blood on his hands. Kidnapped and raped as a child, Boyle is a ghostly figure who lurks at the fringes of the working class community.
Boyle’s childhood friend Boston cop Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is assigned the case and though he is pressured by his partner (Laurence Fishburne) to arrest Boyle, he finds it hard to believe the meek man could kill the daughter of a friend. After Boyle’s frightened wife (Marcia Gay Harden) admits to Markum she thinks Dave did the deed, Jimmy takes the law into his own hands.
Revenge, a theme so prevalent in Eastwood’s gothic westerns (High Plains Drifter & Unforgiven), weighs heavy on the three middle-aged men who struggle to connect with loved ones after the fateful childhood incident took their innocence away. It also helped that Lehane’s incestuous narrative packed real punch making the shocking finale all the more devastating. Shot in muted colors on the mean streets of south Boston Mystic River turned out to be a sober yet quite marvelous study of a community worn down by tragedy and broken dreams.
Based on a story by F. X. Toole and a screenplay by Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby finds Eastwood playing Los Angeles boxing trainer Frankie Dunn, a crotchety, old school professional who loses his best fighters because he won’t let them bid for a championship until he thinks they are ready. When the thirty-one-year-old novice Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) asks Frankie to become her manager, he rejects her on the grounds he doesn’t train women.
Still, Maggie scrapes her meager savings together to workout at Frankie’s gym, ultimately catching the eye of Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an old prizefighter who does the nightly sweep. Scrap talks Frankie into taking a look at Maggie and once she tells the old Irishman her hard-luck story, he reluctantly gives in.
Since she dispatches all her opponents with great ease Frankie finds Maggie doesn’t need his boxing advice, so much as some fatherly empathy. Indeed, after Maggie is rejected by her white trash family and Frankie’s letters to his daughter are returned unopened, the old trainer’s “project” becomes his surrogate daughter, too.
Frankie finally caves in and accepts an offer of a championship fight for Maggie. But, try as he may, Frankie can’t prepare her for the dirty tactics of the German champion and after a cheap shot Maggie lands in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down. The guilt-stricken Frankie spends days and nights with the bedridden Maggie hoping to help in her recovery but, in the end, he grants her request to give her a final peace.
A taut, and deeply moving, tale of underdogs Million Dollar Baby found the seventy-four-year-old Eastwood at the top of his game. Rather than rest on his Academy Award-winning laurels Eastwood chose to take on a project which both defined and questioned the ethics of his generation.
The sprawling Flags of Our Fathers presents a side of the war rarely seen, much less ever talked about. After winning the treacherous battle at Iwo Jima, the American military re-enacts the symbolic raising of the flag for two photographers who missed out on the actual event. The resulting photograph captivates a war-weary nation, turning the new flag-bearers into heroes.
The military brass decides to make the best of this good fortune by sending the three “frauds” on tour to sell war bonds but controversy arises when parents of fallen soldiers are told their sons were indeed in the famous shot. Two of the touring soldiers have problems with their conscience, throwing a monkey-wrench into Uncle Sam’s plans to fund the war to a conclusive victory over a fierce rival.
In an era where propaganda is generally assumed to be a nasty instrument of Big Brother, Eastwood should be given props for presenting both sides of the story, even if it is clear he sides with the manipulated soldiers.
The spectacularly- staged raid on the beach is as impressive, and harrowing, as anything this director has put on film, but Flags of Our Fathers is really a small story about young soldiers reeling from the fame thrust upon them. Adam Beach is especially good as Ira Hayes, a Native American soldier struggling to make sense of it all, and his sad decline is emblematic of a flawed nation trying to come to grips with its past.
The film’s distinguished companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the island’s invasion from the Japanese point of view. Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is given the thankless task of defending the rocky and sacred outpost from the Allied forces. Given no back-up from his superiors, Kuribayashi has to instill morale into a mostly civilian fighting corps—frightened men who don’t expect to return from the battle alive.
At first, Kuribayashi’s western tactics work, but as the tide turns many of the soldiers choose to die with honor by committing suicide. The General keeps crossing paths with Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young soldier who doesn’t expect to survive the ordeal and see his wife or infant child again. Kuribayashi takes pity on the civilian baker and orders him to stay behind as he and his squadron makes their last stand.
Loosely based on Kuribayashi’s letters from the 1920s and ‘30s this meditative film, to the contrary of what some conservative American critics have implied, takes a critical view of traditional Samurai and patriarchal culture. Shot in bleak, washed-out color by Thomas Stern, Letters from Iwo Jima is a somber cinematic journal about the senselessness of violence…and war.
Eastwood’s critical successes went far to rejuvenate his creative juices and prompted him to look for new stories off his well-tread path.
Set in the bustling Los Angeles of 1928 Changeling chronicles the mind-boggling true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother whose young son Walter is kidnapped and seemingly disappears from the face of the earth. Already reeling from bad publicity stemming from charges of police brutality the LAPD uses more strong-arm tactics in “solving” the Collins case.
Another boy who claims to be Walter Collins shows up in Illinois, so Police Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) instigates a photo-op to force the boy upon the bewildered Christine. When she finally determines this young stranger can’t possibly be her son she confronts Captain Jones. Assuming Christine will buckle under pressure, the arrogant cop bullies the defenseless woman into accepting the boy as Walter.
The crusading Presbyterian Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) offers to help Christine but even his standing in the community can’t stop the police from committing her to an asylum where she is threatened with electroshock therapy if she doesn’t rescind her story.
Meanwhile, on a barren ranch in the desert outside of the city, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Hamer) and his thirteen year old nephew, and unwilling accomplice, Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson) have been murdering young boys at an alarming rate. Sanford is arrested as an illegal immigrant and wishing to purge his conscience he confesses to police detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) who gets the boy to admit Walter may well be one of Northcott’s victims.
Gaining inner strength from her ordeals Christine accompanies Briegleb and Ybarra to the public disciplining of Jones and Northcott’s trial and even visits the murderer in the death house. But, as she remains unconvinced Walter is dead Christine lives on in hope she will be reunited with her son, one day.
Eastwood returned to acting in Gran Torino, this time playing a gruff, retired auto worker who, to the horror of his children, refuses to leave his inner-city Detroit home after his wife dies. Rather than befriend anyone in his multi-ethnic neighborhood Walt chooses to mind his own business and stick to his own. When some local Asian thugs try to harass his Vietnamese neighbors Walt intervenes with his rifle but he’s more interested in protecting his own property than playing peacemaker.
Later, when the family’s teenage son Thao (Bee Vang) is caught trying to steal Walt’s prize possession, a 1972 Gran Torino, they force the boy on Kowalski to do chores as a penance for his crime. Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her) talks a reluctant Walt into kowtowing to her mother’s wishes but by the end of the week the old grump finds himself forming a bond with the earnest but clueless young man.
Feeling alienated by his suburban family and humbled by news he doesn’t have long to live, Walt takes to fixing things in the neighbors’ house and offers sage advice to Thao in the hopes the boy will grow the backbone needed to make something out of his life in bombed-out Detroit. Looking for vengeance, the gang returns to savagely beat Thao and, presumably, gang-rape Sue prompting Walt to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Resurrecting his avenging angel screen persona surely helped Eastwood in making the film become his biggest hit in years. Unlike much of his more recent work Gran Torino is very funny, as crusty old Walt takes pleasure in verbally-skewering any unfortunate soul who stands in his way.
Morgan Freeman had long wanted to make a film about South African civil rights activist and President Nelson Mandela, but he only drew lukewarm interest in Hollywood until he sent Eastwood the script of Invictus. Clint signed on to direct this rousing story about Mandela’s improbable role in inspiring the South African rugby team to victory in the 1995 World Cup.
After the end of apartheid and in the afterglow of a bitterly contested presidential election, Nelson Mandela (Freeman) surprises his new cabinet by offering encouragement to the Springboks rugby squad, a traditionally racist outfit with just one black player on its roster, to win the tournament played on South African soil.
Seeing this as an opportunity to build a bridge between his people Mandela enlists Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to coerce the team to hold rugby clinics in poor, remote areas of the country. The goodwill creates new interest in the team and creates national pride, helping propel Springboks to a hard-fought championship.
Saddled with a feel good story and predictable outcome, Eastwood and Freeman still manage to deliver prescient points about tolerance, without being didactic, and forgiveness, minus the smug superiority found in so many recent Hollywood films.
The question of the great beyond is the major theme in Eastwood’s next film, Hereafter, the story of a retired psychic pressed back into action by anxious clients hoping to connect with loved ones on the other side.
When his psychic powers make it impossible to lead a normal life, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) gives up his profitable career to take a menial job in construction. Although he has few friends and lives alone in a dark San Francisco apartment, George remains vulnerable to all the demons and haunted dreams festered in the souls of those he encounters.
Having barely survived the tsunami of 2004, French television reporter Marie Lelay (Cecile de France) is haunted by the vision she experienced as she hovered in between life and death during the aftermath of the disaster. Marie wants to write a book about the hereafter but her skeptical co-workers think she is merely delusional.
Meanwhile in London, a young boy sinks into a deep depression after his twin brother is killed after being hit by a delivery truck. Since his alcoholic mother is deemed unfit to care for Marcus (Frankie & George McLaren) he is sent to a foster home where he senses his dead brother is trying to get in touch with him.
After George rejects the idea of returning to his old role as a professional psychic he takes a time out to clear his mind in the hometown of his idol, Charles Dickens. At a London book fair George connects with Marie, who is in town to publicize her book, and acts as a cosmic conduit between Marcus and his brother Jason.
Hereafter is a curious, speculative film which doesn’t aim to provide answers and seems more content to dwell on life’s mystery.
Eastwood’s long-awaited bio-pic of FBI founder and director J. Edgar Hoover surprised many when the resulting effort turned out to be vaguely sympathetic to its highly controversial subject. In J. Edgar Leonardo DiCaprio gives a nuanced performance as a mama’s boy who embraced technology to catch lawbreakers and gathered dark secrets on the movers and shakers in Hollywood and on the Beltway during his improbable rise to power.
Rather than embrace the urban legend of Hoover as a closeted cross-dresser, Eastwood’s G-Man is something of a sexual neuter. For forty years he keeps his trusted assistant and soul mate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) at arm’s length. Browbeaten and essentially castrated by his demanding mother (Judi Dench), Hoover learns early-on to compartmentalize his emotions and funnel his energies into bringing criminals to justice.
The lonely head agent becomes something of a voyeur and his obsession in bugging the sexual dalliances of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King are the products of a sad, sick man. Told in a multi-layered format, J. Edgar is the most muted and melancholic Eastwood film to date. This timid, diminished Hoover isn’t the stuff of riveting drama, he’s merely an enigma.
After a flurry of professional activity Eastwood took time off to sort out personal matters. His choice to return to direct the Broadway hit musical Jersey Boys seemed a curious one, but he proved surprisingly deft at turning out an entertainment which managed to placate fans of the genre.
The musical book (by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) chronicles the rise and fall of The Four Seasons, a wildly popular singing group from the early 1960s. Initially, the story is told through the point of view of Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), the group’s ne’er-do-well leader who succeeds in getting the Four Seasons off the ground but his shady dealings with the mob leads to a massive debt which lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the rest of the group spend years trying to get out from under.
Jersey Boys resembles any number of Hollywood bio-flics but Eastwood instills plenty of Sopranos-influenced atmosphere and attitude to what could have been a by the rote production.
After taking on several curious projects which seemed out of his wheelhouse Eastwood the filmmaker resurfaced in a big way with American Sniper. This true story about a Navy SEAL who became a legend during the Iraqi war due to his prowess as a sniper stirred the rancor of the anti-war crowd, yet American Sniper became a surprise hit largely because it examined the toll the war took on the home front.
Prompted by the killing of Americans by terrorist bombers in the Middle East, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) gives up his ambition to be a rodeo star to join the SEALS. His acumen with a rifle lands him a plum position as a sniper and once he is sent to the battlefront Chris will be stationed on rooftops and mostly out of harm’s way.
The practice of picking off human targets desensitizes Chris and he grows increasingly anxious when he’s off-duty or on a furlough. Chris’ lack of empathy bewilders his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) who can’t understand why her husband feels obligated to keep returning to the killing fields.
Chris’ obsession with protecting his men finally begins to wane once he kills an elusive sniper. But when the soldier returns home for good he is a hollow shell of a man. Chris slowly finds peace of mind by helping rehabilitate wounded veterans. But, fate has something sad in store for the Good Samaritan.
The fundamentally decent Chris Kyle didn’t make for a complex psychological portrait. Indeed, the soldier is mostly seen compartmentalizing his grisly work so he can continue to function as an assassin, as well as a husband and father. His volunteer work finally seems to lift his heavy burden, but just as Chris seems to be reborn his life his snuffed out all too soon.
At an age when most major directors have been retired against their will (Griffith, Ford, Lang), lost their artistic chops (Kubrick, Kurosawa) or forced to turn out light entertainment (Renoir, Hitchcock) the energetic Eastwood must be given high marks for taking on ambitious projects few in the new Hollywood would dare touch.
Books on Eastwood:
Clint Eastwood: A Biography – Richard Schickel **** Written in collaboration with Eastwood the esteemed critic Schickel turned out the most insightful, go-to book on the notoriously private film icon. Eastwood’s unusual road to screen fame and his decision to break with tradition and become a full-time director are well-chronicled and make for essential reading for any film scholar.
Clint Eastwood: Interviews – ed. Robert J. Kapsis & Kathie Coblenz **** This second edition of Eastwood interviews should come as an eye-opener to critics who still look down their noses at the man who helped create Dirty Harry. Here, Eastwood comes off as articulate and energetic about his directing projects. The later interviews find the typically guarded Eastwood in more of a reflective and revealing mood.
Clint: The Life and Legend – Patrick McGilligan ***1/2 McGilligan doesn’t particularly like Eastwood and finds him overrated as a director, but that shouldn’t stop even Clint’s most rabid fans from diving headfirst into this impeccably researched biography. As with the author’s book on Fritz Lang the scathing tone does grow tiresome but McGilligan is among the most insightful and knowledgeable film biographers going these days.
Films by Eastwood:
1971 Play Misty For Me ***1/2
1973 High Plains Drifter ****
1973 Breezy ***1/2
1975 The Eiger Sanction ***1/2
1976 The Outlaw Josey Wales ****
1977 The Gauntlet ****
1980 Bronco Billy ***1/2
1982 Firefox ****
1982 Honky Tonk Man ****1/2
1983 Sudden Impact ***1/2
1984 Tightrope ***1/2 (directed by Richard Tuggle, supervised by Eastwood)
1986 Pale Rider ****
1986 Heartbreak Ridge ***1/2
1988 Bird ****
1990 White Hunter, Black Heart ****
1990 The Rookie ***
1992 Unforgiven ****1/2
1993 A Perfect World ***1/2
1995 The Bridges of Madison County ****
1997 Absolute Power ***1/2
1997 Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ***
1999 True Crime ***
2000 Space Cowboys ***1/2
2002 Blood Work ***1/2
2003 Mystic River ****
2003 Piano Blues ***1/2 (segment from Martin Scorsese’s The Blues)
2004 Million Dollar Baby ****
2006 Flags of Our Fathers ****
2006 Letters From Iwo Jima ****
2008 Changeling ****
2008 Gran Torino ****
2009 Invictus ***1/2
2010 Hereafter ***1/2
2011 J. Edgar ***1/2
2014 Jersey Boys ***1/2
2014 American Sniper ****