Clint Eastwood: The Longest Journey

In "Unforgiven," Eastwood critiques movie violence, showing his journey from ruthless hero to reflective filmmaker, highlighting his Hollywood evolution.

On a serene day in Wyoming in 1880, three men—William Munny (Clint Eastwood), Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and the excitable “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett)—prepare to kill some cowhands for cash. Despite their pasts as professional assassins, Munny and Logan are now broken men, while the Kid is eager to make a name for himself. Logan, the best shot, hits a horse but can’t bring himself to kill anymore, prompting Munny to take over, mortally wounding a cowhand who begs for water. This scene from Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western “Unforgiven” is excruciatingly realistic, marking a departure from traditional clean-shot movie violence and highlighting the messy reality of life. The movie critiques the glorification of violence, reflecting Eastwood’s transformation from the star of such portrayals to a director exploring their deeper implications. This scene exemplifies his journey from playing the ruthless hero to a filmmaker grappling with the moral complexities of his characters. Eastwood’s career, characterized by his defiance of being underestimated, spans from his early days as a contract player to becoming a prolific actor-director with numerous accolades. His evolution from the iconic, silent Man With No Name to a director who probes the human condition underscores his unique trajectory in Hollywood.

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by David Denby

On a beautiful day in Wyoming, in 1880, three men gather on a slight rise behind some rocks, ready to do a bit of killing. Two of them—William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman)—are retired professional assassins, disgusted with their past but broke and therefore willing to shoot a couple of cowhands, unknown to either of them, for cash. The third is the excitable “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), who has read Western dime fiction all his life and is hot to become a legend by plugging someone—pretty much anyone will do. Logan is the best shot, and he raises his Spencer rife, aiming at one of the cowhands, who are rounding up cattle with some friends below. But Logan, after hitting the guy’s horse, can’t pull the trigger again. He just can’t kill anymore. As the Schofield Kid loudly complains (“He ain’t killed? What’s goin’ on?”), Munny takes the rifle and mortally wounds the cowhand, who howls so persistently for water that Munny shouts at his friends, “Will you give him a drink of water, for Christ’s sake? We ain’t gonna shoot.”

The scene, which appears more than halfway through Clint East­wood’s 1992 Western, Unforgiven, is excruciatingly long—almost five minutes—and, watching it for the first time, you sensed almost imme­diately that the episode was momentous. The clumsy realism of it has a cleansing force: At least for that moment, ninety years of efficient movie violence—clean shots and quick death, a resolution central to the Western and police genres—falls away. Old myths dissolve into the messy stupidity of life, which, as rendered by Eastwood, becomes the most challenging kind of art. It’s idiotic to kill a stranger for money, and, not only that, it’s hard. Particularly hard on the stranger, but hard on you, too. The Schofield Kid, it turns out, gets to shoot the other cowhand a bit later, as the guy is sitting in the crapper. But afterward, the Kid is sickened and scared. Ev­erything about the two killings feels wrong, which is all the more surpris­ing since the creator of this sobering spectacle is an actor-director who became famous playing men who killed without trouble, whose pleasure in eliminating scum had become a kind of surrogate for social disgust. The worm had turned, the snarling cub had become a sober bear, the lean jackal was now the protector of the pack—use whatever metaphor you like. No personal transformation in movie history has been any greater than Clint Eastwood’s.

Being underestimated is, for some people, a misfortune. For East­wood it became a weapon. Certainly, no one meeting him in his twen­ties, before his movie career began, would have seen much more than a good-looking Californian (frequently in a bathing suit, which made him look even better), a handsome guy with a seductive smile who loved beer, women, cars, and nighttime noodling at the piano. The young Clint was a mover, 1950s-style—early photos show him with a big head of James Dean hair and two girls, sometimes three. Since those pleasurable but un­prepossessing days, he has done the following: starred in a hit TV show, Rawhide, for six years; appeared in more than fifty movies and directed thirty-one, often acting, directing, producing, and composing the music at the same time; added several menacingly ironic locutions to the lan­guage, including “Make my day,” quoted by Ronald Reagan in the face of a congressional movement to raise taxes; become a kind of mythic- heroic-redemptive figure, interacting with public desire in a way that no actor has done since John Wayne; served as the Republican mayor of Car­mel for two years; won four Oscars, the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement, and received many other accolades, including a low-angle buss from Nicolas Sarkozy while becoming commander of the Legion d’honneur in November 2008. It’s not a straight line—no ones “development” ever is—and there were times in the late 1990s and early aughts, when he made lazy movies like Blood Work and Space Cowboys, when he seemed to be coasting, resting, declining. But the greatest glory actually lay ahead. For many of us now toting up his career, a kind of ret­rospective upping of judgment has been inevitable, his later achievements making us aware of earlier strains that were present but not much noticed at the time. There’s a certain comedy in all this. My own conversion, after early contempt, came in Clint’s midcareer, with Tightrope (1984); some critics shifted later; a few, particularly Richard Schickel, Jay Cocks, Rich­ard Corliss, Richard T. Jameson, and Dave Kehr, have always liked him. (So have audiences.) Wherever a critic falls on this spectrum, the point is that those who were skeptical of him forty—or even fifteen—years ago have long since capitulated, retired, or died. There isn’t anyone he hasn’t outlasted.

Early on, his outsider heroes operated with an unshakable sense of right. Such men were angry enforcers of order defined not by law but by primal notions of justice and revenge. A biblical avenger in a Western poncho, or a ratty sports jacket, he was inexorable, unyielding, amusingly two-dimensional, not of this world. “Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot,” Dirty Harry famously said in Magnum Force (1973). Like a lot of Harry’s soft-snarl pronouncements, the remark is meant to be grimly funny; at the same time, it’s not so funny. Removed from normal social existence, these low-tech terminators eliminated “the right people” and drew back into bitter isolation again. Noblesse oblige—or, perhaps, vigilante oblige.

Yet by midcareer, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, even as the later films in the Dirty Harry series were still coming out, Eastwood began showing signs of regret, twinges of doubt and self-reproof, admissions of sadness and failure, along with a broadening out of interest and a stunning increase of aesthetic ambition. His movies shifted from stiff, stark, en­raged fables, decisive to the point of patness, to something more relaxed, ruminative, and questioning. In Unforgiven, for instance, he holds scenes a few extra beats so that characters can extend their legs, scratch behind their ears, air out some issue of violence or honor. It’s a companionable movie with much attention to weather, discomfort, illness, the despera­tion of women in the Old West. How do whores recover their honor when they’ve been abused?—craftily and with money. How do Westerners sleep in the rain?—badly. Or build a house?—ditto. The movie breathes; it com­ments on itself as it goes along. Clint Eastwood had somehow combined classicism and postmodernism in a single narrative. Million Dollar Baby, before it swings into its dire final section, has this grazing, thoughtful qual­ity, too—for instance, the mordant pleasure that Eastwood’s fight trainer and Morgan Freemans employee (a half-blind former boxer) take in con­versation, in first wounding and then consoling each other, by implication something they’ve been doing for years. The corners of Eastwood’s gym were filled out with gesture, character detail, atmosphere—the oddities and irrelevancies and silences (in strict plot terms) that made the movie so affecting as a portrait of defeat and illusion in the saddest of all sports.

It’s now obvious that Unforgiven was less an end point than a signifi­cant way station along an uninterruptible career path. Eastwood’s most recent film, Invictus, a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s shrewd and noble way of uniting South Africa in 1995, is not one of his best movies—it’s a little too simple—but it’s devoted to a public man who is the very op­posite of isolated, a man whose sense of right changes an entire society. The transformation is complete: The actor who became famous in Spa­ghetti Westerns playing the Man With No Name has now made a movie about one of the greatest names in recent history. (Eastwood, a moderate libertarian Republican, has acknowledged parallels with the presidency of Barack Obama, and expressed annoyance with the “morbid mood” of America and the “teenage twits” in Washington.) In all, Eastwood has had an incredibly productive long run, and, in celebration, Warner Bros, is­sued a DVD box in 2010 with thirty-four movies that Eastwood starred in or directed for the studio, the largest such DVD collection devoted to a single person ever released. Richard Schickel, whose 1996 biography, de­spite its advocacy of Eastwood’s views of everything in his life and work, is the shrewdest writing about the director’s films and character, has added some fresh thoughts in a large illustrated book published in 2010, Clint: A Retrospective, which goes through the films one at a time, and chronicles Schickel’s long friendship with the director.

Yet there is something of a mystery in this fifty-year ascent. The hero of this fable does not, at some dramatic turning point, look down from Mulholland Drive, condemn the frivolous lights of Hollywood, and seize greatness by the neck. Eastwood would sooner commit seppuku under a Carmel cypress than make some sort of grand statement about his inten­tions. He doesn’t talk about his career in large terms; he doesn’t talk about individual movies that way, either. His remarks are often low-key, offhand, undetailed—something on the order of “Well, it seemed like a good story to tell; I hadn’t played this kind of character before, and I wanted to do it.” He embodies the old Hollywood laconic professionalism: Never claim that you’re an artist. Never let anything but your movies do your talking for you. Art talk is punk. A man works.

There is no dramatic turning point, no sudden coming to conscious­ness. What one sees is a calculating, shrewdly opportunistic but often honorable march through many projects, some hack, some genial, some slightly shopworn but still fascinating, some fresh and stunningly adven­turous, and also a complex weaving back and forth of acting persona and directorial expression. Eastwood’s professional life, conducted in the most wasteful business in the world, would seem to exemplify lessons of indus­try, persistence, and frugality copied out of a nineteenth-century maxim book. Yet the discipline at work has been matched, off-camera, by a prodi­gality of pleasures. There have been two wives, many affairs, both on and off the set, numerous children, some of them legitimate. But the movies have so overshadowed the rest of his life that one forgets the details of his marriages and romances and paternities as soon as one reads about them. (Yes, I realize this can’t be true for the women and children in his life; I’m speaking as an outsider.) Clint Eastwood plays the media game with per­fect discipline: In public, he has always been as boring as possible about his life so as to live it in private as fully and selfishly as he likes. At the end of May 2010, rich, propertied (six houses), garlanded, and exceptionally busy, he entered his ninth decade.

He was born big—Bunyanesque big—at eleven pounds, six ounces, in 1930, and grew up mostly in Piedmont, California, a middle-class enclave surrounded by Oakland on most of its borders. During the Depression, his father found and lost many jobs—at various times, he pumped gas, sold refrigerators, sold bonds. During the war, he worked in a shipping yard, and after it as a sales manager at a corrugated box company. Richard Schickel has suggested that the family’s moving around may be one cause of Eastwood’s lifelong restlessness and also his habit of appearing in mov­ies out of nowhere and disappearing, at the end, into an equally baffling nowhere. The constant in Eastwood’s early life was his mother, Ruth, who collected jazz records and got her son excited about music. As a late teen­ager, hanging around clubs in Oakland and Los Angeles (he and friends would drive down there for a weekend), Eastwood heard such icons of the new West Coast cool style in jazz as Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and the bebop geniuses in their early days, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. As Eastwood has said, his notion of cool—slightly aloof, giving only the central satisfaction and withholding everything else—is derived from those musicians. That’s the picture of the onstage Charlie Parker that emerged in the pained love letter to the frantically disorga­nized musician, Bird (1988), which Eastwood created forty years after first seeing him. As played by Forest Whitaker, Parker, however hapless in the rest of his life, is supremely self-contained and confident when holding his sax. Eastwood had learned the lesson: Don’t ingratiate, just do the main thing well.

He seems less to have graduated from high school (the record is un­clear) than to have terminated his attendance, which was sporadic in any case, at the age of nineteen. For a year or so, he worked at odd jobs, in­cluding hard work in a lumber mill, poling logs onto a conveyor belt, and easy work on a beach, as a lifeguard. When he was drafted, in 1950, his proficiency as a swimmer, and therefore his presumed competence as a swimming instructor, kept him out of combat in Korea. Assigned to Ford Ord, near the Monterey Peninsula (which turned out to be the geographi­cal center of the rest of his life), he worked at the base pool during the day and manned the piano at local bars when he was off-duty at night—a relaxed existence that he captured in his first film as a director, Play Misty for Me (1971), in which Eastwood was a Carmel disc jockey, indolent, seductive and seducible, a character probably as close to the actual young Clint as we would ever see on-screen.

At the suggestion of friends, he took some acting classes at Los Ange­les City College. Such fashionable disciplines of the time as the Method, which insisted on deep and threatening plunges into one’s emotional past, he found distasteful, or perhaps frightening, and he seized instead on what he derived in acting studio night classes from a disciple of the fa­mous teacher Michael Chekhov (the playwright’s nephew)—that is, “cen­tering” a performance on a given set of physical traits and gestures that projected the essence of the character to the audience. The prescription was comparable in its focus and narrowness to what he gleaned from the jazz greats a few years earlier.

In 1954, he came to the notice of Universal Studios, which still had a “school” devoted to the training of young actors. He signed on as con­tract player for $75 a week, which was peanuts even then. His teachers noted a certain tentativeness to his demeanor—he didn’t, putting it gently, project much—but also some interesting corners in his temperament, and over the next few years he had some small parts in junk movies. There was the talking-mule picture, Francis in the Navy, and something called Lady Godiva of Coventry, which sounds like a porn feature shot in a ca­thedral basement. No one much noticed him until he was hired, in 1958, to be the co-lead (alongside Eric Fleming) of Rawhide, one of the many TV Westerns of the period, this one a cattle drive formula show complete with a Frankie Taine theme song punctuated with crackling whiplashes. After a few years, bored and ready to jump, Eastwood received a strange, derivative, wordy script by a man named Sergio Leone. It was titled “The Magnificent Stranger,” and it was an obvious remake of Akira Kurosawa’s funny-bloody samurai classic of 1961, Yojimbo. Leone had been assistant director, or uncredited director, of shlock Italian historical spectacles. He was a kind of ruffian movie intellectual—obsessed with America, and con­vinced, in particular, that the classic Western had turned what was histori­cally a remorseless struggle for commercial dominance into a moralized battle between good and evil. Leone wanted literally to demoralize the Western. He had eccentric ideas about how to shoot a movie, alternating huge vistas with super-tight close-ups. In effect, he took the deep syntax of the genre (the bare street, the stare-downs and sudden draws, the high body counts), raised it to the surface, and dropped almost everything else. A Fistful of Dollars, as “The Magnificent Stranger” was eventually titled—and its more entertaining sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—was knowing parody, and Eastwood, with his mini­malist technique, fit perfectly into the style of unyielding absurdism.

The Man With No Name enters on a donkey, wearing a poncho and a flat-brimmed hat, chewing on a cigarillo, and he proceeds to play off two warring gangs in a small town against each other. In Yojimbo, Toshiro Mifune acted with his belly, hips, and shoulders; his violence was an exu­berant overflow of spirit. But Eastwood, successfully convincing Leone to reduce the number of his lines, must have realized that silence cast a dead­lier spell than rumpus. “Who the hell does he think he is?” I remember thinking at the time. “Isn’t he going to do anything?” But he knew exactly who he was. He kept his head still, at a slight angle; he narrowed his eyes; he scowled and curled his upper lip. It was an arrogant teenager’s idea of acting, but he looked mean, amused, coolly amoral. From the beginning, he possessed a secret: For an actor like him, playing a character was less important than establishing an image of implacable male force. Movie au­diences want force, and they want style. Many in the audience took East­wood’s immobility not as a weakness of craft but as an actor’s conscious revision of a Western hero—a revision which allowed them to enjoy the movie’s violence as style, too, and without feeling a thing. Cults spring up when emotion is dropped out, not added, to genres—the absence of emo­tions makes the old formulas feel cool. The Spaghetti Westerns never did a thing for me, but they attracted an enormous following. (Leone went on to be a much better director in Once Upon a Time in America.)

There were comic possibilities embedded in Eastwood’s stone mask, and the director Don Siegel (who became Eastwood’s mentor) exploited them in the coarsely conceived Coogans Bluff (1968). This time, Eastwood is a contemporary Western sheriff, an emigre from the sun-bleached des­ert of Arizona, searching for an escaped felon in a crowded, noisy New York, a city filled with chattering neurotics, hippie scum, and hungry women. Apart from taking advantage of the sexual opportunities, the sheriff just glares and holds his ground. The scenes of Lee J. Cobb’s satur­nine Manhattan cop roaring “Go home!” at this Western paleolith were funny enough, but there was a prickly side to the comedy. Siegel played off the country’s growing distaste for the big city and the counterculture. He threw together embarrassingly touristy views of sex and drugs, and created the tall, stoical, mostly silent Westerner as the real American—the man who can take on bureaucrats and do-gooders as well as hippies and thugs, bang a few silly women, and get the job done. Coogan was amus­ingly single-minded and selfish, yet duty-bound—a ruthless pragmatist who cut to the heart of the matter; all the rest was bullshit.

The ur-American mold was set, and the ruthlessness, without losing its comic edge, turned dire. In that baleful pop-culture time capsule, Dirty Harry (1971), also directed by Siegel (with many touches suggested or added by Eastwood), Inspector Harry Callahan catches up to a freakish se­rial killer (Andy Robinson) terrorizing San Francisco. Brushing aside the mayor’s warnings about excessive violence, Harry tortures the screechy madman when he has him in his grip rather than read him his rights (the Miranda warning had only recently become law). The movie had a tone of desperation, a grim, snarling wit alternating with outright fear: Siegel made San Francisco into a paranoid landscape, seething with danger and anxiety; even the sunlight looked unclean. Seeing it again, one gets pulled back into the emotions of this unappetizing movie. For audiences at the time, the law-and-order atmosphere of the Nixon period and Eastwood’s screen temperament went together like ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. Dirty Harry says criminals are out of control; payback time is at hand. In a drolly violent prelude, Harry stops a bank robbery at lunchtime, cross­ing the street and blazing away with his .44 Magnum while chewing on a hot dog. Pointing the gun, which may or may not have a bullet left in its chamber, Harry almost croons to the wounded bank robber who’s think­ing of reaching for his own weapon. “You’ve got to ask yourself one ques­tion, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” The teasing question became one of Eastwood’s signature lines; he repeats it at the end of the film, when he has the serial killer under his gun, and this time the question is lethal.

As taglines, “Make my day” and “Well, do ya, punk” don’t compare to “Here’s looking at you, kid.” But those moments of insolent pop cru­elty put Eastwood, at the not so young age of forty-plus, over the top. An actor may work for years without becoming a star, as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart had done throughout the 1930s. But then suddenly, looks, temperament, and role all come together—for Wayne in Stagecoach (1939) and for Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)—and the public sees the actor, sees what it desires. He becomes not only a star but a myth as Garry Wills defined it in his 1997 book John Wayne’s America—as some­thing that was true for the people who needed it to be true. What the pub­lic needed from Eastwood by the time of Dirty Harry was both physical and, in a convoluted way, moral.

It began with his appearance. He was six feet, three inches tall, perhaps an inch taller than Wayne. He had gray-green eyes; a forehead like the rock face of Yosemite’s Half Dome; a perfect jawline; a soft voice, so surprising in a big man, a voice that suggested a tough guy needn’t shout to have an effect. The whisper and croon were deadly. A fitness nut (and a vegetar­ian), he was broad-shouldered by nature and muscular from many hours in his workout room, but not overly muscled—not a pop-culture joke like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. A mass of light brown hair piled up on his head in a pompadour and flowed back in waves; he had an animal grace, a big-cat tension as he moved. Wayne was graceful, too, but he had an unusually long torso, and he rolled slightly as he walked. As Wills pointed out, Wayne, swinging his bulk down Western streets, couldn’t imagine that anyone would challenge him. But Eastwood, always wary, couldn’t imagine a world free of challenge. Wayne’s confidence, as Wills says, made him especially popular in a country that had won the Second World War and remained armed for the Cold War. One might add that Eastwood’s guardedness, and his Magnum, provided reassurance to a country that was losing in Vietnam and feared chaos in the streets.

Harry Callahan is lonely, hard, distant. He is nevertheless not an ex­ample of “fascist medievalism,” as Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker (January 15, 1972), asserted in a negative review of Dirty Harry that shad­owed Eastwood’s reputation for years. By any definition, fascism involves state control and leader worship, but Callahan, in Dirty Harry and its four sequels, detests the city leaders and is too disaffected to lead anyone any­where. Kael wrote as if Harry’s nature were completely a response to the times, but, actually, he was the latest in a series of individualistic and anti­bureaucratic figures that Don Siegel had created in the past and would cre­ate again—with Eastwood, for instance, in Escape from Alcatraz (1979), in which he’s a prisoner who not only flees the Rock but upends the warden, a stuffy martinet. And Eastwood would play such types in movies made in political climates very different from the law-and-order atmosphere that spooked Kael at the time of Dirty Harry. In Heartbreak Ridge (1986), he was an aging Marine sergeant with a guttural voice who breaks the rules and sasses his superior officers as he tries to prepare young men for war; in In the Line of Fire (1993), a tormented Secret Service agent taking on Fred

Thompsons White House chief of staff. Eastwoods characters have always been disgusted by regulations and proprieties that hampered their effec­tiveness. It was the job that mattered, the piece of brutal work. Why had everyone forgotten that? Duty calls; it never stops calling. In Dirty Harry, the cop’s fury at the Miranda and Escobedo protections of suspects rights was less a political position, as Kael assumed, than the contempt and hu­miliation (“The law is crazy”) felt by a policeman who can’t intimidate a murderer boasting of his crimes. Harry Callahan’s behavior fell some­where between American “rugged individualism” and outright pathology; at times, he made us realize how closely the ideal and the perversion of it might be drawn together, how easily individualism could collapse into vigilantism. But vigilantism, a very American phenomenon, is a long ways from fascism. Kael’s review was a case of critical sensationalism, as much a product of the overheated atmosphere of 1971 as the movie itself.

“Mass culture is a machine for showing desire,” Roland Barthes has written. Its also a machine for expressing resentment, a frustration of de­sire. Eastwood became so popular, in part, because he allowed people to dream that they could be effective without being nice, tolerant, or good. As critic Michael Wood wrote, in the London Review of Books, in 1992, Dirty Harry was a man who allowed the audience to enjoy “imaginary violence as a solution to real problems.” Yet, apart from an impatience with what later was called political correctness, this vessel of public wrath possessed very little in the way of explicit politics. In the real America, such a loner, muttering to himself, might have climbed into the hills with a supply of ammunition and Spam. But Harry’s rebellion would have been meaning­less outside the system. He may have thrown away his badge at the end of Dirty Harry, but he put it back on for the sequels. He was an outsider by temperament who nevertheless stayed inside, protecting society, protecting us. For that reason, Eastwood became, as everyone said, an icon. Millions were fond of him as a righteous bastard, an avenger; he was our authoritar­ian bad boy, our low-minded protector, our licensed killer. A lesser man, receiving such adoration, might have just repeated himself forever.

As an actor in training at Universal, Eastwood had roamed all over the lot, asking questions about different aspects of filmmaking, and, during his Rawhide years, he made several requests, without success, to direct an episode or at least a sequence. In 1970, he prevailed on Universal to let him direct Play Misty for Me, a low-budget feature. In return for not taking a fee, he had the freedom to make the movie as he liked. The studio may have been trying to hook him into years of service in Western, crime, and other action vehicles. But they couldn’t. In 1968, before he was a su­perstar, he had set up his own production company, Malpaso, and from that time on if studios wanted Eastwood, they had to make a deal with his company, which allowed him to exercise control over the script, the direc­tor, and major casting. He had created the basis of his freedom before he needed to exercise it.

At first it wasn’t clear how he would display himself in his own work. The DJ hero of Play Misty for Me, Dave Garver, whispers so intimately into the microphone that an impressionable fan (Jessica Walter) imagines that she has a special bond with him. He sleeps with her a few times, thinking he can easily cut her loose, only to discover that she’s a knife-wielding psy­chopath who won’t let go. Eastwood directs at a rather languid tempo—the movie, slow to come to a boil, offers many luscious views of Eastwood’s beloved Monterey Peninsula before the knife slashing begins. This casu­ally made picture featured plentiful views of Eastwood’s bare chest, which appeared in many movies (until late in his career), including The Beguiled, which he had made with Don Siegel in 1971, just before Dirty Harry. In The Beguiled, which has a nearly pornographic scenario, Eastwood is a wounded Union soldier taken in by the itchy women of a girls school at the end of the Civil War. The two portraits of lusted-after men border on narcissism, though, in a surprising turn (which should have alerted us to where Eastwood was going), the hero in each case is a careless oppor­tunist who refuses responsibility for the havoc he creates. Even outside the Dirty Harry series, Eastwood’s characters were always tainted in some way; they might be selfish and egotistical (though never cowardly), lonely and saddened (though never passive), bullheadedly macho (though never weak), eagerly mercenary (though never bourgeois—the man does not easily wear a business suit). This candor about intentions separated him from such idealized stars of the past as Gary Cooper and brought the wised-up modern audience closer to him. In movie after movie, he would, by implication, do what any American male would do—take what was there for the taking. But, comically, he was always shocked when anyone behaved worse than he did. His indignant stare became a signature, too. As Robert Mazzocco wrote in The New York Review of Books, in 1982, “Few other actors convey so naturally, even at their most brutal moments, so outraged a sense of innocence.”

Play Misty for Me ends with Dave Garver knocking his murderous lover through a window and down Big Sur’s rocky cliffs. Eastwood, in this first film as director, was clearly telling studios and the public that they could admire him, but they could not possess him. The refusal to be trapped, typed, “suffocated” (his word) became the recurring note of Eastwood’s dealings with studios, press, and the film medium itself. Uni­versal may have thought that he would be a workhorse on the lot, but he withdrew, and shifted to Warner Bros., where he made, among many other things, Westerns, but only his own, eccentric kind of Westerns. In High Plains Drifter (1973), as in A Fistful of Dollars, he’s again the nameless loner emerging out of nowhere. In a bare, mangy town at the side of a lake, a town with a guilty secret in its past, he quickly establishes his authority, eliminating all opposition and setting himself up as a kind of metaphysi­cal avenger—a godlike destroyer of hypocrisy in boots who literally makes the furtive townspeople paint their buildings red in an admission of sin. Drifter was a whimsical, slightly daft spectacle—one didn’t know how se­riously to take its religious overtones—made with much physical exag­geration (the Leone influence was clear). “What kind of nutty egomaniac is this?” I remember thinking. But Eastwood did one thing straight: He embraced the noble American pictorial ideal: a man on a horse, traversing great open spaces. He had, it seemed, a horizontal imagination.

The Outlaw fosey Wales (1976), his first great movie as a director, is filled with one ravishing image after another of lonely figures crossing vast landscapes as they search for a resting place. This time, the Eastwood character has a name. Initially a rooted man, Josey Wales is a Southern farmer who loses his family to Union marauders during the Civil War. He takes revenge, and then heads West, passing through the driftwood float­ing in the wake of war—poltroons of all sorts, bounty hunters, cowardly opportunists. Vicious and amused, he wants only to be alone, but, against his will, he acquires, as he moves, a new, irregular family (a talkative In­dian, an elderly woman, a young girl) and takes over an abandoned house in Texas, in effect resettling the West. If Leone emptied the West, making Westerns that were all syntax and dead bodies, Eastwood, working in long paragraphs, repopulated it and put meaning back into the genre. Josey Wales, which was written by the writer-director Philip Kaufman and East­wood’s associate Sonia Chernus, has a palpable sense of time passing and a frame of stately picaresque filled with violent encounters and only-in-America eccentrics. The bizarre bunco artists and scroungers, combined with a gathering mood of disgust, evoke Huck’s adventures along the river.

“America here,” as Michael Wood wrote, “is not a place people die for, it’s a vast, beautiful, shifting landscape that people keep dying in, kill­ing each other out of sheer smallness of mind, or for reasons they can’t remember.” In the end, the movie calls a halt to smallness of mind. The Western hero can no longer ride off to nowhere; he needs some sort of community. Josey Wales makes peace with Indian tribes and a man pursu­ing him, terminating various wars and the cycles of revenge. These pacific events were the first signs in Eastwood of both a wider social sympathy and an incipient distaste for the conventions of genre plotting. Indiffer­ently reviewed when it came out, The Outlaw Josey Wales received a stun­ning compliment six years later. Orson Welles, who had seen the picture four times, said on The Merv Griffin Show that “it belongs with the great Westerns. You know, the great Westerns of Ford and Hawks and people like that.” And Welles implied that if anyone but Eastwood had directed it, the movie would have been hailed as a masterpiece.

Welles’s evocation of names from the past is a startling reminder of the singularity of Eastwood’s path. Ford appeared in a few silent movies and never acted again, Hawks not at all. Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Steve McQueen, and Sean Connery never directed a feature. John Wayne directed only twice, and badly; ditto Burt Lancaster. Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, and Sean Penn have directed a few movies each, with mixed commercial and artistic success. Robert Redford has directed seven; he has also, through his Sundance Institute and the Sundance Festival, warmed the atmosphere for independent film­makers for decades, but Redford has never expressed himself as a director the way Eastwood has. The comparison with Beatty is more interesting. Both were pretty boys who emerged from television in the 1960s. Both were casual piano players, catnip to women. Both cast actresses they were involved with. Both were enormously ambitious, and engaged seriously, at times, in politics. Beatty has had a fascinating career as a producer and hyper-energetic stimulator of persons and projects, but, along with his genuine achievements, the principal activity of his professional life for considerable stretches has been getting people excited about what he wants to do rather than actually doing it. He does much research, holds endless meetings, fusses over details, keeps people waiting for years, dith­ers brilliantly. In 2007, at the Golden Globes party, after the recent release of Eastwoods Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Beatty rue­fully acknowledged the difference. “Clint, are we not friendly? Were very friendly. I don’t understand. First, you do one great movie right after an­other movie, then you gotta do two more movies that are just as great as the first two movies, but you gotta do them at the same time no less—and you do the score? How do you think that makes me feel?”

For Eastwood, the point has never been to vibrate in a limbo of un­productive celebrity but to try out new things, enjoy the work and the money, and get on with it. The mystery of his longevity turns out to be no mystery at all. As a filmmaker, he is almost comically free of quirks, neu­roses, hesitations, fear. Studio politics and the hysterics built into elephan­tine productions, which he experienced firsthand when he acted and sang (sort of) in the expensive musical Paint Your Wagon (1969), leave him cold. If he likes a story, he buys or commissions a script, moves rapidly into production, shoots the film on a short schedule and, until recently, on a modest budget. If he knows an actor’s or actress’s work, he doesn’t ask for a reading. He casts quickly, dislikes extensive rehearsals and end­less takes. If a star becomes balky, he gets tough. (When Kevin Costner left the set of A Perfect World and lingered in his trailer, Eastwood threat­ened to shoot the rest of the movie with a double. Costner pulled himself together and gave the best performance of his career.) If someone else is supposed to direct and then falters or becomes too slow or indecisive for Eastwood’s taste—as Philip Kaufman did on Josey Wales, and the writer Richard Tuggle on Tightrope—he pushes him aside and takes over. Like Bergman, Godard, and Woody Allen, he works hard and fast, an impa­tient man who likes calm and order, relying on the same people over and over—most importantly, the production designer Henry Bumstead (from 1992 to 2006), cinematographer Bruce Surtees (1971 to 1985), followed by Jack N. Green (1986 to 2000), and then by Tom Stern, who rose out of Eastwoods lighting and camera crew In recent years, his editor, Joel Cox, has pulled sequences together as the film was being shot; the post­production period is remarkably brief. Eastwood is not devoid of imperial temperament; he demands loyalty from those around him, and I’m not sure he has always surrounded himself with the best people he could find. But, in Hollywood, an Eastwood set is one of the saner places to be. As a professional code, all this seems obvious enough, but, in recent years, who else in big-time American filmmaking but Eastwood and Allen and, recently, the Coen brothers, has practiced it?

“Maturity” is a high school counselors word, and responsibility is some­thing we rarely ask of artists and entertainers. But Eastwood, by trying out new forms and moods, both light and dark, and by constantly altering his early self as a star, achieved both as he got older, and without becoming a stiff. If his temperament early on led him to narrowness and minimal­ism, as he got older and more confident he broadened out, step by step but relentlessly. Late in 2009, critic A. O. Scott asserted in The New York Times that revenge is “the defining theme of his career.” But this is not quite true. Revenge is certainly a major theme, but Eastwood’s interests and ambitions as a director became protean and encompassing, and no critic will ever successfully strap him onto the Procrustean bed of a single theme or pattern. The alterations are more interesting and important than the consistencies.

There he was in Tightrope (1984) playing a cop again, a member of the vice squad in New Orleans, which, like San Francisco in Dirty Harry, is haunted by a serial killer. The difference is that the city is haunted by his pursuer as well. Eastwoods detective, Wes Block, a widower falling apart, is drawn to whores and kinky sex; he scours the bars and clubs for a man who murders prostitutes, and mostly encounters his own desire. Richard Tuggle wrote the script and got screen credit as director, but East­wood did most of the work and shot the movie in Don Siegels tawdry, urban-anxiety mode, slowed by episodes of rapt erotic stillness. Eastwood also gave his most complicated and forceful performance up to that date. He was fifty-four, and any trace of the creamy pinup beauty of his youth was gone. The scowl had become a painful grimace, the voice thick and hoarse. He had become his own monument. A few years earlier, in Parade magazine, Norman Mailer had granted him “a presidential face.” Some president! Eastwood’s candor brought the character to the edge of disinte­gration. The biggest star in the world was implicating himself in the kind of pathologies that his earlier characters had grimly eliminated. Robert Mitchum (and maybe Bogart) would have had the courage to play a role like this, but Gable, Cooper, or Wayne wouldn’t have dared. I remember feeling a palpable sense of relief when Wes Block, pulling himself back from the edge, annihilates the killer in order to annihilate part of himself.

If Wes Block came close to self-immolation, was that something East­wood himself feared? In an odd turn, as if to ward off bad dreams, he made no fewer than three films in the 1980s about self-destructive artists—and made them tenderly, with respect both for talent and the annihilating en­ergies beneath talent. The least of these was Honkytonk Man (1982), in which Eastwood directed himself as an alcoholic and tubercular coun­try singer who drives through the Oklahoma dust during the Depression, and, amid much sour-mash joking and occasional one-night stands, gets a tryout at the Grand Ole Opry, only to expire in a cheap hotel room. Hon­kytonk Man was repetitive but touching, and Eastwood spared us noth­ing of the singer’s disintegration. In 1990, stretching himself mightily in White Hunter Black Heart, he took on John Huston, playing John Wilson, a lightly fictionalized version of the director during the making of The African Queen. A gifted and courageous man, Wilson nevertheless com­mits the unpardonable sin of ignoring a movie waiting to be shot in order to indulge an obsession—the desire to bag a giant elephant. The African open air was magnificent, but Eastwood, it turned out, didn’t have the largeness of spirit or the vocal resources to play Huston. His disdain was the strongest element in the movie. He let us know, once and for all—as if we had any doubt about it—that reckless flamboyance was an egotisti­cal diversion he couldn’t afford. The lesson might have seemed prim if he hadn’t also applied it to an artist he loved far more than Huston.

Bird (1988), his biopic devoted to Charlie Parker, was the most dar­ing of the three movies. The picture was either art or it was nothing. Those who decided two decades ago that it was nothing should take an­other look. I trust Stanley Crouch and the other knowledgeable jazz lov­ers who wrote at the time that Eastwood and screenwriter Joel Oliansky slighted Charlie Parker’s fierce intellectual edge, the range of his curiosity, his struggles as a black artist in a racist society. But a biopic can’t do ev­erything, and sometimes one has to respond to what’s there, rather than mourn what’s not. Bird plays very well on second viewing. Eastwood nif­tily transferred his love of open country to a peculiarly tight urban spot, a studio-built Fifty-second Street, at the late-1940s height of bebop. In one continuous shot, Parker (Forest Whitaker) and his new date, Chan (Di­ane Venora), cross the street talking, wending their way through traffic. Parker stops to exchange half-voiced, half-intimated witticisms with two musicians as Chan climbs the steps of her mother’s brownstone, a teem­ing jazz hangout. The sequence, a densely populated traveling shot, was worthy of Robert Altman.

In all the indoor scenes, Eastwood wanted the harshly lyrical, high-contrast look of early-1950s black-and-white jazz photography. With that ideal in mind, he and the cinematographer Jack N. Green miscalculated: They used too little light for color film, and some of the movie is dark as a tenement back hallway. Still, to an astonishing degree, the furtive, desperate tone of night people—talented, brilliant, sexually ravenous—comes through the murk. As the movie’s timeframe moves backward and forward through Parker’s life, and Whitaker and Venora flirt, banter, and fight in off-rhythm exchanges (no one has ever done love scenes so quirky as these), the film attains a feeling of fleetingness and improvisation, a true jazz style—one of the few feature films that have come close to it. As played by Forest Whitaker, Parker is a man of great sweetness, who, when he’s not on the stage, can’t stop himself from getting into trouble. In the end, addicted and helpless, he betrays people close to him and finally himself. Bird, directed with subtleties of emotion—a feeling for the elusive and momentary, the words not spoken, the words spoken and immedi­ately regretted—was created out of love and a baffled sense of loss. It was the most generous and demanding movie that Eastwood had made up to that point.

After the disasters of totalitarianism, humanism as a philosophical stance has seemed beside the point. At the moment, in this fretful country, we live within the derisive ironies of a media matrix; and we are teased by the postmodernist notion that the self is a myth, a mere collection of frag­ments. But the humanistic attitude insists on the opposite—that we are accountable for ourselves as morally coherent beings, which may mean admitting, at times, that we are incoherent, operating with mixed mo­tives, or even that were thoroughly screwed up. Such an attitude requires a three-dimensional attitude toward character, background, motives. In the arts, humanisms greatest weakness is a tendency to middlebrow dreariness—it can easily become a refuge for the unimaginative. If anyone could tell improbable stories as perversely well as Hitchcock, why would he bother making rounded, realistic narratives? Humanistic filmmaking is always a bet against the heavy odds of dullness. But that’s exactly where Eastwood has placed his chips for the last twenty years or so.

When Eastwood was young, his rakish cruelty was pop-hip. He trans­formed himself without going all soft and cloying. As he hit fifty, a surly macho temperament may have held sway in many of his characters, but, at the same time, he showed the audience the backwaters of macho—the mistakes, the emotional rigidity, the outright stupidity. In the 2002 edition of The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson wrote warmly of Eastwood but made a demand: “The test that awaits Eastwood is whether he can find himself in neurosis and failure.” The sentence was written before Eastwood made Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, which, in the event, offered the tonalities that Thomson wanted. Still, there were plentiful signs earlier that Eastwood had revealed something of “neurosis and failure.” He did it within popular genres and in very broad terms, in movies that occasionally seemed naive, but still, he did it. For instance, in Bronco Billy (1980), his seventh film as a director, he plays the cranky, not very bright head of a bedraggled Wild West show that is still hitting the small towns of Montana and Idaho in 1980. The movie at first seems too simple and casual, even a little dumb. A New York heiress, played by Sondra Locke (whose appeal for Eastwood has always escaped me), falls in with Billy and his troupe, a bunch of misfits of stunningly limited tal­ent. The heiress is snooty, dismissive; Billy is irritated by her but attracted; he saves her from rape, and she melts, finding bliss in his arms. The story, a crude version of It Happened One Night, is almost embarrassing, but, two thirds the way through, the movie deepens. Yes, the men have little talent, and none of them is a Westerner. Billy, born in New Jersey, was a shoe salesman until he was thirty; two others are ex-cons, one is an Army deserter. They are all desperate to put on a show, to sustain an illusion of themselves, to stay together as a family in the absence of a family—a theme that recalls the gradually expanding irregular group in The Outlaw Josey Wales. It’s second-level Eastwood but oddly touching in its earnest desire to make a case for not terribly bright people who do the best they can and make a kind of life for themselves.

Years earlier, Billy had shot and wounded his unfaithful wife; he’s a damaged man trying to recover, and so is Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway, or Gunny, in Heartbreak Ridge (1986). Again, a lot of the movie is flat, stunted, semi-believable. The Marine unit that Gunny whips into shape is composed of slackers and jerks who would never have made it into the Marines in the first place. The movie s climax—the mighty victory at Grenada, where Gunny commands his unit against the awesome Cuban army—leaves one a little ashamed. But Eastwood himself is touching in Heartbreak Ridge. Grizzled, growling, enraged, he’s a man whose military career and attack reflex leave him incapable of dealing with anything in life but training and combat. This is a familiar trope: The men we hire to protect us do so at the price of nearly annihilating themselves. Wayne has played such roles; James Caan did it in Coppolas Gardens of Stone; recently, Woody Harrelson did it superbly in The Messenger. But no one has taken the idea as far as Eastwood. In this and many movies he played men who are lost outside the specialty that gives them their identity—not a tragedy exactly, and not pitiable, either, but a rueful acknowledgment of how hard it is to get life right. Defeated, Gunny glowers, looks crestfallen, and then beats someone up. Macho cripples him as much as it enables him.

The embittered sense of something inadequate, something missing or lost—the forlornness—was repeated in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), in which Clint’s roving photographer hero and lover seems baf­fled, as if his demand for independence and globe-trotting liberty had caused him to miss some larger point. As Meryl Streep, Eastwood’s costar, has said, the two of them transformed a junk-novel weepie into some­thing a little tougher—a movie about regret, a life not quite lived. The note of regret, severely repressed but still unmissable, fueled his best work as an actor—his performance as Frankie Dunn, a complicated grouchy old man, estranged from his daughter, in Million Dollar Baby. Frankie is the most intellectual of his characters—a constant reader, a questioner of Christian theology whose guilt never lets up on him. With his short hair and piercing eyes, Eastwood, in that movie, looked like a puzzled cobra.

In his sixties, he became conscious of the implications of his work, and in his best movies he added dimensions to situations he had earlier handled simply. Return to that rocky glen in Wyoming, where Eastwood’s William Munny has trouble killing a man. Whatever else it is, Unforgiven is an argument about how to represent violence, an argument about movies. Eastwood and screenwriter David Webb Peoples are the artificers here, but there’s a rival actually present in the movie, a hack writer who cre­ates Western fictions—just the kind of books the doltish Schofield Kid has grown up reading. The scribbler W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) turns up in the nearby town of Big Whiskey, accompanying one of his heroes, the raffishly ornate outlaw known as English Bob (Richard Har­ris, declaiming the Queen’s English in the one truly funny performance of his career). The sheriff of Big Whiskey (Gene Hackman) quickly disarms and beats up the prating Bob; and then, sentence by sentence, he decon­structs the nonsense Beauchamp has written, explaining how shoot-outs actually happen. In effect, the sheriff, known as Little Bill, shreds the way that violence is represented in most Western movies—violence which is normally a lot closer, we have to admit, to Beauchamp’s rubbish than to the wrenching mess we’ve seen in the glen. Peoples’s script is endlessly complicated, and Eastwood honors its startling turns. We may enjoy Lit­tle Bill’s scornful realism, but he’s a terrifying man. If he’s the true West, the West is a nightmare. Hackman makes him rancorous and sadistic—a man completely without honor who later beats Munny s pal Ned Logan to death. In Little Bill, justice and order have collapsed into pure force.

But where does that leave Eastwood’s character, who tells us again and again that his dead wife has made him renounce violence—repeating it to himself as a mantra even as he’s committing violence? Eastwood appeared to be returning to what was hinted at in Tightrope, the capacity of his own surly movie self for criminality and his increasing regret over any glorification of it. He shapes his performance as a study in rueful abnegation; at times, he looks lost and vulnerable, even sickly. Yet William Munny, however weak­ened, has to avenge his partner’s death. Unforgiven ends with Munny gun­ning down Little Bill and his friends and riding away, a return to the kind of familiar Eastwood myth that the rest of the movie seems to reject. What, one wonders, was the use of all that antiviolence business if it all comes to this? Eastwoods murderous past characters and his regretful new temper appear to have collided on a Western street. He had gotten himself into the kind of dilemma that artists encounter when they depart from the safety of convention. Westerns, by their very nature (guns must be expertly drawn; bad guys must be killed), depend on myth if they are to exist at all. By taking the Western into three dimensions, and by pushing the moral issues to ex­tremes, Eastwood had exposed the limits of the genre. Unforgiven is both an entertainment and a contradiction, a troubled masterpiece at war with itself.

He may have sensed that he hadn’t said all that he wanted to say about renunciation. In the lovely movie that followed, A Perfect World (1993), Kevin Costner’s escaped convict and murderer, having lost his desire to kill, yet unable to outrun his past, dies without a fight in an open meadow. In these two pictures, the protagonists are locked into the imperatives of character, exercising, as they imagine, free will from moment to moment but governed at the same time by the sullen imprint of past crimes, in­juries, mistakes. The word for this kind of dramatic structure is tragedy. That’s what Eastwood had become capable of. The two movies had depth, nuance, a burnished and reflective nostalgia for a simplicity no longer possible. All this became definitive in Mystic River; from 2003, a movie in which every one of Eastwood’s late obsessions—guilt, destruction, self­destruction, vengeance—merge into a completely satisfying work of art.

Genre conventions offer enormous narrative strength—I don’t mean to belittle them—and in the structure of the story, you can still see some conventions at work. The screenwriter Brian Helgeland, adapting the novel by Dennis Lehane, worked with the elements of a police proce­dural: A girl has been murdered, and Sean (Kevin Bacon), a homicide detective in the Massachusetts State Police, sets about solving the crime with his partner (Laurence Fishburne). But within this familiar matrix, Helgeland and Eastwood created a shadowed way of life whose roots go back twenty-five years to a crime: the kidnapping and abuse of a young boy In the present, the grown-up victim of the crime (Tim Robbins), and the two friends who watched years ago as he was driven away (Sean Penn and Bacon), are held together by a bond of shame and disgust. Working without the aid of science fiction or fantasy, Eastwood established a sense of malaise, a community in which the normal dimensions of pleasure, ease, and trust are missing. The movie is set in a white, Catholic, working-class suburb of Boston, and the physical weight of this fallen world—the wood-frame buildings, the gray light, the sour flatness of the accents, the tough, anxious women clinging to their men—pervades every frame of the movie. The neighborhood might be an ancient Greek city fallen under a curse. What remains of the generic elements—the slow gather­ing and sifting of evidence by the two cops—brings the past, by degrees, into pointed clarification of the present. In the end, the movies actions and perceptions transcend genre. We are what the past has made us, and Sean Penn’s Jimmy, a neighborhood store owner and thug whose earlier life has been marked by acts of vengeance, loses his daughter and then asks if he’s not responsible for her death in some way. Eastwood had never worked with an actor as daring as Penn, and he let him loose to explore the outer reaches of sullenness, self-righteousness, and shame. It’s one of Penn’s greatest performances.

To work with such glum material without falling into middlebrow dreariness requires intellectual force and a steely grip on narrative. Mystic River is wonderfully told, and it’s filled with memorable moments—not just Penn’s anguish at the scene of his daughter’s death but scene after scene in which one character feels out another, not quite saying what he surmises, not quite asking what he fears. It’s a movie of hints, echoes, past betrayals that live on to do further damage. This film, too, turns into an ar­gument about violence. Like Dirty Harry and Little Bill, Jimmy is yet an­other guy who imagines that he alone embodies justice. He tries to avenge his daughter’s death, only to kill the wrong man. But then, a surprise: His wife (Laura Linney), excited by his daring, and maybe by his cruelty, pulls him into bed. Eastwood had moved past easily understood right and wrong, past the simple satisfactions of pattern. Killing for revenge is as idiotic as killing for hire, yet the act is flagrantly rewarded. From the be­ginning, going back to his performance in A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood had enjoyed a taste for irony, but this ending was a perverse twist worthy of a sardonic modern artist like Brecht or Fassbinder.

He was seventy-three, he had hit the summit (Mystic River was commer­cially successful, too), and one might have expected little afterward—perhaps a pleasant stroll through the high pastures of esteemed old age. Instead, he took stock and moved on. For years, he had played outsiders (by temperament) who worked within the system, angry men who held up authority on behalf of a white male majority beginning to feel besieged. Now, returning to elements from Josey Wales, he began noticing and even celebrating true outsiders, people who had much less power than his own characters. Had he become, of all things, a liberal? Probably not, at least not in any overtly political way. It’s a better guess that, as he got older, he saw his own prized values embodied in people he had mostly ignored earlier. Women, after all, had rarely figured for much in his movies. One can remember Verna Bloom’s tenderness in supporting roles, and, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a few sassy performances by Sondra Locke, who was then Eastwood’s paramour. In Tightrope, Genevieve Bujold pro­jected a taut intelligence; Marsha Mason gave body and flavor to her ex­asperation with Eastwood’s Gunny in Heartbreak Ridge; Meryl Streep had a never-met-the-right-man wistfulness in The Bridges of Madison County. But many of the women were whory, predatory, or adoring, and none of them, even the strong ones, quite prepared us for Hilary Swank’s pugna­cious jaw and wide smile in Million Dollar Baby (2004). At first, the fight club setting gives off the sour-sweat odor of defeat. As Eastwood and Mor­gan Freeman rag on each other, the movie seems a joke between elderly friends (the lines are a duet for buzzsaw and cello). But Eastwood him­self turns out to be the butt: The bullheaded Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) breaks into this second-rate male province, trains as a fighter, and pulls the snarling old man out of emotional isolation into something like fa­therhood and, finally, the full, humanity of mourning. Maggie could give and take a punch. The movie was less an expression of feminist awareness than a case of awed respect for a woman who was tough and enduring (the respect was rather woodenly repeated in Changeling, from 2008, in which Angelina Jolie’s betrayed mother takes on the entire LAPD).

In the same way, Eastwood began to see, in minority groups, even in America’s former enemies, what he had long admired in tough white men. Certainly, no one in American movies had ever done anything quite as open-hearted as Eastwoods 2006 feat of recounting the devastating battle of Iwo Jima from both points of view. In Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood’s critical account of the War Department’s crass media exploitation of the American soldiers took the shine off the victory. Then, a few months later, he brought out Letters from Iwo Jima, a portrait of the Japanese, particu­larly the island military commander, General Kuribayashi (Ken Wata- nabe), as supremely dutiful, and honorable in defeat. The two movies, shot in color but then drained to near-black-and-white, were not great, but both were intelligent and stirring, and the dual release placed them in conversation with each other as profiles of national character, dialectical partners in an imaginary but potent debate. The Japanese came off better.

Part of Eastwoods late curiosity was directed at new aspects of him­self, a superb human animal inexorably getting older. Rather than fight his years, Eastwood, with the entire world watching, explicitly drama­tized aging—the slowing of reflexes, the hardening of perception and will. Back in 1993, in In the Line of Fire, he managed to suggest, in the midst of a first-rate thriller (directed by Wolfgang Petersen), that men his age (early sixties) compensate for perceived weakness by over-focusing on the task at hand, a fresh insight. Frankie Dunn in Million Dollar Baby was inflexible, too, holding himself rigid so as not to be crippled by the many kinds of guilt overwhelming him. Eastwood never revived Dirty Harry, who would have been a grimly witty old party, but Walt Kowalski, the irascible retired autoworker in Gran Torino (2008), is a clear variation on Harry. Living in a house outside Detroit next to a family of Hmong refu­gees, Kowalski is indecently hostile—“gooks” and “slopes” are among the daily epithets—but, by degrees, he’s impressed by the family’s insistence on discipline, and he rouses himself to protect them against local gangs. Who can doubt that Eastwoods shift from loathing to compassion was an oblique rejection of the endless American rancor over immigration? The man who once walked away at the end now gravely took responsibility for everything, a development enlarged in Invictus. As if teasing his limits as an actor, Eastwood literally growled, but Walt Kowalski is also a true terror. Eastwood’s skull stood out beneath his skin; his eyes were like coal fire. He was never a more dominating star.

The New Yorker, March 8, 2010; revised 2011


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