Their man Clint

Twenty-some years ago, while working for the Village Voice, I was astonished to overhear a conference call that included the arts editor, the Voice's lead film critic and none other than Clint Eastwood. He had called to not only thank them for a favorable review but to invite them to a film festival where he was appearing. Surely no Republican was ever held so sacred in the pages of the country's best-known Boho leftist paper.

How, I wondered then, did Clint Eastwood do it? I still wonder how he does it. Has any American filmmaker of such mundane talents become not only a mainstream Hollywood icon but the darling of so many Eastern seaboard critics? In a 2002 biography by Patrick McGilligan, Eastwood is quoted as saying sometime in the early '90s, "I will never win an Oscar, and do you know why? First of all: because I'm not Jewish. Secondly, I make too much money for all those old farts in the Academy." Now, after winning as many Oscars as Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, it is probably true, as David Thomson wrote in the third edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, "Clint Eastwood is among the very few Americans admired and respected at home and abroad, without qualification or irony."

There's no reason why Eastwood should be regarded with more irony than can be found in his films. Last month, Clint Eastwood: 35 Films 35 Years at Warner Bros. was released, "highlighting," as the press release says, "the breadth and depth of his work." What is actually highlighted in the collection is how amazingly devoid nearly all of them are of any trace of irony, nuance, or anything that is normally associated with art.

Most of the films in the collection — including those Eastwood directed as well as those in which he appeared as an actor — are notable only for being mind numbing and calculatingly risk free. I won't waste time discussing Eastwood as an actor but to simply say that the man who made him a star, Sergio Leone, had it right more than four decades ago when he compared Eastwood to Robert De Niro: "They don't even belong in the same profession. De Niro throws himself into this or that role, putting on a personality the way someone else might put on his coat … while Eastwood throws himself into a suit of armor and lowers the visor with a rusty clang." Eastwood, said Leone, "had only two expressions: with or without a hat."

Leone was being generous. Try watching the Leone-Eastwood spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry films and ask yourself if it really makes a difference to Eastwood's performance if he's wearing a hat. Then watch the comedies in which he costarred with an orangutan and see if you can detect any variation in Eastwood's performances.

It might be argued that scarcely anyone but his most fawning admirers has ever taken Eastwood seriously as an actor and that it's as a director he has made his real statement, but what if it's true, as David Thomson argues, "As a director he matches his own work as an actor?" — which Thomson intends as a compliment. What is one to make of the score of lead-footed clunkers he has directed over the last four decades? To name just a few (most of which are in the Warner Brothers collection): Breezy (1973), The Eiger Sanction (1975), Firefox (1982), True Crime (1999), Space Cowboys (2000) and Changeling (2008).

Really, how many of these films would you ever want to see again?

Let's allow Eastwood some points for his early, competent reworkings of the suspense and western genres — The Beguiled: The Storyteller (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973) — and for the quirky, heartfelt Bronco Billy (1980) and Honkytonk Man (1982). Give him unqualified praise for Mystic River (2003) as a great film, and not just because of the fine performances.

Then take a second look at the so-called "prestige" pictures on which his reputation is based. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is most certainly not a story, as David Thomson insists, of a "resolute hero in search of vengeance," but the story of a resolute "Fed-rul guv'mint" (as the phrase is spelled out in the novel it's based on, by white racist Asa Carter) seeking vengeance on an honest Confederate.

Unforgiven (1992) is an eastern film critic's conception of what the Old West was like in which Eastwood's character, a widower, packs off his kids to the neighbors down the road and goes off to earn a little extra money through freelance killing. Eastwood's most honest biographer, McGilligan, noted, "Many critics, because they liked Clint in person as well as on the screen, strove to find artistic merit in his films, even though there emerged a basic contradiction between the films they supported and those which audiences loved. The audiences wanted the omnipotent Clint, while the critics preferred the uncharacteristic films, in which Clint found himself powerless or defeated." And so, in Unforgiven, Eastwood was able to reconcile the two Clints, by first allowing himself to be beaten and humiliated in a manner which would have made Mel Gibson wince, and still return to kill the bad guys and ride off.

James Wolcott wrote years ago in Vanity Fair, "The truth is not that Eastwood's films have gotten ‘hip,' but that the movie critics have gotten so square." But in recent years, it's Eastwood's films that have become "square." In 1971, in a review of Dirty Harry, Pauline Kael famously noted that, "The action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it surfaces in this movie." Dirty Harry was, she wrote, "A remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values, with each prejudicial detail in place, a kind of hard hat The Fountainhead."

Almost as if in direct response to Kael's criticism, the master, late in life, seems to have transformed himself. In such recent films as Flags of Our Fathers, Gran Torino (2008) and last year's Invictus, he has taken on such big social issues as discrimination against American Indians, child abuse, gang violence, and apartheid. Guess what? He's strongly against all of them.

From Dirty Harry Callahan, Eastwood has morphed into Hollywood's leading purveyor of liberal pieties. His late-career pattern has been to come down firmly on the side of issues that have been decided for decades. Eastwood might not have become the cultural institution we now know, but he would have been a much better filmmaker if he had followed the advice he offered as Dirty Harry: "A man should know his own limitations."

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