Gabriel Chong | 28 March 2009
few artists can claim to be at the top of their craft
at the age of 78. But that’s Clint Eastwood for
year, the man starred in his first film (Gran Torino)
in 4 years, directed two critically acclaimed movies
(Changeling and Gran Torino), composed the music for
another film (Grace is Gone), and wrote and sang the
title song of “Gran Torino” with jazz singer
Jamie Cullum- not to mention winning Best Actor from
the National Board of Film Reviews.
that for someone who’s already been an actor for
53 years, a director for 37, won two Oscars for directing,
and another two for Best Picture? Indeed, only two other
living directors- Milos Forman and Francis Ford Coppola-
can boast of the same twin Best Picture glories. But
there’s a reason why Clint Eastwood’s been
hailed as a true American legend.
He was born on May 31, 1930. It was
the time of the Great Depression and many families moved
from city to city looking for jobs, settling down where
they could make ends meet and packing up when things
became harsh. Yes, Eastwood wasn’t born with a
silver spoon in his mouth- he was the son of a steelworker
and a factory worker.
His family finally settled down in
Oakland in 1948 and by that time, Eastwood had already
worked several odd jobs, including a hay bailer, logger,
truck driver and steel furnace stoker. In 1950, the
height of the Korean War, Eastwood was drafted into
the US Army. It was there that he met fellow actors
David Janssen and Martin Milner who convinced him to
move to Los Angeles.
After taking a screen test at Universal,
he signed a contract for just seventy-five dollars a
week. Eastwood’s film debuts were to be in the
B-grade science fiction films- Revenge of the Creature
(1955) and Tarantula (1955)- both better off forgotten.
But his first big break was to come when he was cast
as Rowdy Yates in the TV series Rawhide (1959-1966),
which ran for eight seasons.
Sergio Leone Came Knocking
to Rawhide, Eastwood was invited to try for the part
in Sergio Leone’s western A Fistful of Dollars
(1964). Other more established actors of his time- among
them, James Coburn and Charles Bronson- had already
auditioned and turned down the role. But Eastwood gamely
took up the cool, laconic role of the Man with No Name.
character would become the first of the spectral figures
in his career- and Eastwood would later reprise it twice
in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad
and the Ugly (1966). The trilogy became a benchmark
in spaghetti westerns and in the process, Eastwood gained
on a Roll
After the series of Italian productions,
Eastwood returned to the States and landed plum roles
in films such as Where Eagles Dare (1968) alongside
Richard Burton, Hang ‘Em High (1968) and Kelly’s
Heroes (1970). Eastwood also starred in Coogan’s
Bluff (1968), the film that marked the first of his
many gritty urban crime dramas with director Don Siegel.
Certainly, the end of the 1960s and
the 1970s was truly a prolific time for the actor who
had an average of two movies a year out. The year 1971
witnessed two major milestones in his career. Under
his own production company, Malpaso, he made his directorial
debut with the modest hit Play Misty for Me (1971).
That year, he also starred in what is perhaps the most
famous role of his career, Inspector Harry Callahan,
in the box-office smash Dirty Harry (1971).
Birth of Dirty Harry
the hard-nosed, no-nonsense cop, Eastwood’s Dirty
Harry struck a chord with ordinary Americans who were
fed up with crime on their streets. Audiences would
forever remember him as the tough inspector with the
.44 Magnum who spared no mercy for the criminals he
Dirty Harry character was so popular that it was later
reborn in four sequels: Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer
(1976), Sudden Impact (1983) and The Dead Pool (1988).
It was Sudden Impact (1983) that would go on to become
the highest grossing film of the series and remembered
for what would be Dirty Harry’s most iconic line
“Go ahead, make my day”. Incidentally, that
was also the last film he acted in with frequent leading
lady Sondra Locke, his first wife of 14 years.
Heydays and the Lowdays
The ’70s were indeed Eastwood’s
heydays. Most of his films were box-office successes,
even though some of them were critically panned. But
his star began fading in the late ‘80s when he
had a string of solid but unremarkable films, Tightrope
(1984) and City Heat (1984) as well as other outright
box-office flops, including Pink Cadillac (1989) and
The Rookie (1990).
But Eastwood rose back to prominence
with another Western classic, Unforgiven (1992). The
film about aging gunslinger Bill Munny became both a
commercial and critical success. Nominated for nine
Oscars, it went on to win four, including Best Picture
and Best Director for Eastwood. Unforgiven also became
the last Western that Eastwood would star in.
Cruising on the success of Unforgiven
(1992), Eastwood had another box-office hit with the
action thriller In The Line of Fire (1993) directed
by Wolfgang Petersen. Surprisingly, critics enjoyed
as much as audiences did and the movie went on to garner
three nominations at the Academy Awards.
Eastwood also had one other major hit
in the ’90s playing the romantic lead opposite
Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County (1995),
based on the bestselling novel. He also directed the
movie which earned Streep a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
That bright spark however did not last long, as many
of his other films in the ’90s like A Perfect
World (1993), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
(1997), True Crime (1999) and Space Cowboys (2000) were
Icon of our Time
In 2002, Clint Eastwood directed the
Boston crime drama Mystic River starring Sean Penn,
Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins. The film had all the themes
of classic Eastwood films- crime and vigilantism- and
became the start of another revival, winning two Academy
Awards and nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
It would also mark the first of several films he directed
that he also composed the music for.
He returned with Million Dollar Baby
(2004), regarded by most as the crowning glory of his
career. It won him his second set of Best Picture and
Best Director awards, and a Best Actor nomination. For
the first time in his life, Eastwood was also nominated
for a Grammy Award for his score on the film.
There was no lack of ambition when
Eastwood decided to direct two films back to back on
the battle of Iwo Jima- one from the perspective of
the American soldiers who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi,
Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and the other from that
of the Japanese soldiers defending their land, Letters
from Iwo Jima (2006).
He returned with another two films
in 2008 but it was Gran Torino that was better-received.
Some hailed it as among his best work- his role as Korean
war vet Walt Kowalski bringing back echoes of his classic
Dirty Harry character. Perhaps befittingly therefore,
Eastwood has said that Gran Torino may be his last movie
as actor. And there’s no doubt audiences have
responded enthusiastically, making Gran Torino the biggest
commercial success of his entire career.
Showing no hint of slowing down after
his two movies of 2008, Clint Eastwood is already hard
at work directing his new film The Human Factor (2009),
a film about the life of Nelson Mandela after the fall
of apartheid. It marks his reunion with Unforgiven star
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
Eastwood will forever be remembered as a totem of masculinity
in the history of cinema. But especially in this decade,
he has also demonstrated his versatility by directing
some of its best films. His films are his legacy, the
legacy of a man who has risen to become a legend admired
and respected by his peers and audiences around the
world. Thank you, Clint, you will always be an icon
Torino opens 26 March 2009