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by Gabriel Chong | 28 March 2009

Very few artists can claim to be at the top of their craft at the age of 78. But that’s Clint Eastwood for you.

Last 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.

How’s 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.

His Humble Beginnings

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.

And Sergio Leone Came Knocking

Thanks 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.

That 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 international fame.

Eastwood 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).

The Birth of Dirty Harry

As 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 pursued.

His 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.

The 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 mostly unexceptional.

The 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.

Undeniably, 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 to us.

Gran Torino opens 26 March 2009

Eastwood in one of his spaghetti westerns

Eastwood as the iconic Dirty Harry

"The Good The Bad The Ugly"

Eastwood just love making this 'hand-sign'

Winning the Oscars at the 77th Annual Academy Awards

Conversing with Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne on the set of "Mystic River"

Eastwood stars and directs the award-winning "Million Dollar Baby"

Eastwood on the set of "Gran Torino"

Eastwood with Angelina Jolie on the set of "Changeling"

Eastwood with Ken Watanabe on the set of "Letters from Iwo Jima"

His back-to-back war saga, "Flags Of Our Fathers"

By Gabriel 'make my day!' Chong
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