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Cinematic Superman: The Astonishing Legacy of Clint Eastwood

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This was the not the first title I had in mind for this piece. But when I dug into Clint Eastwood's life and career, it seemed particularly apt -- and not even close to an overstatement.

Just consider this:

Over a career spanning over half a century, he's been involved in over ninety film productions, and directed thirty films.

Having just turned 81 two weeks ago, he says his acting days are most likely behind him, but shows no signs of slowing down as a director.

For over forty years, he has produced his own films and consistently negotiated hefty profit participation deals. Along with his undeniable talent and seemingly superhuman energy, his shrewd business skills have earned him a fortune.

He is a ten-time Academy Award nominee -- for acting, producing and directing -- all occurring after he reached the age of sixty.

Over that time, he has directed ten different actors to Oscar-nominated performances.

Not that he was a late bloomer.

A TV star (on the western series Rawhide) by thirty, and a bona-fide movie star by thirty-five, his name first appeared on the Quigley poll of top box-office draws in 1968, and would appear on the list twenty more times, more than any other actor except John Wayne.

In addition to all this, he has fathered seven children with five different women (only two of whom he actually married), been Vice-Chair of the California State Park and Recreation Commission, Mayor of Carmel, and an accomplished jazz musician and composer.

When does the man sleep, I wonder?

The son of a steelworker, Clint was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Oregon. An accomplished athlete in high school, he was drawn early to music and intended to study theory. But the Korean War cut short that dream. Clint was drafted into the Army, and ended up serving as a swimming instructor at California's Fort Ord.

Once out of the service, Clint moved to Los Angeles where he met Maggie Johnson, a college student, soon to be the first Mrs. Clint Eastwood (and mother to Kyle and Allison). Taking college classes locally, Clint worked at various jobs to make ends meet: digging swimming pools, managing an apartment building, pumping gas.

In 1954, the young man's imposing looks and build (in his prime Clint was 6'4") first drew the attention of some movie types. He looked great on camera, but hadn't the slightest clue about performing in front of one. Acting classes helped, though ironically, in his first small roles in movies and television, he would often be criticized for his squint and for hissing his lines, characteristics that would soon define him as a star.

Two years later, Clint's fortunes brightened when he met Irving Leonard, a financial advisor who would guide Clint's career. He switched talent agencies, and though his film and TV roles were still small, there were more of them. And Clint was getting important seasoning.

His big break finally came in 1958, with the series Rawhide, a Western that would run seven years on CBS. He played a genial cowboy called Rowdy Yates.

Late in the run of that series, Clint heard about a Western to be shot in Europe by a then-unknown director named Sergio Leone. Its title was A Fistful Of Dollars. Wanting to escape the drudgery of "Rawhide", he accepted the role first offered to James Coburn (who wanted more money to do it).

Importantly, in playing "The Man With No Name", Clint saw the opportunity to challenge the stereotypical "white hat" American western hero with a much more ambiguous, mysterious anti-hero... a man with an unrevealed past who communicates mostly through attitude and action rather than sentiment. This description would go on to fit the Eastwood star persona for decades to come.

That first Leone film became a trilogy, wildly successful in Europe, and spawning a whole subgenre dubbed the "spaghetti western". By the time, it finally reached the states in 1967, Clint had achieved big screen stardom, and would never look back.

Notably, the actor had first shown interest in directing way back on Rawhide. He directed several trailers for the show, and begged his bosses to let him helm a full episode. They refused, but Clint's intention to direct persisted. When he finally got the chance in 1971 with a film called Play Misty For Me, he grabbed it.

I have listed below my own Eastwood (acted and directed) top ten, which requires more than a word of explanation.

The closest Clint came to a career slump happened in the eighties. Indeed, by the end of that decade, he'd experienced a few actual flops (remember Pink Cadillac or The Rookie?)

The truth is, Eastwood had more than his share of films over that period -- and at other times -- that might not have achieved greatness but were still extremely good: Coogan's Bluff (1968) and Play Misty For Me (1971) fit that category, as does Bird (1988), Flags Of Our Fathers (2006), and even his last on-screen role, Gran Torino (2008), though many rate these last two features higher than I do.

(In Bluff, which in turn inspired the popular seventies TV series, "McCloud", rural Marshall Clint comes to big bad New York City to retrieve a suspect, locking horns with cynical cop Lee J. Cobb. It was also notable as the first of five Eastwood films directed by Don Siegel. Clint would learn much from the older man's skill and experience behind the camera.)

Many will disagree, but I also felt Clint's biggest latter career triumph, Million Dollar Baby (2004), was a trifle overrated. Nominated for seven Oscars, it won four: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Hilary Swank) and Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).

I actually went back and screened Baby again to take a fresh look. Extremely well-acted and directed (though Swank occasionally grated on me), for me the film still falls short by being a tad too obvious and heavy-handed in its conceit (in Hilary, the crusty Clint finds the daughter he'd lost), a throwback to the classics of the thirties that were somehow better able to pull off this sort of overt sentimentality.

That said, the movie's highly entertaining, and I know mine is the minority opinion.

Ultimately, whether you concur with my own picks is almost beside the point. What surely we can all agree on is the brilliance of this actor and filmmaker. I don't use this term lightly, but clearly it takes something more than hard work, determination and luck to amass a filmography like Clint's.

Like his "Man With No Name", Clint doesn't use words to wow us; it's his actions that count. He is self-deprecating always, and he makes what he does look easy... but of course it is anything but.

What's behind his approach, I think, is a fundamental respect for the intelligence of his audience, a quality we see less and less in today's mainstream filmmakers. Reflecting his reverence for the classics of old Hollywood (reputedly, James Cagney is his favorite star), above all Clint values a compelling story, and sees nothing wrong with leaving something to the imagination.

That he continues practicing his craft because "there are more stories to tell" only reinforces his position as a bonafide national treasure.

A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) -- A drifting, unnamed gunslinger (Eastwood) rides into the sleepy Mexican town of San Miguel, where he learns that two rival gangs, the Baxters and the Rojos, have wrested control of the weapons and liquor trades, and are now in a fragile truce. After witnessing Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte) rob and kill members of a Mexican cavalry unit, he sees an opportunity to pocket some gold, deciding to hire himself out to both gangs and play them off each other. Filmed in Spain and loosely modeled after Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Leone's Dollars was the first classic of the so-called Spaghetti Westerns, introducing Clint Eastwood in his iconic role as the Man With No Name. Audiences everywhere ate up his ill-tempered, laconic, violence-prone screen persona, quite a departure from his stint on TV's Rawhide. Westerns were never the same after this nameless gun legend rode into movie history, leaving a trail of gore in his wake, and paving the way for Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, among others.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
(1966) -- Eastwood returns as "The Man With No Name" in this tale of three men's desperate hunt for a cache of confederate gold during the Civil War. These hombres are certainly not working together, even when they appear to be. Eastwood must contend with slimy bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach), and more ominously, there's the killer Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) hot on the trail. Who'll find the gold first, and just as important, who'll get to keep it? Widely considered the best of Leone's western trilogy, "Good" has also been re-mastered to pristine glory, some footage re-inserted, and lines re-dubbed by Eastwood and Wallach. Yes, the film is long, but the three stars, Leone's magic camera, and that Morricone score will hold you hostage throughout. Wallach steals it as Tuco. A spaghetti western worth its weight in gold.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) -- A crack Allied team during World War II is assigned a near-suicide mission to penetrate a remote Nazi alpine fortress to free a captured General. This intricate mission is headed by British Major Jonathan Smith (Richard Burton), supported by steely American Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Eastwood). Though the plan is inspired, there are factors unknown to the team which will alter the course of events, forcing some highly skilled improvisation. Master of adventure Alistair MacLean managed to write this breathlessly exciting tale in both novel and screenplay form in just six weeks, particularly impressive given the results achieved. Epic in scale, colorful and tense, "Eagles" will engage you straight through to its breathtaking conclusion. A no-nonsense Burton and Eastwood play off each other beautifully, and also look for Scottish actress Mary Ure as a fetching British agent (and Smith's old flame). A huge box-office success, this helped solidify Eastwood's position as a bankable star.

Dirty Harry (1971) -- San Francisco police detective Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is out of step with his times: he is ruthless in apprehending dangerous criminals, which annoys a City Hall mired in red tape and threatens a dysfunctional justice system that releases violent felons on technicalities. When the Zodiac Killer starts shooting people at random, however, the brass puts Harry on the case, since the cop who does things his own way also gets results. Tight, graphic and brutal, after Dirty Harry, TV's Dragnet would seem forever quaint. Director Don Siegel's gritty realism works to reincarnate the classic John Wayne hero image -- a tough, independent, two-fisted good guy -- to a funkier, more turbulent period. Eastwood's taciturn, squinty-eyed protagonist is the new rugged individualist, who, in a bureaucratic world, cuts through everything to get the job done. Kudos also go to Andrew Robinson who makes a particularly creepy psychopath.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) -- Missouri farmer-turned-Confederate soldier Josey Wales (Eastwood) becomes an outlaw when he refuses to surrender to "red leg" Union soldier Terrill (Bill McKinney), the man responsible for murdering his wife and son. Pursued by U.S. cavalry and ruthless bounty hunters, Wales teams up with wounded rebel Jamie (Sam Bottoms) and then must defend the homestead of an elderly woman and her granddaughter when his enemies find him. One of Eastwood's finest and most underrated directorial efforts, Outlaw leaves behind the actor's Man With No Name persona for a slightly more honorable, if no less laconic, hero out for vengeance. Though he's a wanted renegade with an agenda, Wales befriends a wry Cherokee, Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), and two settlers, old-timer Paula Trueman and sultry Sondra Locke (Clint and Sondra would have a long partnership, on-and off-screen). Cheated of his own family, Wales forms-and then must defend-a make-shift community where trust and respect are the founding pillars. Great acting, exquisite photography, and an engaging story about alliances make for a rousing, thoughtful Western. Open your door to this Outlaw.

Escape From Alcatraz (1979) -- Newly arrived at "the Rock," veteran convict Frank Morris (Eastwood) is informed by the smug warden (Patrick McGoohan) that he can forget all about escaping Alcatraz: No one ever has -- and no one ever will. Morris, adept at breaking out of other federal prisons, immediately sets out to prove him wrong, befriending a handful of inmates he thinks are best equipped to help him. Based on a true story about the men whose 1962 escape from the San Francisco maximum-security penitentiary ushered in its demise, this thrilling prison-break tale by Dirty Harry director Siegel has all the elements of a great action film. And Eastwood, assured as ever, captivates as the brains behind the plan. His scenes with McGoohan, though brief, are thick with psychological tension. Though "Alcatraz" takes its time building to the climactic bust-out attempt by Morris's team, Siegel never lets your nerves rest.

Unforgiven (1992) -- In the waning days of the West, one drunken, nasty customer in the town of Big Whisky brutally disfigures an otherwise innocent prostitute when she laughs at the wrong moment during their encounter. When brutal, corrupt Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman) lets the man off with little more than a slap, the girl's colleagues decide to raise a bounty for the culprit. Learning this, long-retired gunslinger Bill Munny (Eastwood), whose pig farm is failing, resolves to pick up his weapon once again, and old colleague Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) goes along for the ride. The craggy, mellowing Eastwood directs himself admirably in this scenic, first-class oater, which strikes an ideal balance between character piece and action film as it portrays a rapidly changing way of life. Nominated for nine Oscars, Unforgiven nabbed four, including Best Picture and Best Director for Clint, and a Best Supporting Actor award for Hackman, whose Daggett is deliciously despicable. Look too for the late Richard Harris in a showy turn as one "English Bob", a self-aggrandizing old gunslinger who gets on Daggett's bad side. One of our finest Westerns, this was the movie that ushered in an illustrious new chapter in Eastwood's career.

In The Line Of Fire (1993) -- Veteran Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) starts receiving anonymous calls, threatening the President's life. Unbeknownst to him, the calls are coming from former CIA operative Mitch Ryder (John Malkovich), who fully intends to make good on his threats. Ryder knows that as a young agent, Frank had served on President Kennedy's detail and delights in aggravating his lingering guilt. For his part, Frank vows not to let another assassination happen on his watch. But the President is in re-election mode, and can't hide from what may not be a real threat. This time around, will Frank save his president? Wolfgang Petersen's crackerjack thriller hits the bull's-eye: its all-too-believable story is breathlessly paced and executed, and the craggy Clint is aces as an agent well past his prime who's not certain he can succeed where he failed before. Rene Russo charms as one of the few colleagues who believes in Frank, but it's the Oscar-nominated Malkovich who steals the picture and makes your blood run cold as the crafty, chameleon-like Ryder. Don't duck for this one.

Mystic River (2003) -- While playing with his friends Jimmy and Sean on the streets of blue collar Boston in the mid-1970s, young Dave is abducted and eventually subjected to sexual abuse. His trauma continues into adulthood, so that when Jimmy's teenage daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is brutally murdered, Dave (Tim Robbins) becomes a suspect. As the police detective assigned to investigate, Sean (Kevin Bacon) has to negotiate the unquenchable rage of father Jimmy (Sean Penn), his empathy for Dave, and his own demons, past and present. One of the great films of Eastwood's late career renaissance, "River" is an intense, beautifully crafted detective story. Gripping as both murder mystery and drama, the film sustains a mournful tone without getting lost in the artifice of suspense. Penn and Robbins, whose electric performances won them Oscars for Best Actor and Supporting Actor respectively, have never been better, and the fine ensemble includes standouts such as Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney. Don't miss this Eastwood classic based on Dennis Lehane's bestselling novel.

Letters From Iwo Jima (2007) -- Near the end of World War II, as American forces prepare to take the tiny strategic island of Iwo Jima, US-educated Lt. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) oversees the digging of tunnels and deep foxholes for his soldiers, who will fight to defend the honor of Japan, though they are outnumbered and certain to lose the battle. Short on supplies, and uncomfortably cramped into their hidey-holes, the Imperial Army enlistees -- who come from all walks of life -- write home to their loved ones, as the shadow of death looms. Eastwood's follow-up to "Flags of Our Fathers", which examined the same battle from the perspective of U.S. soldiers, stands as an even greater accomplishment -- a war film of tremendous insight and compassion. Kuribayashi, sensitively played by Watanabe, is a cunning leader and a man of principle, opposed to the war but committed to fulfill his duty. The men serving under him -- like private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who longs to return to his pregnant wife, and Olympic equestrian Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara)- complete the picture of ordinary men sent to make the ultimate sacrifice. Eastwood's Letters doesn't revise WWII history so much as illuminate an aspect of it we've never seen: the humanity of the enemy.


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