Clint Eastwood is an American icon, having been a major movie star since the sixties. His films have made millions and millions of dollars for his company and the studios that have produced them. As a director, he surprised us, first with the quirky Breezy , starring William Holden in 1973, and through the years with epic and meaningful dramas.
But as an actor he was not distinguished. His fame and fortune rested on magnificent good looks and a no-nonsense personality that rode him through the westerns and Dirty Harry movies. Other than his tall stature and a handsome face, his rather monotonous and spiritless speaking style didn't lend much and thus limited his range, save for a few poignant moments in films like Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, where the force of the movies, which won him Oscars for directing and producing, landed him two acting nominations.
However, in Gran Torino, which I saw at the Directors Guild theatre last night, it all came together and he was gifted with a role that fit perfectly with his persona. Because of it, and perhaps in spite of his limitations, what emerged was a lovely portrayal -- not always easy to watch -- of a man faced with a transition that comes just in time at the tail end of his life.
It's a simple story, which Eastwood produced and directed as well, about a curmudgeonly old man, who has just lost his wife. He doesn't get along with his kids and grandchildren and seems to have a humorless and insensitive attitude towards life.
Added to that, he is enormously prejudiced. A bigot that would make Archie Bunker appear almost liberal. His Michigan neighborhood has been overrun with Southeast Asians, mostly Hmong from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and to say he is not welcoming would be an understatement.
He has neither empathy or interest in them and resents their intrusion into his way of life. He doesn't hesitate to pepper his initially brief and hostile conversations with them calling them every known racial epithet under the sun.
A momentary action changes this when a gang harasses the family next door and they intrude upon his modest lawn. He comes forth with an old army issued rifle he has kept since the Korean war, more intent on getting everyone off his property than aiding his beleaguered neighbors.
However, they and everyone in the vicinity treat him like a hero, bringing him food and flowers, the latter of which he immediately tosses into the trash. Without giving up any of the plot further, he is forced into a relationship with Thao, the studious teenage boy next door, who is being pressured to join an Asian gang, played in a wonderful tormented fashion by Bee Vang, and also unexpectedly forges a bond with the boy's sister, Sue, imbued with terrific spirit by Ahney Her.
Eastwood's voice is not suddenly full of fire. It is equipped with an old man's crackle and doesn't often shift no matter the emotion of the moment. But in this story by Dave Johansson and Nick Schenk and with the spare and pointed dialogue in Nick Schenk's screenplay, and with those ever haunting eyes that always made you believe Eastwood would kill you as Dirty Harry, it all comes together and works.
Perhaps only for this film in this wonderful manner, but no matter because it's a superb achievement.
There are wonderful actors who never become stars and a few who did like Laurence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman and the younger generation's Leonardo DiCaprio. And there are stars like Eastwood, who like John Wayne, managed to wow audiences via the sheer scope of their personality.
John Wayne found True Grit towards the end of his career and now Clint Eastwood has done the same with an unforgettable performance in Gran Torino, a film that is so simple in its telling that it almost slips by how powerful it really is.