Today is the birthday of Clint Eastwood, American icon.
“Icon” is a word that gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but there’s not a lot of need for argument on this one. I think that the fact that Clint Eastwood is an icon, in front of the camera and sometimes even in life, is the reason that his brilliant career as a film director remains undervalued. It’s true that the critical community and the major awards ceremonies have finally caught up with giving credit where it’s due, but I still get the sense that Clint somehow doesn’t immediately come to mind where he should.
If you ask anyone who writes about film who they consider to be the top contemporary American film directors, you’ll rightfully get names like Spielberg, Scorsese, Lynch, Coen, Coen, Coppola, and so on. Eastwood belongs on that list. Just remember that, critical types. Keep it fresh.
What I like most about Clint is really two things: 1) The movies he’s best known for are my favorite kind of movies, but 2) He has a relentless creative spirit that leads him to explore very different subjects and genres in those movies that people forget he’s also made. I think it’s because he’s a jazz musician: He knows the classic tropes inside and out, so he can experiment and explore within and beyond them.
It’s there from the start: He’ll make a Western like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (still uncommonly striking and harsh), but it’s book-ended by his first movie, PLAY MISTY FOR ME, which is about a radio DJ facing his lady stalker, and BREEZY, which is a romance between William Holden and a much, much younger lady. And HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is hardly conventional itself – it’s very dark, morally ambiguous, and really more a ghost story than a straightforward Western.
And so it goes, throughout his filmography: When he does a Western, it’s always smart, unusual, and special. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES is so much more profound and complicated than it may seem at first. It’s a clear ancestor to UNFORGIVEN. PALE RIDER is a bit more traditional, and a callback to HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. UNFORGIVEN is obviously a masterpiece, but then again I’d say Clint’s made a couple of those.
BIRD is a brilliant, roiling example of the biopic, challenging and uneasy to watch, but a significant portrait of a great musician (Charlie Parker) and probably one of the movies closest to Clint’s heart. The movie he did right afterwards, WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART, is an underappreciated minor work, and also a biopic in a way, as it’s a veiled depiction of the director John Huston. An earlier, much more lighthearted film of Clint’s, BRONCO BILLY, is also a veiled parable about moviemaking, in the way that it looks at a group of dissimilar people who come together to put on a show, even though the show may be looked upon by some as outdated.
I’m jumping around here, but that’s how rich and varied Clint’s cinematic output has been. He’s done over 30 movies as a director alone – that’s close to one per year since he started directing, easily keeping pace with Woody Allen’s or Spike Lee’s notoriously prodigious schedules (and in my opinion, his work is far more consistent.)
It’s hard to think of an authorial voice more quintessentially American or more quintessentially masculine, although Clint again surprises on both counts: He paired the relatively conventional World War 2 epic FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS with the noticeably superior LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, giving equal consideration to the Japanese perspective.
And I would point out that Clint is a director uncommonly interested in the female perspective – just look at his multiply-nominated-and-award-winning boxing picture MILLION DOLLAR BABY, or the strangely berated woman’s picture CHANGELING, with Angelina Jolie. The fact that Clint made a movie that good in the same calendar year that he released the excellent GRAN TORINO is astounding, thrilling, and shaming to the lazy and content. INVICTUS was an intriguing spin of Clint’s examination of heroic themes, and HEREAFTER was an uncharacteristic, unusual, and under-discussed experiment. J. EDGAR and JERSEY BOYS were daring, better-than-credited films that no one could have expected Clint to make, and last year’s AMERICAN SNIPER was one of his best in years.
He’s just up there among the best there is, today as much as ever. Even a lesser Eastwood movie is worth a look, just as it is with modern masters like Scorsese, the Coens, or Spielberg. (I’d put Michael Mann and Danny Boyle in that grouping also, personally.) If you’re at all serious about movies, it goes without saying: Watch how these guys do it, and be inspired.
Anyway, happy birthday, Clint. I think I’ll be using the occasion as an excuse to watch UNFORGIVEN again, because it’s been more than a year and twenty-something times isn’t enough.
Just forgive me if I follow it with KELLY’S HEROES, because, y’know – Eastwood + Don Rickles + tanks = really the reason to watch movies in the first place.
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