Review: ‘Clint: The Life and the Legend’

"Very few people know Clint," says Maggie Eastwood, the actor's first wife. Author Patrick McGilligan claims that the star is secretive about his past and private life. What undermines the book's credibility is the author's insistence on attaching negative connotations to everything the actor says and does, inspiring the reader to rise to his defense.

“Very few people know Clint,” says Maggie Eastwood, the actor’s first wife. Author Patrick McGilligan claims that the star is secretive about his past and private life. To crack open the wall Eastwood has built around himself, McGilligan spends 612 pages studying the contradictions of his subject’s personality — the image of All-American honesty that co-exists with ruthless treatment of friends and colleagues, the serial womanizing that wars with his public persona of a loving husband. As a character, Eastwood is continuously intriguing, and “Clint” moves with lightning speed. What undermines the book’s credibility is the author’s insistence on attaching negative connotations to everything the actor says and does, inspiring the reader to cry out, “wait a minute!” and rise to his defense.

McGilligan, who wrote the excellent, even-handed “George Cukor: A Double Life,” can’t be faulted for skimping on research. The book delves into Eastwood’s early fascination with performing, splashing ketchup blood on friends during their backyard cowboy games and acting out make believe scenes with his toys. Such voyeuristic anecdotes as Eastwood hiding in a friend’s bedroom closet and watching him fornicate seem gratuitous and unncessary.

More illuminating is the actor-director’s creative evolution from male model who exhibited little thespian skill in “Lady Godiva Of Coventry” and “Francis in the Navy” to the callow, hotheaded Rowdy on “Rawhide.” Gay director Arthur Lubin was an early agent and mentor, though Lubin later admitted that tension developed when Maggie Eastwood asked him if he was trying to steal her husband.

Eastwood remained focused, stating, “you have to keep selling yourself … you have to believe in yourself the same way a salesman believes in a vacuum cleaner … humility in Hollywood is something you can afford only when you’re a star.” Film stardom came with Sergio Leone and a series of stark, macho spaghetti westerns, notably “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Although Leone is painted as maniacally cheap, a man who rarely bathed, had gross appetites and abused people, he instinctively grasped the nature of Eastwood’s taciturn appeal. The emerging “Man With No Name” was shrewd enough to be silent on screen and grow stronger in the imagination of his audience.

McGilligan traces the star’s affairs with Catherine Deneuve, Jean Seberg and dancer Roxanne Tunis, who gave birth to his daughter Kimber in June of 1964. A friend said he was “possessed by the demon beast, sex,” but this obsession never interfered with a career that flourished because, as Eastwood explained, “Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino play losers very well, but my audience likes to be in there vicariously with a winner.”

“Dirty Harry” cemented his success, and the actor established his own production company, Malpaso, and exerted permanent, iron control over his pictures. His directorial debut “Play Misty For Me” earned respect, and eventually led to a best director Oscar for 1992’s “The Unforgiven.”

Well-known tabloid traumas with Sondra Locke are recycled, though the tone is so relentlessly accusatory that sections dealing with film work come as a relief. The duality of Eastwood’s nature is reflected when McGilligan portrays him as a capable, conscientious mayor of Carmel, then a man “fuming openly” with jealousy when co-star Jeff Bridges, and not he, received an Oscar nomination for “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.”

The virtues of “Clint” include a crisp writing style and fully fleshed analyses of the star’s versatility and willingness to take artistic risks ranging from “Bird” to “The Bridges Of Madison County.” The best way for readers to enjoy it is to reject the author’s incessant value judgments and utilize the book’s massive amount of information to form their own perspective of an enigmatic icon.

Clint: The Life and the Legend

St.. Martin's Press; 612 Pgs.; $35


Patrick McGilligan
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