Looking beyond the tough guise at an actor's range

A screen icon and celebrated filmmaker, Eastwood’s range as an actor is often overlooked

With all the acclaim Clint Eastwood has received over the years for his work behind the camera, it’s easy to overlook what many have taken for granted from the beginning: his acting. With his chisled features, trademark glint and whispery line delivery, Eastwood belongs in the Mount Rushmore of leading man icons — a pantheon of strong silent types that includes Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Steve McQueen.

The parallels with Wayne, especially, point to the tendancy to undervalue stars who’ve honed their screen persona into an archetype, albeit a highly distinctive one.

“I think Eastwood suffers from the same plight that John Wayne had to face,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “Where people tended to say, ‘Oh, he just plays himself onscreen.’ Or, ‘He’s a personality actor, not a real actor.’ And it also has to do with the impact that some of his signature roles have had, that people forget how often he has veered away from them.”

That the Screen Actors Guild is handing Eastwood its 39th life achievement award might be the ultimate recognition from his peers, and validation that the actor who became famous in Sergio Leone’s westerns as “the man with no name” only just makes it look easy. “Clint actually fades into the persona, which fades into the part and the whole thing feels so organic and seamless that you’re not ever conscious of somebody making this thing,” says Dave Kehr, columnist for the New York Times and writer of the documnetary “Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows.”

Looking at all his accolades, it would seem that Eastwood has been sufficiently lionized — his honors are numerous enough for several careers. In addition to his two Oscars in 1992 for “Unforgiven,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gave him the Irving Thalberg Award at the 1995 ceremony. At the Cannes Film Festival, he has been nominated for the Palme d’Or three times.

But his one major award strictly for acting was from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. for “Unforgiven,” this despite more than 50 films to his credit.

Had Eastwood only made the trio of spaghetti Westerns for Leone — “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — and then ridden off into the sunset of Europe’s faux Old West, it would have been possible to characterize him as merely a one-trick pony with a mesmerizing screen presence. “Dirty Harry” catapulted his popularity to another realm, even if it further served to pigeonhole him. But there are some who feel that to dismiss Eastwood as a one-note actor would be tantamount to dismissing Bogart and Cagney as only capable of playing tough guys.

Kehr, for one, points to “Dirty Harry” as the turning point in Eastwood’s career. “I think the one moment where he becomes a superstar is right at the beginning,” Kehr explains. “He sees a bank robbery in progress and he walks slowly across the square. He’s got a gun in one hand and he’s finishing a hot dog with the other. He’s going to finish this hot dog before he blows the guy’s head ‘clean off’ as he says.

“It’s this scene of incredible potential violence and at the same time this incredible nonchalance. Like James Cagney, he was able to explode seemingly out of nowhere and then pull it all back away again.”

In the 1970s, as soon as he took greater control of his career (certainly a wise move after “Paint Your Wagon”), Eastwood began pushing and redefining the edges of screen persona in the films “High Plains Drifter” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”

Then he reinvented himself altogether, with a comic twist, in “Every Which Way but Loose,” its less satisfying sequel “Any Which Way You Can,” and, best of all, “Bronco Billy,” neatly deconstructing the bluff behind the macho persona on which he had built his career.

“There’s a real kind of humor and wistfulness in that character that you don’t often see in Eastwood’s work,” Turan says of “Bronco Billy.” “It’s also just nice to see that at that moment he felt loose enough to do it. It almost had a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges feel to it.”

One of Maltin’s favorite change-of-pace Eastwood roles was in “White Hunter, Black Heart,” the 1990 film adaptation of Peter Viertel’s thinly veiled, fictionalized account of the making of “The African Queen.” Not only did Eastwood direct himself, he also played a character quite close to “Queen’s” director: the wily, cigar-chomping John Huston.

“That was not a typical project for him, nor was it a typical performance,” Maltin says. “Without trying to do a precise replication of Huston, he captured that personality. He’s larger than life but he manages not to make him a caricature, he’s outsized but he’s real. That’s no small achievement.”

Eastwood’s performances in “Honkytonk Man,” “Tightrope” and “White Hunter, Black Heart” were the result of the tension between the commercial image he had built his career on and the broader range of characters he could represent. “Tightrope” is the most conventional in theme, a film that hints at a Dirty Harry type being really, seriously dirty. But the unjustly overlooked “Honkytonk Man” contains one of Eastwood’s most impressive performances: Of all the things it’s hard to imagine him playing, “frail” must be near the top of the list. Yet he adopts body language and mannerisms that convince us that he is.

His ’90s work includes two films in which he faces off against quintessentially noniconic actors: John Malkovich in “In the Line of Fire” and Meryl Streep in “The Bridges of Madison County.” The presence of these two brilliant, extremely studied performers creates a revealing contrast to Eastwood’s more relaxed style.

But for all his permutions, Eastwood’s iconic stature cannot be denied — a quality that most actors envy, even if they pride themselves as chameleonic.

“It’s who he is,” says Kehr. “That’s always defined the great American stars. It’s a big word to toss out but he has an existential quality. Bogart is Bogart, Monroe is Monroe, and Eastwood is Eastwood.”

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