VENICE — In Venice, the Biennale is about to make Clint’s day.

The Venice Film Festival’s giving of its annual Golden Lion for career achievement to Clint Eastwood, however, is not as natural an honor as it might seem to be. On one hand, for the actor-director to be going back to Italy to receive the award brings him full circle to the beginning of his movie career, when he was hired by Sergio Leone to play the Man With No Name in his classic trilogy “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

On the other hand, as festival director Alberto Barbera reminds, Eastwood has not always been a favorite of Italian film critics.

“This is part of the reason, for example, we gave Jerry Lewis the Golden Lion last year,” says Barbera of the festival’s contrarian approach. “We try to honor controversial filmmakers, whose work demands some reconsideration. We try to have audiences and critics rethink the filmmaker’s contribution to cinema.

“You see, Italian critics for many years generally dismissed Eastwood’s work as a director and actor. The French, especially at (film magazines) Cahiers du Cinema and Positif, have always loved his work, but not here. The Italians would say that his work was too simplistic and superficial, but they were missing Eastwood’s deep and rich emotions and self-consciousness. Only when ‘Unforgiven’ appeared in 1992 was this generally appreciated for the first time.”

This was true of Hollywood as well. Until Eastwood — long thought to be a perennial box office performer who would never win the big awards — nabbed the picture and director Oscars for “Unforgiven,” a lot of people would laugh when they’d open up Variety during awards season and see an ad for Eastwood for best actor in “Firefox,” says Film Comment critic Richard Jameson. “That was a joke. But as the years went by, and the body of work mounted up, people began to wake up to realize that this was quite a filmmaker.”

Method auteur

Perhaps the key to understanding Eastwood is seeing how he methodically went about building his career — something at which James Garner marveled. Garner first worked with the young Eastwood when he guested on “Maverick” in the late ’50s and then reunited with him 40 years later for this year’s “Space Cowboys.”

“As a young man,” Garner notes, “he was a smart businessman. He invested his money very well, in stocks, buying apartment buildings. A lot of actors have no clue what to do with their money once it starts coming in, but Clint was very shrewd.

“He was always observing things, keeping a close eye on the director, on the cinematographer, taking mental notes, digesting it. He took in every aspect of filmmaking long before he ever got behind a camera and did his first setup. That’s why he’s such a good filmmaker.

“And he did something else, which I think has made all the difference: He never took the traditional path. Look, he had a hit role as Rowdy Yates on ‘Rawhide,’ and what does he do? He goes off to Italy to re-charge his career in a different direction. Then, he comes back to America, and he starts working with one of the all-time pros, Don Siegel. And then he realized that the best way to display his talents and control things was to produce himself. Those turned out to be really smart moves.”

“Unforgiven” is dedicated to “Sergio and Don,” and Leone and Siegel were unquestionably the key mentors both for his acting and directing. In an interview with this writer in 1980 during the early pre-production stages of “Once Upon a Time in America,” Leone said that he yearned to cast Paul Newman in the role that would eventually be played by Robert De Niro. “It’s those eyes, those piercing blue eyes. Clint has those eyes, different color, but they cut all the way through you. He has the most amazing face of any actor I’ve ever seen, and he is always listening. I felt as I was giving him a clinic in filmmaking right there on the set.”

Barbera calls it the “Eastwood mask,” the squinty-eyed, hawklike gaze that would take in his opponent, already visually reducing them to a crumpled victim.

“The role of Clint and that mask in Leone’s films was so crucial, because his authentic American presence provided the substance of the American Western myth to a style that was already combining so many European and Italian elements, including opera,” Barbera says. “Leone joked in an off-hand remark years later that Eastwood had two expressions, one with his head, one without. It was a joke, but misunderstood, and I think it lead to a lot of misreadings about Eastwood as just a big, bad movie star.”

Lessons take root

As Eastwood worked with Siegel on such films as “Coogan’s Bluff” and “Dirty Harry” (even filming some scenes when Siegel was ill), a more complex filmmaker emerged. New York Times critic Dave Kehr, whose documentary on Eastwood premieres at Venice and airs on PBS’ “American Masters” series Sept. 27, observes that Eastwood developed into “an auteur in the classic French sense, even though he’s rarely worked with the same screenwriter twice. He tends to make movies against the one he just made. He’ll follow something really dark, like one of the ‘Dirty Harry’ movies, with something like ‘Bronco Billy.’ It’s as these two sides of him are always in conversation, and as you watch his movies in order, you really grasp how he’s changed.”

“He started playing roles that were harsh critiques of the John Wayne icon, men who would easily shoot another guy in the back without thinking twice,” Kehr continues. “As he matured, he began to reconsider this image. At the beginning of ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales,’ he’s purely out for revenge and mowing guys down. But then his character moves on, collecting a whole group of pioneers around him like a portrait of late-19th-century America. By the end of the movie, he doesn’t even feel the need to kill his arch-nemesis anymore.

“And then, by ‘Unforgiven,’ which explores the entire history of the Western, he’s more fallible, humanized and his character feels damned by his own inner urges for blood lust, facing demons he can barely live with.”

Though the issue of violence tends to dominate Eastwood’s movies, it’s fairly misleading. This is, after all, the director of “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Breezy” and “Honkytonk Man” as well as disturbing portraits of troubled artists like bebop maestro Charlie Parker (“Bird”) and John Huston (“White Hunter, Black Heart”).

“The expression of his violence is connected in his movies with characters belonging, or not belonging,” says Kehr. “I don’t think you can resolve the violence, and I don’t think Eastwood does either. He’s not comfortable talking about meanings in his work. If you accused him of being an artist, he’d reject it out of hand.”

And that, says Jameson, is what paradoxically makes Eastwood an artist. “He’s in the classic Hollywood tradition, like Ford, like Griffith. I admire a guy who just does his job, who hopes people like his movie and who works hard to make as good a film as he can. That’s Eastwood. The fact that he doesn’t stop and be pretentious about his work makes him all the more special.”