Clint Eastwood will have no truck with heroes, and it’s hard not to think that such lack of faith stems to some degree from his experience as America’s single most iconic actor. Having launched his career as Leone’s fabled Man With No Name, he seems to be on a single-minded mission to restore the names of others — or, at the very least, to ensure that we know that these people did have names, fears, foibles.
For example, it’s safe to say that no more radical Hollywood movie will be released in the coming year than “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to his current “Flags of Our Fathers.” And yet, “Letters,” which dares to examine WWII from the point of view of one of the Axis powers — in subtitled Japanese, no less — is merely the most forceful and bracing example of a sensibility that’s been present in Eastwood’s work almost from the start.
His two most iconic roles, the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, were both, in their day, seen as revisionist, upending received notions of frontier nobility and the selfless valor of the police detective. In time, however, both figures achieved a certain cultural authority unto themselves. The rebel became the rule — which may explain why Eastwood feels the need to reinvent and revise through his work.
“Well, sometimes the imperfection of things is what makes them real,” Eastwood told an American Film interviewer in 1988, and that preoccupation has defined his entire career. As actor and director, Eastwood seeks out the flaws in his characters, as if to prove that even his heroes are still only human.
Onscreen, Eastwood will still occasionally resort to his trademark dead-eyed squint and stoic rasp. It’s not as if he’s embarrassed by his stature, exactly, or unaware of the strength he derives from toting 40 years of perceptual baggage. As a director, however, his work has been aggressively anti-mythic, to the point where it can almost read as apologetic.
Obviously, there’s a great deal of overlap between these dual roles, icon and artist — of the 26 features Eastwood has directed to date, he’s starred in 21. And it was his own phlegmatic image that he began to undermine first, as far back as “Bronco Billy” (1980), in which he plays a dorky New Jersey shoe salesman who creates a patently phony Wild West show.
By the time he made “Unforgiven” a doz-en years later, Eastwood’s disdain for Colt Action cool was unmistakable. “You don’t look like no rootin’-tootin’, son-of-a-bitchin’, cold-blooded assassin” are the first words spoken to his character, William Munny, who shortly thereafter demonstrates his inability to mount a horse, to shoot a tin can with a pistol at fairly close range or even to tend to the hogs on his rinky-dink farm without winding up face-down in the mud.
Later, an entire subplot is devoted to Gene Hackman’s Little Bill deconstructing a fabled saloon showdown, noting that the outcome depended less on a quick draw than on inebriation and a faulty pistol. No other movie has so thoroughly decimated the Western’s black hat/white hat dichotomy.
Which is not to say that Eastwood doesn’t feel a certain ambivalence.
After all, “Unforgiven” does conclude with Munny’s reversion to bloodthirsty violence, though it’s pretty clearly implied that this act of revenge has cost him his soul. By the same token, “Flags of Our Fathers” goes about the business of demythologizing with a vengeance, its battle-scarred soldiers visibly wincing every time they’re called heroes. Still, for all its strenuous myth-busting, the film isn’t completely immune from rah-rah grunt worship.
If you really want to see Eastwood divided clean down the middle between truth and legend, though, find yourself a copy of “White Hunter, Black Heart,” which deconstructs the mythic persona of John Huston, following the director to Africa as he attempts to shoot an elephant just before shooting “The African Queen.” Eastwood’s flinty persona could hardly be less apropos for a hearty bon vivant like Huston, but you can see him struggling mightily to reconcile his subject’s overweening charisma and toxic self-regard. It’s the exceedingly rare Hollywood film that revels in contradiction, examining the very human frailties of a man who genuinely was larger than life. Not coincidentally, it’s also one of Eastwood’s least successful movies at the box office.
On the whole, his efforts since have been more clear-cut. “Million Dollar Baby,” for example, doesn’t vacillate between uplift and defeatism. Instead, Eastwood carefully crafts an old-fashioned tale of dogged perseverance and upward mobility, then slams our warm-‘n’-fuzzy optimism to the canvas with an illegal uppercut. “Mystic River,” with its cold Shakespearean grandeur, paints the “old neighborhood” as a pustulant breeding ground for depravity, paranoia and betrayal. Even relatively straightforward genre pieces such as “Blood Work” and “Space Cowboys” pivot on Eastwood’s senescence. More than any other American filmmaker, he’s committed to showing us, without an ounce of sentimentality, what it’s like to grow old. (It’s hard to imagine a more provocative subject in a town that has always worshipped youth.)
This matter-of-factness, a stubborn refusal to romanticize, even extends to his working method, which by all accounts is utilitarian to the point of being perfunctory. Not for Clint the agonies of choosing between take 26 and take 27; his actors are lucky if they get take two. His credo is simple and refreshing: Know what you want, capture it, then move on.
The final film in Leone’s famed trilogy unequivocally identifies the Man With No Name as the Good. It would have been remarkably easy for Eastwood to coast on that image for the rest of his life. He had little to gain, personally, by repeatedly reminding us that the Good often serves as a mask for the Bad and the Ugly. Yet he has, and American movies are all the richer for it.