Is Clint Eastwood God?

Is Clint Eastwood God?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 31 1996 3:30 AM

Is Clint Eastwood God?

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I am glad that we both believe in God, and I am relieved that he is not Clint Eastwood. It's true that my tone was less than reverent toward Ol' Raspy, but the review that you challenge came not in response to your somewhat--dare I use the word?--ironic take, but to Richard Schickel's hagiographic Clint Eastwood: A Biography. The self-righteous tone of that book brought out the Pharisee in me.

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Let me repeat: I've enjoyed a lot of Eastwood's movies. I was taken to see Dirty Harry at the impressionable age of 11; it got me so excited that I'm surprised I didn't grow up to be a Republican. I didn't know what Miranda laws were or why the professor with the pipe said that the police had to free the slobbering psycho/priest killer/rapist/child molester, but I knew that he was wrong, just as I knew that Clint was right when he blew a hole in the psycho's chest the size of a Buick. I screamed with joy when a mugger tried to rob Clint with a knife and Clint pulled out his .44 Magnum and said, "You don't listen, do ya', asshole?"; as I did when the guy behind the counter at the diner--staring at the exhaust pipe of a getaway car at a bank across the street--tsk-tsked and said, "Look at that pollution," and Clint, chewing a hot dog, turned, and his eyebrow curled up in disgust, and he said, "Yeah."

I hope that my review conveyed some of that pleasure in Eastwood's work, in his comic use of what you term a "static diffidence." But this often canny minimalism is also, I'm convinced, a way for Eastwood to disguise his often uncanny limitations. To compare an actor of Morgan Freeman's range to Eastwood is perverse. Freeman's stillness, his "absorption," has a trace of wariness, and suggests a mind that's busily examining its options in an uncertain universe. Eastwood's, in contrast, seems constructed on the knowledge that the universe has been designed to his specifications--that he is absolutely superior, morally and physically, to everyone else on screen. And, of course, he always is. (You consider his finest work as an actor to be his films with Sergio Leone; I prefer his marvelous performance as an aging Secret Service agent in Wolfgang Petersen's Inthe Line of Fire. Bumping up against his own doubts and fears, Eastwood's Frank Horrigan was Dirty Harry made human: His voice had the texture of experience and pain, and it was the first time I was aware of his body as something other than a totem pole. He was genuinely reacting.)

Schickel's adolescent worship notwithstanding, a tall, handsome man on a horse against a monumental backdrop, shooting and killing (with inhuman mastery) the most despicable villains, makes for easy heroism. And, despite the claims being made for his work, Eastwood has rarely challenged that heroism in a meaningful way. Even you admit that we're grading him on the debased curve of genre--and not just the Western genre, but the considerably more primitive urban-vigilante "payback" genre. What doesn't seem complex when viewed, side by side, with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, Seagal, etc.?

Still, I like your characterization of Eastwood's ambling direction, just as I like parts of The Outlaw Josey Wales (largely structured and scripted by Philip Kaufman), Bronco Billy, and Unforgiven (from an intricate, checks-and-balances David Webb Peoples script). That leaves, alas, about 17 other Eastwood-directed movies, among them obvious stinkers like The EigerSanction, Firefox, and The Rookie; the grotesque Sudden Impact; the coarsely stupid Heartbreak Ridge; the tedious The Bridges of Madison County; the misconceived White Hunter, Black Heart (a sadly decent pedestal for the spectacle of Eastwood trying to impersonate John Huston); and the peerlessly laughable Pale Rider, in which Eastwood plays a mythic gunfighting ghost who's also a sexual savior. (You, a fan, abruptly dismiss Bird, which is considered in many circles the cornerstone of Eastwood's directorial reputation. It was selected for the New York Film Festival, after all.) I'm not sure whether each movie is "incrementally better" than the one before it: Josey Wales and Bronco Billy were followed by Honkytonk Man, which the Boston Phoenix rightly dubbed "Bronchial Billy," and Eastwood's last film, let's not forget, was Bridges of Madison County. Time stood still in that one, all right.

And even the good movies ... Josey Wales is overlong, and depends on its hero being so superhumanly fast on the draw that he never seems in serious peril. ("That was a great movie," said a woman friend when I watched it again, recently. "Why was it 'great'?" I asked. "Because he beat everybody," she replied.) Think how lyrical the picture might have been if Eastwood hadn't fired the original director, Philip Kaufman, and if Kaufman had brought to it the artist's vision of The Great Northfield,Minnesota Raid or White Dawn. (Kaufman and Eastwood would make a good match today: The twitty aesthete of Henry and June could use a little of Eastwood's prosiness.) Even Unforgiven suffers from Eastwood's own performance, which was admired for its restraint but in which, it seems to me, the shutters are drawn so tightly that no light goes in or out: Eastwood the director could have pushed Eastwood the actor to use more imagination, to take more risks.

And yet, Alex, when the shooting stops, I'll bet we agree more than we disagree. (I'm sure we agree that Schickel's editor should have protected him from his more egregious flurries of sycophancy.) And I'll bet we'll both be in line to see the next Clint Eastwood film, whatever the genre.

David Edelstein is a playwright who writes about movies and television forSlate. He wrote the recent Slate story "Magnum Farce." Alex Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker. He writes about popular culture for Slate.