Forget Syria. Let’s talk for a change about a less consequential
topic, and arguably a completely inconsequential topic: Clint Eastwood.
He comes to mind because last
night, for want of anything else to watch on television, I switched to a recent
Clint Eastwood film, Trouble with the
Curve, a mediocre, cliché-ridden story of an ageing baseball coach, a
widower, whose passion for the sport leaves nothing left over for his only
daughter. Until the last reel, of
course, when redemptions arrive thick and fast.
Nothing about the film is remotely
noteworthy except, for me, the rather harrowing appearance of Eastwood, who
looks, and sounds, as I suppose he is entitled to, every bit his 83 years. My shock was one of unfamiliarity, because I
have spent a lifetime avoiding Eastwood’s films – those in which he has acted
and those that he has directed – especially those of recent years. In my ancient mind, I suppose he is still, and
forever, Rowdy Yates, the star of Rawhide,
a television western series to which my father was addicted back in the
Somewhere between Rawhide and Curve, Eastwood became a Hollywood icon (a term we now apply to any
celebrity whose careers extend beyond a couple of years), with a body of work
that comprises 42 acting roles, mostly in the lead, and about half that number
in directing assignments. As an actor, epitomising
the strong silent type, he failed to win a single Academy Award, although he
was nominated a few times. As a director
he (inexplicably) won the Oscar in 1992 for Unforgiven,
a revisionist western that set out to debunk the genre that had made him famous,
and (even less explicably in 2005) for Million
Dollar Baby, the story of a female boxer.
Some critics have described
Eastwood’s career as remarkable in the sense that it reflects a corpus of
considerable achievement. I would
describe his career as remarkable in the sense that it has survived more
mediocre – and politically unsavoury – films than that of any other Hollywood star except Victor Mature (who once wittily
confessed, as Eastwood never will, that he was a terrible actor, and had 65
films to prove it).
Of all Eastwood’s films, counting
those in which he acted as well as those which he directed, or both, not a
single one comes to mind as memorable – at least not for the right reasons. If you regard that as a subjective view, consult
the American Film Institute’s website, in which Clint scarcely warrants a
There are many aficionados of Eastwood’s
early, so-called spaghetti westerns, and bless them for their devotion. I can only describe them as overwrought and
laughably puerile. Later, Eastwood
became a hero of the political right for presenting, in the fascistic ‘Dirty
Harry’ series, what they applaud as a plausible answer to America’s crime
problem: shoot the criminals whenever possible, because liberal judges will
only set them free. The villains are an
easy mark; they are almost invariably ‘sadists, rapists and fruits’. As critic Pauline Kael once pointed out, they
are presented as “so disgustingly cruel and inhuman that Eastwood can spend the
rest of the movie killing them with a perfect conscience”. And so
he does, with a snarl that usually morphs into a grin.
Only once did I venture,
reluctantly, to a cinema to see Harry Callahan in action (the first one, Dirty Harry) and the audience virtually
rose out of their seats to applaud each time a bad guy was dispatched. The
applauders would be on their feet even today. Curiously, or so some would find it, although
Eastwood’s politics have always been painted as irredeemably right-wing, he has
spoken out in favour of gun control, civil rights and freedom of choice for
women. He has described himself as a
libertarian, though most of his films reflect a far different philosophy.
Eastwood once looked ruggedly
handsome, with or without a Stetson. Now
he looks wrinkled and wizened. In Trouble with the Curve the arm wattles
hang down in folds, though Eastwood, to his credit, makes no attempt to
disguise it. His pronouncements on politics
and life are these days regarded as sage-like, entitling him to be considered
‘venerable’. If making money for Hollywood studios is the yardstick, then venerable I
suppose he is, although it is often suffused with a conscious sense of
self-parody. Jack Nicholson has made the same transition, though some would say
there was no in-between as he started that way.
Of his acting, it can be said
that he was usually well suited to his roles.
As a director, he qualifies as no more than competent. In Unforgiven,
most of it shot in the rain-drenched dark, it is self-indulgent to an excess,
though an excess that had the critics applauding along with the Dirty Harry fans.
Eastwood has made a lot of money
for studios and production companies, including his own, but his legacy to the
art of the cinema is questionable at best.