Sometimes we turn our backs on a movie hero for just a few years, and when we look again, something has been lost — his burnish has burned off, and he seems merely life-size. When that happens, the fault is as much in our stars as in ourselves. For much of the last decade, Clint Eastwood seemed bent on discarding his status as the mythic minimalist of American movies. Was that really him clowning with Bernadette Peters in Pink Cadillac? Were we really supposed to believe that he had met his match in Charlie Sheen in The Rookie? It wasn’t so much that moviegoers forgot Eastwood. Rather, Eastwood seemed to forget himself.
Such a case of amnesia now seems unlikely to recur. This summer, 33 years after he first took the reins of the Western in TV’s Rawhide, Eastwood returned to the saddle with Unforgiven and reclaimed his place with stunning vigor and assurance. His impassioned but unsentimental direction received almost universal praise, and in front of the camera he gave perhaps the richest performance of his career. Eastwood’s laconic stoicism has often been mistaken for nonacting — a squint here, a grimace there, a face as immobile as a monument, and a well-chosen threat or two, redolent of menace and easy to bastardize in a parody or a presidential sound bite.
After Unforgiven, however, no one is likely to dismiss what Chicago Tribune critic Dave Kehr has called Eastwood’s ”fiercely retentive” acting style as the easy way out. As William Munny, a stone-cold Old West killer who knows that he’ll never be able to outlive his sins, Eastwood infuses every flicker of his dark, desolate countenance with the weight of a bitter lifetime.
Next year, audiences will see Eastwood on both sides of the law, as a Secret Service agent hunting John Malkovich in Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire and as a kidnapper alongside Kevin Costner in A Perfect World, which Eastwood will direct. It’s easy to imagine Eastwood’s face shaping itself into that rock formation of a grimace at the prospect of being labeled ”hot” by everyone from Academy Awards handicappers to the general public. But behind Unforgiven‘s welcoming reviews and $75 million box office take lies more than a fleeting reappreciation of an actor or director.
At 62, the man who once admitted he ”wasn’t fashionable in any way, shape, or form” was able to redefine himself as the curator of a defiantly unfashionable genre. Whether or not Unforgiven will lead to a spate of Westerns is almost moot; elegiac and doom-struck, the film is as effective a summation as it is a rebirth.
”I’m not sure this will be my last Western,” Eastwood said recently, ”but if it is, it’ll be the perfect one.” That ambivalence masks a career’s worth of shrewdness. After all, how else in 1992 could Clint Eastwood have let us watch our favorite cowboy ride away and hail a movie star’s triumphant return?