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Fight Club

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IT PROBABLY COMES AS NO SURPRISE THAT CLINT EASTWOOD has a hell of a handshake. More unexpected, though, is what a thoughtful and easy storyteller he is in person. With a voice that rarely rises above a gravel-road whisper, except to laugh at himself, Eastwood sprinkles his tales with bebop phrases. For example, when talking about the $700 per episode he earned on the TV series Rawhide, he doesn’t refer to it as money. It’s ”dough.” Similarly, cars are not cars; they’re ”wheels.” And if the 74-year-old screen legend really, really likes something, then he can think of no higher compliment than to call it ”the cat’s ass.”

Right now, a lot of people think Eastwood’s latest film, Million Dollar Baby, is the cat’s ass. On the coffee table of his hotel suite in Manhattan, a congratulatory bouquet of flowers is a fragrant reminder of being named Best Director the night before at the New York Film Critics Circle’s awards dinner?an honor he accepted to a standing ovation. The display was a rarity, coming as it did from a roomful of jaded pundits. And it says something about Eastwood’s film that, after 50 years in show business, he’s now getting the best accolades of his career, including a Best Director Golden Globe.

Hilary Swank, who earned a Globe of her own playing the boxer Eastwood’s grizzled trainer takes under his wing, echoes the praise, saying Eastwood is unlike any director she’s worked with. ”Clint only does one or two takes,” she says. ”He doesn’t believe in wasting time because that means you’re wasting money. He doesn’t say ‘Action!’ either. He just goes, ‘Ohhhkayyy, whenever you’re ready…”’ Here, she does her own gravelly whisper. ”And instead of saying ‘Cut!’ he goes, ‘Ohhhkayyy, that’s enough of that…’ ” Still, Swank insists that focusing on what Eastwood did behind the camera on Baby is missing half the picture. ”I think he gets overlooked as an actor in this film. I think this is the best performance he’s ever given.”

Strangely enough, he almost never got the chance to give it. When Eastwood took Paul Haggis’ script to Warner Bros., the studio that’s been his production company’s home for years, he was given a lukewarm reception. ”Warners wasn’t sure about a boxing movie because I guess they don’t do so well these days,” says Eastwood, signaling his disbelief by squinting his signature Rushmore squint. ”But I said, ‘This isn’t a boxing movie, in my mind. It’s a movie about a lot of other things. It’s a love story and it’s about hopes and dreams. It just takes place in the world of boxing.”’ The studio relented when he told them that if they weren’t going to pony up, he was going elsewhere. But, he adds, ”they might have been a little more interested if I said I wanted to do Dirty Harry 9 or something.” For the record, Eastwood is making his next film, Flags of Our Fathers, at DreamWorks.

It has to be more than a little sweet, then, that Eastwood’s folly is now the studio’s best shot at statuettes this year. Not that Eastwood’s the sort of guy to take pleasure in that kind of told-you-so vindication. No, what seems to please him more than anything these days is the feeling that after more than 50 movies, he’s just now hitting his groove. ”People seem to be surprised by that,” he says, laughing. ”The other night, an extremely well-known director, the most well-known director, said to me, ‘You’re offering great hope for all of us coming up behind you because you’re doing your best work now in your 70s.” In case you were wondering, yes, it was Steven Spielberg.

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