Hardly anybody, it seems, feels lukewarm about Clint Eastwood. An actor best known for his style of laconic understatement, Eastwood has nevertheless always aroused passion among critics and moviegoers alike. Seen as the very embodiment of American masculinity, he has remained an oddly elusive, almost enigmatic figure. Indeed, it’s this very edginess, argues TIME film critic (and Eastwood pal) Richard Schickel in this fascinating, highly polemical, and occasionally wrongheaded biography, Clint Eastwood, that defines his career both as an actor and director.
Unlike, say, John Wayne, with whom he’s most often compared, Eastwood has never encouraged the public to confuse him with the characters he plays. He’s an actor, he insists, not a cowboy or a cop. But identify is what fans still do. At some level beyond hero worship, Schickel insists, it’s not entirely a mistake. Just beneath Eastwood’s regular-guy exterior lies a fiercely independent will that both drives and defines him. ”When you touch on his anger,” Schickel writes, ”you touch both the core of his talent and the core of his nature, some knotted place that puzzles and sometimes frightens him as much as it does anyone else.”
From his apprenticeship on the late-’50s Rawhide TV series onward, Eastwood took control of his career. Emerging into stardom through the unlikely vehicle of European spaghetti Westerns like Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood formed his own Malpaso production company as soon as he could. As Schickel points out, ”he has been his own producer for more than two decades and, oftener than not, his own director.”
The result has been an idiosyncratic and, Schickel maintains, inherently ”subversive” series of films whose merit critics were maddeningly slow to acknowledge. As he sees it, the central theme of Eastwood’s work from Dirty Harry through Unforgiven has been an increasingly ironic inquiry into the nature of heroism and heroic myth. ”Male bonding has been a great recurring motif in American movies,” Schickel says, ”but it is a rarity in Clint’s. His great theme has been the opposite: the difficulty men have in making connections with any sort of community.” Eastwood’s films have offered a vision ”of a loneliness more radical, of a protagonist more rebelliously withdrawn, than anyone has ever offered us as the hero of movies intended for, and embraced by, a popular audience.”
Well, yes, there have always been elements of wit and self-satire in Eastwood’s best films. It’s their humorous subtext that redeems Westerns like High Plains Drifter and makes The Outlaw Josey Wales an unacknowledged classic. But the Dirty Harry series, progenitor of a million and one wisecracking ”rogue cop” pictures, subversive? That’s a stretch. In essence, they’re revenge comedies, a uniquely American form more akin to Roadrunner cartoons than serious drama. How well Eastwood’s audience gets the joke, moreover, is often highly debatable.
Regarding Eastwood’s offscreen life, Schickel’s unabashed partisanship is far less persuasive — if not downright questionable. He portrays Sondra Locke’s ”palimony” suit against the star (which Eastwood recently settled) as the retribution of a whiner who got far more out of their affair than she could ever have achieved on her own. No great imagination is required to see that he’s told only half the story. Furthermore, Schickel takes this boys-will-be-boys approach to all of Eastwood’s romantic relationships. It’s the book’s main flaw, and it’s a serious one. But even though his sympathies do blind him to some of Eastwood’s failures, Schickel doesn’t know how to be dull. B+