Call him what you want: a legend, heir to true Hollywood classicism, an egocentric industry black sheep, a man of his own mark who frequently courts controversy in service of his own politics. Sure, fair; but one thing is irrefutable: few cineastes (and certainly no other actor-turned-director) have ever so consistently shaped the cinematic fable, the mechanism of creating, re-creating, and de-creating myths and histories like Clint Eastwood has done for roughly half a century. With his mega-stardom rising somehow relatively later than many of his counterparts of the period, Eastwood perhaps existed as a late bloomer from the beginning. And despite starring in the CBS series Rawhide, and appearing in a handful of minor roles in Hollywood films during the 1950s and 1960s which brought him some mild recognition, it wasn’t until lead roles in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy that the real ascent of his fame and fortune arrived. In fact, in a strange loop-de-loop, it’s perhaps accurate to argue that Eastwood began from a point (Italian spaghetti westerns) where most Hollywood stars ended once their popularity began to wane. It’s a point that needs to be spoken in order to understand what the man has embodied throughout his career aside from trivial and oft-recited biographical information. Which is to say that not only was he a late bloomer from the start — as well as a countercurrent swimmer, an action hero, and, more importantly, a man of restless, nonstop action — but he endures, still making films at the age of 92.
Given what viewers now understand of his legacy, it shouldn’t surprise that Eastwood’s first directorial debut, 1971’s Play Misty for Me, kicks off with a shot of the man himself driving a Jaguar sportscar fast and free on the open roads. This opening sequence nicely reveals the specific kineticism of Clint’s filmmaker instincts. His work is mostly that of constant movement and vast spaces: his characters traverse the landscapes of myth, history, and revisionism. They ride horseback through his heterodox westerns (The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifters, Pale Rider, Unforgiven), zip around in fast cars — or later, putt around in old trucks — (Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, A Perfect World, Bridges of Madison County, The Mule, Cry Macho), and pilot and/or ride in airplanes, rockets, trains (Firefox, Space Cowboys, The 15:17 to Paris). Neither Eastwood nor his films can stay still, and certainly very rarely within the oppressive confines of a big city — he would much rather climb mountains in The Eiger Sanction or travel to the heart of the African savanna in White Hunter, Black Heart. Motivation behind this strategy can perhaps be best understood through considering Eastwoodian characters’ anti-establishment and non-authoritarian attitudes: corrupted cops and sheriffs, inefficient politicians, or good-for-nothing agents with higher ranks are all part of Eastwood’s cinematic universe, where individuals firmly standing their own ground out of their own sense of responsibility or personal moral compass, where they step up in order to complete a mission (Space Cowboys and Blood Work), or to rescue the defenseless (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gran Torino, or The 15:17 to Paris), the innocent (True Crime), or one’s innocence (Absolute Power). You could call it the lingering legacy of his “Dirty” Harry Calhan persona (for which he also later got the opportunity to direct — and revise — a sequel: Sudden Impact). But among the individuals who would stand against authority, there are a few who stick as most notable within the Eastwood canon: the eponymous heroes of Sully and Richard Jewell — arguably the most unlikely of them all — the characters populating his anti-war films (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and American Sniper) and the monumental title character at the center of his J. Edgar.
Which is to say, the lonesome, free-spirited individual so often located at the heart of an Eastwood film can often only find acquaintance through other social outsiders or like-minded personalities, even if only to form a music group as in Jersey Boys. But among such unexpected encounters, intergenerational friendship is a truly crucial constant for Eastwood. This trend can be traced back to his third directorial film, 1973’ Breezy, where the lonely, middle-aged Frank Harmon (William Holden) meets the joyful, big-hearted hippie Breezy (Kay Lenz). But it wasn’t until later, when Clint intentionally cast himself alongside his son Kyle in Honkytonk Man, that his urge to explore the vast thematic canvas that this narrative affords — intergenerational connectedness, mutual understanding, creating a dialogue between past and future, father/son and master/apprentice dynamics, the relationship between experience and discovery — became a sort of a recurring motif. Look to any number of his subsequent works: the bad-tempered, hardworking sergeant and his young troops in Heartbreak Ridge offers a robust example of this approach, while A Perfect World, Gran Torino, and Cry Macho all offer other explicit realizations of this; meanwhile, further shadings of this motif can be seen in the likes of The Rookie, Million Dollar Baby, and Invictus, as well as in the nightmare of lost childhood and innocence in Mystic River. This isn’t simply just of a part with the old-school, alpha-type screen masculinity that Eastwood came to represent as an actor, but is instead indicative of the unapologetic self-awareness and vitality of a man understanding and reflecting on his own situation as a later-in-life success. Surely, no other auteur has ever, with such willingness to articulate and critique themselves, especially with such joviality, laid bare their psychology and documented their physicality in order to tackle the very nature of life and aging.
In a similarly intergenerational context, Eastwood, during a scene in White Hunter, Black Heart, says to his young chum (played by Jeff Fahey), “Things are always good if they’re left simple. Always. That’s what creates truly important art.” He continues, “Hemingway understood that. That’s why he always reduced life to its simplest terms […] Stendhal understood that. Flaubert. Tolstoy. Melville. Simplicity is what made them great.” Perhaps no other moment in his filmography so fully articulates Eastwood’s thesis about the simplicity of his aesthetic. But even if this appreciation for unadorned filmmaking, which mostly keeps his presence as auteur behind the camera invisible and lends to many wrongly dubbing his work as “undemanding” — and has also established a reputation for his (in)famous one-takes — that doesn’t mean there aren’t a bevy of legible and careful motifs explored across his body of work. Of course, Eastwood surely learned quite a lot from his time working with masters like Leone or Don Siegel, but he has always possessed a very singular and quite witty instinct for stripping everything down to the essentials and effortlessly improvising on set, perhaps to be expected from a jazz loyalist.
So much of that approach is dedicated to working with his actors. In Eastwood’s films, characters seem to be particularly established during the conversations they have: they are situated in close proximity, usually facing each other in medium shots, where Eastwood’s haptic style is able to extract unique integrity and emotional density from the various relationships and occupied spaces that his camera captures. In addition to utilizing this clear sense of objectivity, he’s also not shy to infuse his work with different expressionistic modes of imagery: applying low and high angles, including frequent aerial shots, his model of staging where he forms a dialectic between the foreground and the background, his penchant for placing actors on the right or left peripheries of a shot — especially when a hand, a leg, or a gun enters from out of the frame with dramatic or threatening import. And, of course, he’s dabbled from time to time with even bolder formal choices, such as his dalliances with fourth wall-breaking in an effort to enhance a sense of intimacy with the viewers: most vividly, we might recall when a character throws a punch directly into the camera, or Bronco Billy’s ending, where Clint addresses both the audience within and outside of the film.
Further still, one could argue that few directors have been so readily and steadily fascinated with various expressions and impressions of light and shadow as Clint Eastwood. The unique ways he lights his films can alternatively skew realistic and poetic. He’s an undeniable master when it comes to depicting the natural rays of dusk in transcendental vistas and otherworldly landscapes, or when using dim lighting to bestow a sense of naturalness during the nighttime sequence. But even more remarkable is when he plays with light and shade as reflective of his characters’ various interiorities. Indeed, Eastwood’s protagonists are rarely ideal heroes, but rather flawed humans who are often scarred, shattered, or lost. It makes sense, then, that the director seems interested in portraying these fragile people as silhouettes, shadowed entities whose faces are sometimes captured in half-light and half-dark. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it is an effective one: these are men and women often running from pasts toward an uncertain future, such as a gunfighter-turned-priest in Pale Rider, an outlaw learning to become a loyal family man in Unforgiven (or vice versa), or a broke and lonely florist who turns to drug smuggling in The Mule. This formal design bestows Eastwood’s characters with a profound touch of mystery and ambiguity, while also working to visually manifest their secrets or traumas. It’s no wonder then, that whenever Eastwood (though sparsely) opts for flashback sequences, they are always tethered to hauntings or nightmares, memories or guilts: the whipping scene in High Plains Drifter, the opening of The Rookie, the flying cymbal in Bird, and, most viscerally shocking of them all, the kidnapping scene in Mystic River.
To put all this differently, what connects many of Eastwood’s films is in their shared sense of loss — usually of a deceased lover or friend, though not always; also discernible in the oft-overlooked films from his ouvre, such as Changeling or Hereafter — and a longing to belong or, more literally, to be at home: just look to The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, or Bridges of Madison County (or, more allegorical, Cry Macho) for clear examples. But what Eastwood seldom gets credited for is how in shaping his cinematic fable(s) and the histories of exceptional individuals (which certainly has lead to his late-career interest in based on a true story tales), he is able to slide so easily between modes, unpredictable in the form he opts to put to screen. Look how easily he’s able to infuse sensuality into visceral action throughout his career, or how he morphs a comedy into a 007-ish spy thriller in The Eiger Sanction. He opts for a whodunnit atmosphere in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, builds The Gauntlet and Bronco Billy around a rom-com core, and, regardless of the stakes, always takes specific care to deliver sneaky, wise-ass humor.
Truly, it’s a fairly impossible prospect to cover the scope and depth of an unorthodox luminary like Clint Eastwood in the limited space and time set out here. It’s perhaps even more absurd to try to (re-)praise the monumental efforts of a man whose achievements are already critically-lauded and commercially successful (in some cases, even more so in countries like France and Japan than in the U.S.). It’s perhaps best, then, to regard this introductory piece as a humble and broad celebration of a myth and man who is easily situated within a lineage of the greatest American filmmakers, yes, but also painters and novelists, those like the Hudson River school artists, Ernest Hemingway, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, to name a few. This piece is simply a hats off to a singularity who realized from his early years, and has worked to perfect ever since, the idea that life and human complexities can be best conveyed through simplicity, paired with the continual act of refinement. If there’s a philosophical basis to be had here, it’s perhaps best found in the words of Bronco Billy: “You can be anything you want.” In Clint Eastwood’s world, that means anyone can be hero, whether a young kid or an old rodeo cowboy.
Over the next week, in celebration of Clint Eastwood’s 92nd birthday, we will be publishing a series of seven more essays tackling various themes, periods, modes, and films of the director’s half-century of directorial work: one essay per weekday. Individual pieces will be linked below as they are published, and this introductory essay will remain the hub of our Clint Eastwood retrospective.