The phenomenal box office success of American Sniper (2014), Clint Eastwood's 34th directorial project, warrants yet another review of a Hollywood career that has spanned no less than 11 US Presidencies.
FAILING THE MISSION AT FIRST LIGHT
It was a peculiar turn of Fortune's Wheel when, on October 23rd 1955, Clint Eastwood's emergent Hollywood career was officially shunted. Since then he has assembled 50 tours of duty as headlined star actor and 34 as Oscar-winning film director.
Eastwood (born May 31st, 1930) had, at the tender age of 25, been unceremoniously dropped from the Acting School of Hollywood's limping Universal Studios. No more horse training, dancing, voice projection classes. This was at a time when moviegoers were condemning the Hollywood movie studio system to a fast and furious decline by watchng their new televisions in the relative comfort and safety of their new suburban strongholds. Eastwood returned to digging the Los Angeles swimming pools of those who did have work while his more successful contemporaries - the likes of Russ Tamblyn, Ricky Nelson, and Jeffrey Hunter - were making their rapid moves up the Holywood food chain. The system was quickly turning Pop, or so it seemed.
THE CALL TO DUTY
The dubious lucky strike that was RAWHIDE eventually came for a desperate Eastwood and his first wife Maggie in 1958/9. The TV remake of Howard Hawk's classic RED RIVER (1948) was just another indicator that quickly redefined Hollywood not as the centre of film production but video-based TV production.
The second lucky roll of the dice for Eastwood was the inevitable decline of RAWHIDE seven years later at a time when the TV Western ws fast becoming colorized and domesticated (THE BIG VALLEY, BONANZA), or civilized (GUNSMOKE). Dusty cowpokes in black and white were never to get to the end of their trail and so desperate times called for desperate measures: but Eastwood's requests to direct even cutaways on RAWHIDE were turned down and his strained forays into teenage pop (see YOUTUBE) dissolved in similar fashion.
After long years of rollin' on RAWHIDE, therefore, Eastwood was eager for any kind of creative break. But the awkward transition from the 1950s to the 1960s was a painful one for Hollywood and, especially after President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, for the country in general. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were gone, Tamblyn and Nelson were fading, Hunter himself had been killed in a plane crash. It could be argued that Eastwood's eventual longevity in such a frail and changing industry is an ironic result of having missed those early breaks in films which he so tried hard for and which, on the glossy Widescreen surface, his classic features seemed so ideally suited. He would have fallen as quickly as he would have risen.
Because, by 1967, Fortune had revealed her true hand. In 1964 Eastwood had taken the career risk to Europe and had completed the Leone Dollar Trilogy which had made him the highest paid film actor in the world.
The European escapade that had begun with FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) knowlingly upturned several mainstream orthodoxies that Eastwood left behind at LAX: the familiar iconic codes and narrative conventions of the Hollywood Western genre were forever redefined on the barren fields of Spain. With a Japanese story source, German finance, American star and Italian production, the film production mix was unparalleled. More importantly for audiences, the stylistic resgister blended grim urgent violence that sidestepped a few Hays Code rules and the cool self-reflexive irony from Eastwood. The classic Hollywood acting style in which he had been groomed and whcih drew upon the model set by the likes of Gary Cooper now grimaced through facial hair growth, was cloaked in a floppy poncho, and graced Leone's Widescreen format in Levi 501s. Coming as if from nowhere, the clean-cut Eastwood of the 1950s glided into film history by cooly insinuating himself without a word into the rebellious counter culture of the mid 1960s and the his garage was home to a producer's gift - a sleek red Ferrari - as a result.
However, while by 1967 RAWHIDE had bitten the dust, it was Eastwood's plan to estabish himself as a Hollywood movie fixture. But the studios were still shaking, heading towards the safe ground of corporate takeovers and mergers that would characterise the 1970s and more ardently the 1980s. Eastwood went the (apparent) independent route by embedding himself in his own production base - Malpaso (wrong step).
His first U.S film in which he would play lead was HANG EM HIGH of 1968. It was produced by Malpaso and distributed by, of all studios, Universal Pictures, the same studio that had sacked him as a trainee actor just ten years earlier. Foreshadowing later career choices, the Eastwood character moves from innocent working cowpoke (a reference to his character Rowdy Yates from RAWHIDE) to an efficient murderous vigilante, a man with a local legend.
The continuity bridge from RAWHIDE to the big screen was thus a conscious strategy (to be soon reified with COOGAN'S BLUFF of 1968). Ted Post, a former director on RAWHIDE had been hired to direct HANG EM HIGH (he would later helm the MAGNUM FORCE of 1974). Other Malpso regulars over the decades would include casting agent Phylis Huffman (from PLAY MISTY FOR ME, 1971, to MILLION DOLAR BABY, 2004); jazz musician Lalo Schifrin (COOGAN'S BLUFF, 1968,THE BEGUILED, 1971, DIRTY HARRY, 1971), editors Bruce Surtees and Joel Cox (from the ENFORCER of 1976 to INVICTUS, 2009); and cinematographers Jack Green and Tom Sterne. We would be remiss if our list did not include prop master Glenn Wright who was with Eastwood from RAWHIDE to UNFORGIVEN in 1991.
By the mid-1970s the reliance by a staunch individualist on such a tight unit of faithful colaborators became a wry motif that lightly distinguishes THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, the 1976 film that Eastwood helmed after ousting Philip Kaufman from the director's chair.
Resultant bumps with the Director's Guild aside, the band of trusted collaborators has allowed Eastwood to build on the hand-shake deal with Warner Bros. that, since, 1972, has made him that studio's premiere triple A-list item. It remains a relationship, buoyed by company shares, that belies the maverick personae that is 'Eastwood' and which no corporate marketing savvy could invent - or dislodge. It has allowed him the scope to widen and deepen the creative palette by balancing 'Harry' sure-fire hits with more personal projects such as BIRD (1988), HONKYTONK MAN(1982), and his own favorite, the quirky and frolicsome BRONCO BILLY of 1980.
THE GENRE BUCKET LIST
Across the decades that followed, Eastwood the limited actor has been canny enough to allow Eastwood the versatile producer to side-step audience and critic expectations with sometimes unusually novel project choices that, neverthless, remained firmly within the industry limitations. Hence Malpaso would tick off the gamut of Hollywood genres: for example, Westerns (TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, 1970; JOE KIDD, 1972; PALE RIDER, 1985); the period gangster (CITY HEAT, 1984); the spy thriller (THE EIGER SANCTION, 1975), the screwball comedy (EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, 1978), the crime caper (Cimino's THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, 1974); the thriller (IN THE LINE OF FIRE, 1993 and ABSOLUTE POWER, 1997); the prison drama (ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, 1979); the Romanitc melodrama (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, 1995); hybrid adventure (SPACE COWBOYS, 2000) and, following predecessors Ford and Hawks, the great African adventure of WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART of 1990.
Of course, his most recent film, AMERICAN SNIPER of 2014 joins the list of war films that, since WHERE EAGLES DARE in 1969, includes KELLYS HEROES, 1970; HEARTBREAK RIDGE, 1986 and, more recently, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA of 2006.
When it comes to actual directing, the battle lines have been secured by a tight comfort zone which Eastwood has allowed to be breached just three times. Michael Cimino (THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT; 1974), Wolfgang Peterson (IN THE LINE OF FIRE, 1994) and Assistant Director Robert Lorenz (TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, 2012) have been the only instances where, other than Don Siegal, Eastwood the actor has been directed by anyone other than himself.
The producetion output - and creative control - is equalled only by fellow film acor/director Woody Allen, an irony that neither jazz aficionados would miss.
WORKING THE INDUSTRY AGENDA
All in all, a truly unique career path that meets both the entertianment needs of the baby-boom generation and the urgent needs of a rapidly changing media industry that, using Warner Bros. as an example, depends on reifying its own claim on Hollywood history for each subsequent generation of filmgoers. The lineage that Eastwood has literally embodied from Eisenhower's 1950s to Obama's 21st Century, has provided just such a needed continuity. It explained the world-wide recognitions and acknowledgements that marked the occasion of Eastwood's 80th birthday in 2010.
At moments of reflection,and never wishing to admit failure, Eastwood would often acknowledge how RAWHIDE'S 217 episodes over eight consecutive seasons provided the training ground, or the boot camp we might say, that allowed both experimentation and risk as an actor.
However, the factory work ethic on the TV series may also have ingrained in a future film producer that trend for speedy efficiency that industry captains of the 1980s, tired of auteur blusterings, would come to admire. Eastwood's trumpted respect for the bottom line and his 'laid back' effectiveness on set, for example, would generate contrasts with the infamous excesses of, say, Cimino (HEAVEN'S GATE, 1980) and Coppola (THE COTTON CLUB, 1984).
It is in this respect that Eastwood, the Conservative Pebble Beach golf swinger of the 1980s, was the kind of accommodating in-house auteur that the studios could nod to with some approval, especially when it came to harnessing the ambitions of the next generation of upstart movie brats. "There are no chairs on an Eastwood set" became almost a production mantra benchmark of efficiency. In subsequent years, therefore, it almost became an industry necessity that the director-actor-producer-musician hyphenate that was 'Eastwood' should become Hollywood champion and Oscar winner.
CONGLOMERATE POWER BASE
Figuring Eastwood as America's First Man of Film was part of the Warner Bros. corporate agenda, particularly up to and following the UNFORGIVEN Oscar success of 1991. Richard Schickel's 1996 biography would open the Eastood persona to greater if limited public scrutiny, taking tactful peeks into the man's layered Byzantine private lives that, new to most readers, extended back to the early 1960s. Not as difficult or as challenging an expose as it might look, though, considering that Schickle had been Time Magazine's own leading film critic since 1972 and how the Warner Bros. studio was by now embedded within the Time/Life/HBO/CNN media conglomerate. Within this collaborative media network, Mr. Eastwood could do no wrong.
However, such praise for creative and business acuity from industry should not deflect a lurking disquiet on a superlative career that had by then successfully spanned six decades. A flinty eyed critique might zero in on the fact that Eastwood had started his professional life in television and so, in a sense, that is where he, like the industry itself, found himself in the 1980s.
On a critical note, therefore, Eastwood's stature as a classic film actor of international status had, by the 1980s, been brilliantly employed to advance films of the kind that nervous studio executives could easily green-light as if they were standard genre-based risk-free television products. Having Eastwood in the movie poster gave the standard product the necessary artisitc elan and international prestige. One can legitimately ask, for example, if TIGHTROPE or even the SHANE (1955) update PALE RIDER (both shown at Cannes) would have passed the green-light as films if the iconic presense of Eastwood the 'element' and his Malpaso corps were not attached to them from the outset. Regarding the criticall and commerically acclaimed MILLION DOLLAR BABY of 2004 without Eastwood, for example, might reveal a fairly standard if challenging TV film bursting to get into the ring.
In this resepct, Eastwood exemplifies how Hollywood has worked for all its stakeholding elements since the 1970s to reify its fading glories. Let's remind ourselves, even Widescreen CHINATOWN (1974) was blocked and framed on the set to accommodate the standard TV screen ratio.
AUTEUR IN THE SYSTEM
Hence, the rhetorical claims since the 1980s for artisitc credibility that supportive critics such as Schickel would thump for. So, short-cuts in the lighting budget on an Eastwood set would somehow justify the director's auteurial dark touch - that kind of mystery the French might appreciate; and the noted slow dramatic pace and heavy cutting (see FIREFOX) became stately and applauded for not being MTV; similalry, restrained acting (that didn't rely on too many costly takes) was deemed minialilist; the avoidance of make-up (particulalrly on actresses, see TIGHTROPE) was realist, and regular conventional shooting practice that would otherwise be condemned as standard TV fare was trumpeted as Classically Hawksian.
Eastwood was, in other words, the Last Man Standing - Hollywood's own very Mount Rushmore, staring down every passing fad, every stylisitc deviance, every pesky punk on the busy Burbank block. Moreover, what sustained the show through the era of postmodern knowingness and growing critical acclaim was the light irony in the stately performance that, beginning with Leone in 1964, acknowledged that this, after all, was just a movie. While busy appeasing West Coast industry requirments behind the camera and making out as a wary anti-hero in front of it has been one of the keys to Eastwood's longevity in a notoriously fickle industry.
However, a squinty eye on the production budget has resulted in an obvious trade-off. it could be argued that the director and producer in Eastwood weren't tough enough on Eastwood the actor to deliver those projects or 'moments' that would carry Oscar glory of the kind that was customarily monopolized by East Coast Method stylists such as de Niro, Pacino and Day Lewis. He came close in TIGHTROPE and the disappointment was great with both the failed Oscar nomination on MILLION DOLLAR BABY and the 2009 Academy pass on GRAN TORINO (2008). But going for another take to capture the passionate gold was never on the tidy day's shooting schedule for Eastwood the actor. The franchise was just precious to risk. The Oscar glories, instead, would ironicaly go to others in his tutelage: Morgan Freeman Hilary Swank, and San Penn.
WOBBLES and EMPTY CHAIRS
Later disappointments in the form of box office shrugs would follow. THE TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (Lorenz, 2012) seemed a hollow rerun of GRAN TORINO and THE JERSEY BOYS (2014) disappointed many. Not his project, not his game, they said.
These box office slips would be coupled in the audience's mind with Eastwood's ill-timed almost surreal abberation at the 2012 Republican Party Convention where talking to an empty chair for 12 minutes on a live televison broadcast suggested career meltdown. To mention to most folks watching that speaking to empty chairs is what most film actors do most of the time in their working day would have missed the point.
Reluctant involvement in his then-wife's awkward and intrusive Reality TV show contributed to a second divorce two years later and confirmed, for many, a loosening of a once steady grip. (Dina filed divorce proceedings on another tricky October 23rd). The carefuly honed persona seemed uncomfortably susceptible to the uncertain and unpredictable stains of social media commentary. For once, Eastwood was at the wrong end of the snipers's aim.
2014: SADDLING UP FOR IRAQ
However, his answer came in the form that nobody, not even the good folk at Warner Bros. could possibly expect. The blockbuster jackpot that is AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) - $500 million worldwide by mid-March 2015 - answered those who thought perhaps that the 84 year old was fading into a ragged career denouement. While the film garnered box office glory in 2015 it attracted both critical praise (particulalry from CNN) and damnation from those demanding a more nuanced account of the Iraqi war. In many respects if this was a Western, which some suggested, it would have been made in the 1950s when Native Indians were still to be shot without any questions asked. The mixed critical response may account for the five Oscars, including Best Picture, that it failed to garner.
Our account of the film, however, attempts to put it into a context that has been a widening and deepening theme across the Eastwood oeuvre. At the film's resolute centre is the inner conflict - why Chris Kyle, a drifting pretending cowboy, should need to volunteer for service with the Navy SEALS and then, despite the appeals of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) on behalf of her and their children, to return to battle over four tours of duty to Iraq.
MAKING THE LEGENDS
This binary opposition, between home and battle, reality and fantasy, was explored in Eastwood's favorite film BRONCO BILLY of 1980 - the Wild West hero, it emerges in time, is actually a former New York salesman and the circus over which he presides is his escape from a prison background and one where he can decide "who I want to be".
A similar move from the ordinary to the heroic and thence to the legendary tracks the character arcs of several Eastwood characters: the weary loner that is Detective Inspector Callaghan is, to his wary colleagues, 'Dirty' Harry; Philo Beddoe, the struggling truck driver of the San Fernando Valley in EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE - who still lives with his brother, mother and an ape - becomes a legendary local boxing champion; similarly, peace loving farmer Josey Wales becomes the renowned 'Outlaw' Josey Wales, and prisoner Frank Morris ecapes the grim confines of Alcatraz to swim quietly into legend and myth as one of the three who might, in real life, have made it to freedom.
If there is a sequence in a single film that crystallizes this move - from the ordinary to the legendary - it occurs in UNFORGIVEN where pig farmer Wiliam Munny, played by Eastwood, is covered in filthy mire and looks longingly to a gloried sunstripped horizon and decides, against his better judgement, to leave family commitments aside and saddle up once more for a battle that exploits his sharpshooting skills. (we are reminded that Eastwood's San Franscisco cop Dirty Harry in 1971 spent a whole film on the trail of a murdering sharpshooting racist called Scorpio).
In ironic reversal to Scorpio, Sharpshooter Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) soon becomes in AMERICAN SNIPER a "legend" to his own unit and the country itself and joins, then, that long list of characters, like Munny, who have featured in Eastwood's own tour of duty since it effectively began with his directorial debut in 1971. The tour has taken those characters from their rudimentary, constrained environments, and has propelled them (and us) into that land of foreign danger, adventure and mystery and where, with luck, skill and some creative embellishment, they can be born again as both tortured souls and legends.
It is a subject which would resonate, we suggest, in 2014 with a director who, at the time of the film's actual production was amidst his own marriage troubles (it was suggested that one strand of difficulty therein was the pressure that he, Eastwood, was under to slow down his own work rate). In that light, the film becomes a mergence between classic studio genre and personal statement of the kind classic auteur theory would recognise.
Kyle's determination in AMERICAN SNIPER to sing his song to the end, we therefore suggest, stands as a fitting working metaphor that speaks also for a 84 year-old filmmaker who, against claims that pulled him towards the ordinary and the settled, perhaps felt that he too had further roads to travel and his own markers to hit.
March 4th, 2015
Work in progress!
(Taylor's next book - Mavericks in Action- will be published by Peter Lang, International Academic Publishers. Details: http://about.me/MavericksInAction )
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