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Hollywood's evolving icon

Big-screen tough guy Clint Eastwood has reinvented himself as a tireless explorer of the human spirit

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Action film icons have been known to refashion their big-screen aesthetic, though few have done so as rigorously and successfully — claiming higher ground — as actor-director Clint Eastwood. For the last two decades, he’s shunned playing the cigarillo-puffing desperadoes and roguish, Magnum-toting detectives that made him famous, instead directing and starring in films that are as socially conscious as they are redeeming. Not only are they profitable at the box office and prize worthy during awards season, but they raise provocative questions about societal violence, the grief that follows death, and the overarching meaning of life. At 82, Eastwood has yet to ride off into the proverbial sunset. This month, he stars in Trouble With the Curve, playing an aging baseball scout who embarks on a final recruiting trip that quickly turns transcendental.

Descended from pastors and church builders, and raised in a middle-class Protestant home, Eastwood found Bible stories distressingly violent and stopped going to church at age 12. “There’s all kinds of ways to get a feeling of God, however [He] exists for you,” Eastwood’s father told his son at the time, according to Richard Schickel in his 1996 biography, Clint Eastwood. That resonated with Eastwood, who instead found inspiration in majestic outdoor settings.

Arriving in Hollywood in the mid-1950s, the mercurial 20-something achieved minor celebrity playing cattle rider Rowdy Yates in the popular television series Rawhide. But it was the success of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns — A Fistful of Dollars (1964); For a Few Dollars More (1965); and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) — that made Eastwood a bona fide film star. Portraying the trilogy’s morally ambiguous Man With No Name was philosophically alluring, he has said, much the same as playing San Francisco police inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, the tough-talking pursuer of serial snipers and terrorists, in the popular 1970s and ’80s film series.

In a 2008 interview with the Guardian, Eastwood explained what drew him to the Dirty Harry films: “Being a contrary sort of person, I figured there had been enough politically correct crap going around. The police were not held in great favour particularly. . . . People were thinking about the plight of the accused. I thought, ‘Let’s do a picture about the plight of the victim.’”

All the same, Dirty Harry was the archetype of the “loose-cannon cop” action genre. Callahan’s famous line, “Go ahead, make my day,” was even repeated by a hawkish President Ronald Reagan.

“Naturally, everybody has certain things they wish they hadn’t done in life,” an introspective Eastwood told Psychology Today in 1993. “But by the same token, I do agree that when you get to a certain stage in life, you change. . . . If a person is constantly evolving . . . being exposed to new material and growing in life, then you’re becoming, hopefully, a more intelligent and well-rounded individual. If you’re not . . . you’re sliding back in the other direction.”

Nowhere is this spiritual growth more apparent than in 1992’s Unforgiven. The feature, which earned Eastwood best director and best picture Oscars, rails against the very westerns that launched his career. In the film, a prostitute named Delilah and her friends offer $1,000 to outlaw Bill Munny (Eastwood) to kill the cowboy who cut up her face. An aging widower trying to live down his infamy, Munny nevertheless accepts the bounty to support his struggling hog farm and two young children. Along the trail, though, several missed opportunities poignantly demonstrate the trauma of taking someone’s life. Indeed, these scenes defy the spirit of traditional westerns. In Eastwood’s Unforgiven, it’s ordinary folk — wanting to live peacefully in a world of wretched cruelty — who stand in for the genre’s usual flinty characters.

The director explained his take on violence and role models to Psychology Today this way: “Well, conflict is the basis of drama. I guess that goes back as long as time has existed . . . back to the Greek tragedies or the Old Testament.” Violence is a form of conflict, he added, and can have a “socially damaging effect” on filmgoers. But it can be cathartic, too.

A film about dying with dignity earned Eastwood his second pair of Oscars for best director and picture. Million Dollar Baby (2004) tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old server from the Missouri Ozarks who asks former “cut man” Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to train her as a boxer. But just as Fitzgerald is about to win welterweight title of the world, her opponent sucker-punches her from behind, abruptly ending the fight and Fitzgerald’s boxing career. Now quadriplegic with a leg lost to gangrene and no hope of recovery, she asks Dunn, a lapsed Catholic, to help her die, and with considerable tribulation, he does. It’s a frank example of love and grace in the face of deficient care and acute suffering.

For Eastwood, death warrants ongoing reflection. In his recent film Hereafter (2010), a young boy struggles with the loss of his twin brother, a French journalist is inexplicably revived after dying in a tsunami and a psychic reluctantly communes with the departed. The supernatural drama looks carefully at the afterlife and why those among the living are so preoccupied with it. Speaking softly to audiences, Hereafter suggests that there is also peace in giving in to the Mystery.

Eastwood’s films “quietly but insistently invite meditation on human nature, history, and ethics,” writes Sara Anson Vaux, a film professor at Northwestern University. In her 2011 book, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood, she praises the American icon for his “distinctive moral and ethical examination” of suffering and sacrifice, justice and forgiveness.

Now in his career’s twilight, Eastwood bears some resemblance to a guilt-ridden former gunslinger. But as a perennial performer and filmmaker, he has been able to roam the byways of America’s psyche, prompting North American audiences to stop and think about their own lives, if only for a couple of hours. His stories give expression to the misgivings and yearnings within, transforming them into resounding verse.  

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