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Clint Eastwood's American Dream

From spaghetti-western critics' joke to the highest-paid star for two years running, Clint Eastwood has earned his place as the most popular movie star in the world

July 4, 1985
clint eastwood 1985 cover
Clint Eastwood on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Illustration by Gottfried Helnwein

Precisely two decades ago, a friend of mine insisted I go see a movie about the American West, a film made in Italy and shot partially in Spain. At the time, it was intellectually acceptable to be passionate about Italian films that limned the sick soul of Europe; the idea of an Italian western was oxymoronic – at best, like, oh, a German romantic comedy. What's more, in America the western as a genre seemed bankrupt, and going to see A Fistful of Dollars, which featured an international no-star cast headed by Clint Eastwood, some second-banana cowboy on an American TV series called Rawhide, promised to be entertaining in a manner the director, another unknown named Sergio Leone, probably never intended.

My friend was a graduate student in philosophy, and she'd seen the movie three times because she thought it was "existential." The Clint Eastwood character was called the Man with No Name, and he went around rescuing people for no stated reason and outdrawing ugly, sweating bad guys who insulted his mule.

A lot of the violence was stylized, tongue-in-cheek comic-book mayhem, and you couldn't take it very seriously, though several critics did just that, describing the film as "simple, noisy, brutish." This sort of abusive critical reaction didn't keep audiences away, but it did rather dampen the enthusiasm of philosophy majors who had seen smatterings of Sartre in the Man with No Name.

Clint Eastwood starred in two more of the movies that came to be called spaghetti westerns, then he went back to Hollywood in 1967 to make Hang 'Em High, another popular success in spite of critical reactions like "emetic and interminable."

By the early Seventies, an interest in Clint Eastwood movies among film buffs was considered a shameful and secret vice, like masturbation.

In 1971, Don Siegel directed Eastwood in the enormously popular Dirty Harry, a movie that sent some critics into fits of apoplectic name-calling. "Fascist" was one of the kinder descriptions.

That same year, Eastwood directed his first movie, Play Misty for Me. The studio had warned him against the project. Universal was reluctant to even pay him for a film in which he would play an easygoing, soft-spoken, jazz-loving disc jockey who inadvertently gets involved with a psychotic young woman. The movie opened to lukewarm but favorable reviews. Pretty good directorial debut, was the consensus, for some damn cowboy.

Eastwood went on to star in three Dirty Harry sequels, all of which minted money at the box office. He directed nine more films, including the classic western The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). And though Eastwood could count on box-office success simply by whispering, "Dirty Harry," he often made choices that confounded his studios, critics and fans.

The 1978 film Every Which Way but Loose – a PG-rated comedy featuring an orangutan named Clyde – was another film the studio foresaw as an instant flop. The studio was partially right: nobody liked the film but the public. Clearly, Clint Eastwood knew his audience better than anyone else, and his box-office success has allowed him to direct what he calls his "small films." Bronco Billy (1980) features Eastwood as a none-too-bright Easterner who runs an anachronistic Wild West show. In the pivotal scene, Bronco Billy allows himself to be humiliated by a gun-toting sheriff rather than betray a friend. The message might be that loyalty supersedes macho on the list of desirable modern virtues, a concept some critics interpreted as "punning on points of identity." Maybe, the critics seemed to be saying, Clint Eastwood isn't actually Dirty Harry after all. Another small film, Honkytonk Man (1982), is a character study, set in the Depression, of a self-destructive country singer. Tightrope (1984), Eastwood's depiction of a troubled cop in New Orleans, was both a critical and popular success.

By the mid-Eighties, critics were having a difficult time defining Eastwood. Sudden Impact (1983), the fourth Dirty Harry movie, got strangely mixed notices. "The picture is like a slightly psychotic version of an old Saturday-afternoon serial, with Harry sneering at the scum and cursing them before he shoots them with his king-size custom-made '44 Auto Mag,' " scoffed one reviewer, while another felt that "many who have long dismissed Eastwood's movies as crude cartoons now suddenly understand that the violence has always been infused with self-irony and moral intelligence."

The weight of opinion seems to be shifting toward the latter viewpoint. In an article in Parade magazine, Norman Mailer was adamant in his admiration: "Eastwood is an artist . . . You can see the man in his work just as clearly as you see Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. . . . Critics had been attacking him for years over how little he did onscreen, but Eastwood may have known something they did not." The Los Angeles Times noted that women in Eastwood's movies have always been strong, interesting as both heroes and villains, and that "Eastwood may be not only one of the best, but the most important and influential (because of the size of his audience) feminist filmmaker working in America today." The French film review Cahiers du Cinéma noted the "self-parodying subtlety" in Eastwood's movies, while the London Daily Mail noted that Europe was discovering "hidden depths" in Dirty Harry. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Eastwood the artist, appropriately titled "Clint Eastwood, Seriously."

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