Clint Eastwood's American Dream

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It would be pleasantly ironic to report that this reassessment of Eastwood's career has come on the heels of declining popularity at the box office, but the man who formerly had No Name is, by some accounts, the most popular movie star in the world. Theater owners named him the top moneymaking star of 1984 and 1985, a distinction he also won in 1972 and 1973. Since 1955, his forty films have grossed more than $1.5 billion, a figure that rivals the gross national product of some nations (Malta, Mauritania, the Netherlands Antilles, Rwanda, Tonga, Togo, Chad and Lesotho, among others). Moreover, a recent Roper poll found that Americans aged eighteen to twenty-four picked Clint Eastwood as their number-one hero. Ronald Reagan was a distant third (behind Eddie Murphy), which may account for the fact that the president of the United States has begun quoting from Clint Eastwood films when issuing challenges to Congress.

For all his renown, Clint Eastwood in person is affable, a gentle man who speaks in a whisper-soft voice. At six four and 190 pounds, he is physically imposing, but there is none of the coiled-spring tension one senses in Dirty Harry. Of all the roles he has played, Eastwood in person seems most like the mild-mannered California jazz DJ he portrayed in Play Misty for Me, a man happily out of step with the times and secure in his private enthusiasms. He lives alone in Monterey, California, where he jogs, works out with weights, plans his next projects and is sometimes seen in the company of actress Sondra Locke. He has two children by his former wife, Maggie: a daughter, Alison, 14, who appeared in Tightrope, and a son, Kyle, 17, who costarred in Honkytonk Man.

Eastwood is, as Norman Mailer noted, "a nice guy," a fifty-five-year-old man who has taken his chances and seems distantly amused by the sudden storm of critical acclaim after having weathered thirty years of dismissal and abuse.

This year, Eastwood was invited to the Cannes film festival to show his eleventh directorial effort, Pale Rider, a western in which he also stars. The movie was warmly received, and in the press conferences that followed, the questions sounded like something my philosophical friend might have asked twenty years ago.

One journalist wondered if, at the end of Pale Rider, Eastwood was really killing Sergio Leone, his artistic father.

The actor thought this one over – that is the kind of question you have to answer when people start taking you seriously – and said, finally, that he didn't think so: Leone and he were the same age.

Clint Eastwood understands that a good joke dies on the dissecting table, and like many of the characters he's portrayed on screen, he is often more interesting for the things he doesn't say than the things he does. Listen:

You are, by some accounts, the world's most popular movie star. Do you sometimes wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, "Can that possibly be me?" I mean, does it surprise you?
If I thought about it enough, it might. Yeah, I guess so. I guess you'd look back and say, "How did a kid from Oakland get this far?" I'm sure other people do that to some degree. It's like waking up with a hooker – how the hell did I get here?

Let's start with A Fistful of Dollars. How did that come about?
Well, at that time I'd done Ranhide for about five years. The agency called and asked if I was interested in doing a western in Italy and Spain. I said, "Not particularly." I was pretty westerned out on the series. They said, "Why don't you give the script a quick look?" Well, I was kind of curious, so I read it, and I recognized it right away as Yojimbo, a Kurosawa film I had liked a lot. When I'd seen it years before, I thought, "Hey, this film is really a western." Nobody in the States had the nerve to make it, though, and when I saw that someone somewhere did have the nerve, I thought, "Great."

Sergio [Leone] had only directed one other picture, but they told me he had a good sense of humor, and I liked the way he interpreted the Yojimbo script. And I had nothing to lose, because I had the series to go back to as soon as the hiatus was over. So I felt, "Why not?" I'd never been to Europe. That was reason enough to go.

You've said that in the original script, the Man with No Name shot off his mouth more than his gun.
The script was very expository, yeah. It was an outrageous story, and I thought there should be much more mystery to the person. I kept telling Sergio. "In a real A picture, you let the audience think along with the movie; in a B picture, you explain everything." That was my way of selling my point. For instance, there was a scene where he decides to save the woman and the child. She says, "Why are you doing this?" In the script he just goes on forever. He talks about his mother, all kinds of subplots that come out of no-where, and it goes on and on and on. I thought that was not essential, so I just rewrote the scene the night before we shot it.

Okay, the woman asks, "Why are you doing this?" and he says. . . .
"Because I knew someone like you once and there was nobody there to help."

So you managed to express ten pages of dialogue in a single sentence.
We left it oblique and let the audience wonder: "Now wait a minute, what happened?" You try to let people reach into the story, find things in it, choice little items that they enjoy. It's like finding something you've worked and hunted for, and it's much more enjoyable than having some explanation slapped into your face like a wet fish.

So you have a lot of faith in your audience.
You have to. You don't play down to people, you don't say, "I'd better make this a little simpler, a little more expository." For instance, in Josey Wales, when he rides off at the end of the picture, the editor and I had wanted to superimpose the girl's face over him. He said. "We want the audience to know that he's going back to her." Well, we all know he's going back. The audience wills him back. If he rides off on the other side of town, the audience will say, "Well, he's gonna turn left." It's really looking down on an audience to tell them something they already know. Or tell them something they can draw in because it arises out of the story. I try to make that part of their job.

To. . . .
To think about it a little bit.

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