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

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

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.

You did two more of the Italian westerns with Leone: For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Yeah. The other two, the productions were glossier, more refined. The stories didn't mean a whole lot. They were just a lot of vignettes all shuffled together. I enjoyed them, they were fun to do. Escapism. And the American western at that point was in a dull period. But when Sergio approached me about being in some of the subsequent westerns, I thought it would be going too far. So I came back to Hollywood and did Hang 'Em High. Sergio was interested in expanding the size and scope of his films, and I was more interested in the people and the story line. I guess, selfishly, because I am an actor, I wanted to do something with more character study.

You've described yourself as introverted. Do you think that's because you moved so much as a kid?
Maybe, yes. We moved around California a lot. We lived in Redding, Sacramento, Hayward. My parents were married around 1929, right at the beginning of the Depression. It was a tough period for everybody, and especially a young guy like my dad who was just starting out. In those days, people struggled for jobs. Sometimes jobs didn't pan out, or they couldn't afford to keep you. We drove around in an old Pontiac, or something like that, towing a one-wheel trailer. We weren't itinerant: it wasn't The Grapes of Wrath, but it wasn't uptown either.

It gives you a sort of conservative background, being raised in an era when everything was scarce. Once, I remember, we moved from Sacramento to Pacific Palisades because my father had gotten a gas-station attendant's job. It's still there, the station. It's at Highway 101 and Sunset Boulevard.

Were you involved in any school activities?
Yeah, I played a little basketball. Some football in junior high. I didn't really get involved in team sports, because we moved so much. I did some competitive swimming, and one of the schools I went to had a great gymnastics program, so I diddled with that for a while. I wasn't particularly suited for it, because I was so tall, but I liked it.

I suppose one of the biggest things when I was a kid – I always liked jazz. A wide spectrum of jazz. Back in the Forties and Fifties I listened to Brubeck and Mulligan. And I loved Ellington and Basie. I'd get books on everybody: Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver, Buddy Bolden. I used to be very knowledgeable.

Then, up through the Forties, I used to go to those Jazz at the Philharmonic things. One time, they had Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and a whole group of classic players. In fact, nowadays, when I talk to composers that are maybe ten years younger than I am, they're all jealous about that concert: "You saw those guys live!"

You play some jazz piano yourself.
Yeah, when I was a kid, I played. Fooled around with some other instruments, but I was lazy. I didn't really go after it. I just started again in the last few years. I've been diddling around with composition. Five or six things. I used one as my daughter's theme in Tightrope, and I also did the theme for the young girl in Pale Rider.

I have some regrets that I didn't follow up on music, especially when I hear people who play decently. I played on one cut on the album for City Heat. After the session, Pete Jolly and Mike Lang and I were all talking about how we started out playing piano. We all started the exact same way, only those guys went on to really play. We began by playing blues: blues figures at parties. I was such a backward kid at that age, but I could sit down at a party and play the blues. And the gals would come around the piano, and all of a sudden you had a date.

You had a country hit, "Barroom Buddies," a duet with Merle Haggard. When did you get interested in country music?

Well, I think you can say that Merle Haggard had a hit and sort of dragged me along. I was never terribly knowledgeable about country music. The first real good taste of it I got was when I was eighteen or nineteen, working in a pulp mill in Springfield, Oregon. It was always wet, really depressing. Wintertime. Dank. I really didn't know anyone, and someone told me to go out to this place where there was a lot of country music. I wasn't very interested, but this guy told me there were a lot of girls there. So I went. I saw Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Unlike most country bands, they had brass and reeds and they played country swing. They were good. It surprised me a little bit, how good they were. Also, there were a lot of girls there, which didn't surprise me at all. So I guess you could say that lust expanded my musical horizons.

Why didn't you follow up on the music?
I was going to. I tried to enroll in Seattle University, where they had a good music program. I got my draft notice before I got in there, though, and ended up at Fort Ord [California]. And I guess I just failed away from music.

I served my two years and went down to L.A. City College, where I enrolled in business administration. In the service I had met some guys who were actors – Martin Milner, David Janssen – and when we got out, a cinematographer got me a screen test. I got an offer to go under contract with Universal, seventy-five bucks a week to start. They threw me out a year and half later. But it was a pretty good deal for a young guy. We had acting classes every day.

Is that when you realized that being introverted could be an asset for an actor? That you could play on it?
I don't know if I played on it consciously. I know that for many years before I became known for the way I act now, I played characters that were not terribly talkative. Economical characters. Some books – even Stanislavsky's people – discuss the fact that sometimes less can be best. Sometimes you can tell more with economy than you can with excess gyration.

The Rawhide series was a great training ground. All of a sudden, everything you ever studied about being an actor you could put into play every day. It's one thing to work for a week in a Francis the Talking Mule picture – which was how it had been going for me – and another thing to be doing it all day for eight years.

It's like the story of the great classical trumpet player they found one day playing in a baseball orchestra at Wrigley Field. Somebody recognized him and said, "My God, Maestro, what is the greatest classical trumpet player in the world doing playing in a baseball band?" He said, "You must play every day."

In Rawhide, I got to play every day. It taught me how to pick up and run, how to make things up, wing things in there.

The New York Review of Books recently ran an article about you that said, "What is most distinctive about Eastwood . . . is how effectively he struggles against absorption into mere genre, mere style, even while appearing, with his long-boned casualness and hypnotic presence, to be nothing but style." Do you want to comment on that?
Well, yeah, style. Take guys like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. They're terrific actors, but their style is more aggressive. Both of them did some marvelous things and some films that weren't big hits but were great all the same: Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave and Paths of Glory; Lancaster in Trapeze. But their style was a little different than, say, Gary Cooper's or Henry Fonda's, because those guys were more laid-back, more introverted, and you were always leaning forward, wondering what they were thinking. With the Lancaster-Douglas school, there was never any doubt Fonda or Cooper: you were never quite sure with them. They had a mysterioso quality.

Which is something you strive for: that little taste of ambiguity.
Exactly.

Let's go over a few of your films. Dirty Harry.
There was something there I felt some people missed. One critic said Dirty Harry shot the guy at the end with such glee that he enjoyed it. There was no glee in it at all, there was a sadness about it. Watch the film again and you'll see that.

Every Which Way but Loose.
All of a sudden Norman Mailer comes out and says he likes this film, and because he's such a well-thought-of writer, people think, "Wait a second, maybe that wasn't such a bad movie after all." I thought it was kind of a hip script myself when I read it. Here's a guy pouring his heart out to an ape, and losing the girl. I like the correlation with some of my westerns, too. The guy purposely loses the big fight at the end because he doesn't want to go around being the fastest gun in the West.

Bronco Billy.
It's about the American Dream, and Billy's dream that he fought so hard for. And it's all in the context of this outdated Wild West show that has absolutely no chance of being a hit. But it's sweet. It's pure.

In the pivotal scene, Billy allows himself to be humiliated by the sheriff rather than allow his friend to be arrested. That played so against your established image: it must have been fun to do.
Really fun. It was suggested that Billy come back at the end and punch this guy out. That would have ruined the picture, the whole theme of loyalty. Billy doesn't approve of this kid being a deserter, and he doesn't know enough to intellectualize what his friend's feelings were about the war in Vietnam. He just knows he doesn't approve but he's going to stick by his friend. Now if Billy had come back and kicked the crap out of the sheriff at the end, it would have wrecked all that.

There's no real excuse for being successful enough as an actor to do what you want and then selling out. You do it pure. You don't try to adapt it, make it commercial. It's not Dirty Bronco Billy.

Honkytonk Man.
Red Stovall is based a bit on some self-destructive people I've known. He's wild and funny, but he's been a coward in his time. He won't face up to his ambitions. He's not that great a singer, but he writes some interesting things. When he gets his moment, he's already destroyed himself.

And the studio suggested that it might be a good idea if Red didn't die in the end?
I resisted that.

Your new one, Pale Rider.
It's a western. One of the earliest films in America was a western: The Great Train Robbery. If you consider film an art form, as some people do, then the western would be a truly American art form, much as jazz is. In the Sixties, American westerns were stale, probably because the great directors – Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, John Ford – were no longer working a lot. Then the Italian western came along, and we did very well with those; they died of natural causes. Now I think it's time to analyze the classic western. You can still talk about sweat and hard work, about the spirit, about love for the land and ecology. And I think you can say all these things in the western, in the classic mythological form.

You're not generally credited with having any sense of humor, yet certain of your films get big laughs in all the right places. The first half of Honkytonk Man, for instance, was very funny.
That's the way it was designed: a humorous story that becomes a tragedy. A lot of the humor is not in what you say but in how you react. Comedians are expert at that. Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners: Alice zaps him, and his reaction – just the look on his face – cracks you up. Jack Benny could do that. Comedy isn't necessarily all dialogue. Think of Buster Keaton: the poker face and all this chaos going on all around him. Sometimes it's a question of timing, of the proper rhythm.

Does it amuse you that the president is quoting from Sudden Impact?
Yeah, it was kind of amusing. I knew that "Make my day" would have a certain amount of impact in the film, but I didn't realize it would become a sort of "Play it again, Sam."

I've read that you occasionally speak with Reagan on the phone.
Well, I don't know where that came from. I think some secretary or someone mentioned it. I've talked to him a couple of times, but they make it sound like I'm some great adviser.

I want you meet my secretary of state, Dirty Harry ...
Yeah, right [laughing].

You're not going to tell me what you talk about with the president?
I haven't really said that much. I was in Washington not too long ago, and I walked to the White House for lunch. We didn't discuss much of anything except the National Endowment for the Arts medal we were passing out. There were some former members of the NEA there, of which I was one. It was a small luncheon, a few laughs.

I mean, he doesn't ask me for advice. I could suggest some better places to go than that cemetery in Germany.

And you're not going to run for political office.
That's something nobody has to worry about.

You have a reputation for shooting your films quickly and bringing them in under budget. Do you think that has anything to do with having grown up in the Depression?
I would like to say it's just good business, but it may be that. It may be a background of not wanting to see waste.

There's a rumor that people work quickly on your sets because you don't provide chairs.
That rumor derived from a comment I made. Someone asked why I liked shooting on location as opposed to in the studio. I said, "In the studio, everyone's looking around for a chair. On location, everyone's working." But there are chairs on the set and on location.

You also have a reputation for bringing in young or underappreciated talent. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, for instance, was Michael Cimino's first film. Some people might say that you do that because you get these folks cheap.
Nothing's cheap, and I don't think I'd cut off my nose to spite my face. I don't think I'd get somebody cheap just because I thought he was cheap. I think I'd want the film to be the best possible. Otherwise you're selling yourself short. An awful lot of directors are expensive, but you don't know how they got to be that way. Sometimes it's just a matter of salesmanship and agenting.

I haven't worked with a lot of big-name directors, but I came up during an era when they were all beginning to retire: I never worked with Hitchcock or Wyler or Stevens or Capra or Hawks or Walsh. I missed all that.

I suppose the most expensive director I've worked with is Don Siegel. I think I learned more about directing from him than from anybody else. He taught me to put myself on the line. He shoots lean, and he shoots what he wants. He knew when he had it, and he didn't need to cover his ass with a dozen different angles.

I learned that you have to trust your instincts. There's a moment when an actor has it, and he knows it. Behind the camera you can feel that moment even more clearly. And once you've got it, once you feel it, you can't second-guess yourself. If I would go around and ask everyone on the set how it looked, eventually someone would say, "Well, gee, I don't know, there was a fly 600 feet back." Somebody's always going to find a flaw, and pretty soon that flaw gets magnified and you're all back to another take. Meanwhile, everyone's forgotten that there's a certain focus on things, and no one's going to see that fly, because you're using a 100-mm lens. But that's what you can do. You can talk yourself in or out of anything. You can find a million reasons why something didn't work. But if it feels right, and it looks right, it works.

Without sounding like a pseudointellectual dipshit, it's my responsibility to be true to myself. If it works for me, it's right. When I start choosing wrong, I'll step back and let someone else do it for me.

The critics are beginning to say that you've made some pretty good choices.
Some of them. But it's luck. It's instinctive. It comes from the animal part of the brain: the instinctive, intuitive part. The analytical brain can kill you as an artist. You want to stay in touch on a deeper level.

Why do you think the critics have begun to reassess your career?
I think it just finally got to the point where people said, "Well, he does quite a few different things. Maybe it isn't all some cowboy or cop who happened to click." It's easy to dismiss those kinds of films unless you're consciously looking for the best in them. Then again, I've changed. I've done films, like Bronco Billy, that were unusual for me, unusual for anyone. At a Museum of Modern Art retrospective in New York, they liked Bronco Billy and worked back from there. The French worked back from Honkytonk Man, which was one of the best-reviewed English-language films of the year there. In Montreal, at the film festival there, they liked Tightrope. All those films accumulate, and after thirty years, people are beginning to look at a body of work.

But how do you feel about it, this critical reassessment?
It's gratifying.

This story is from the July 4th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 451: July 4, 1985