Saturday, March 26, 2016

When It Became Cool To Like Clint Eastwood (Part 3)

“But there were a lot of stumbling blocks before it happened. We started making them, and it was really great—for ten straight weeks I had work. Then, after ten episodes, the word came down that we’re way over budget and behind schedule and we’re stopping it here at ten and ‘reevaluating our position.’”

Again the Dirty Harry snicker. The notorious, fictional hatred of red tape comes into clearer focus.

“Then they said that hour shows aren’t going anymore, only half-hour shows. So they put all the shows on the shelf and they sat there for weeks. It was supposed to go on for the fall and it was cancelled for the fall, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, my career is going to sit there on the shelf.’ I remember I was up for a part at Fox after that and I asked them if I could show one of the episodes. I had the lead in, and they said, ‘No, we don’t want to show it to anybody,’ and I thought, ‘My career is going to sit in the basement in tin cans at CBS.’

“Finally I got on a train, just to go visit my parents, and I got a telegram on the train that it was going to replace some other show. And I didn’t know, we had so many false starts…. But the show jumped right into the top ten. It was a hit, and it was the first steady job I ever had.”

Eastwood smiles and sinks back into the couch. There has been a curious gentility to his recollections, as if he were retelling another life. The palpable silence behind his words, his laconic delivery, reveals a profound patience also visible in his film characterizations. We begin to discuss his step from TV to the movies.

“I had seen Yojimbo [a Japanese Samurai film] with a buddy of mine who was also a Western freak, and we both thought what a great Western it would make, but nobody would ever have the nerve, so we promptly forgot it. A few years later my agency calls up and says, ‘Would you like to go to Europe and make an Italian/Spanish/German coproduction, a Western version of a Japanese samurai story?’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve been doing a Western every week for six years, I’d love to hold out and get something else.’ And he said, ‘Would you read it anyway?’ so I read it and recognized it right away as Yojimbo. And it was good! The way the guy converted it had a tremendous amount of humor in it. So I thought, this looks like fun, it’ll probably go in the tank but at least it’ll be fun to do. The Italian producer thought it was going to be a nice little B programmer, but of course it went through the roof.”

“In Europe?”

“Yeah, they couldn’t release it in this country for a while because of a threatened injunction by the Japanese.”

“Because they thought it was a rip-off?”

“Well, it was a rip-off. The Italian producer had gone over to Japan to make negotiations, and when the fee the Japanese asked was too high, he just withdrew negotiations and went ahead and made it anyway.”

Eastwood laughs and shakes his head like a man who has early on learned to live with the absurd. His Man With No Name was called non-acting. In fact, his entire career has been called non-acting.

“They called me everything,” he says. “One critic wrote that I did nothing better than anyone who ever was on the screen, and there was a lot of name calling. It was that way with Dirty Harry, too.

Critic Pauline Kael called him a fascist. “That was just the style of the times,” he says deliberately. “People liked to throw around the term ‘fascist.’ It didn’t bother me because I knew she was full of shit the whole time. She was writing to be controversial because people expect it of her, that’s how she made her name. If Harry came out now, Kael would be onto something else. But the public liked the picture, and they realized it was just about a guy who was tired of the bureaucratic crap.”

“I get the impression you are more or less apolitical.”

“I don’t have any political thoughts. I feel like an individualist.”

“Your movies have been criticized as being anti-progressive,” I remind him, “or as advocating a kind of police state.”

“That isn’t the case,” Eastwood says firmly. “Anybody could see what the problems would be if the law enforcement agencies of any state were allowed to do anything they want. It would be dangerous. But the opposite is true: If you stifle the law, you invite getting bad people and corruption. It’s the opposite extreme.”

“But in the films themselves,” I continue, “like Dirty Harry… He says, ‘Screw all the red tape, I’m going to get the job done, bring these guys in’….”

“Yes, that was true in the first film. He wanted to get the job done. [Director Don] Siegel and I put ourselves in the victim’s standpoint; if I was a victim of a bizarre crime, I’d like to have someone with that kind of inspiration and imagination trying to solve the case. Sure it was an extreme case, but that doesn’t mean that Don Siegel or myself adhere to any kind of ultra-rightwing organization. In Magnum Force, we talked about just the opposite: if a rightwing group becomes the underground of the police force….”

Josey Wales lines up the Gatling gun. Below him are a hundred men, the scum responsible for the death of his wife. He squints, sets up the sight and begins to grind away. The men panic, scream, fall. Blood is gushing from their chest, arms, eyes. When he has run out of ammunition, Wales lopes away alone. He vows never again to become involved with any species of love. But there is this dog… a gangly, ugly, yellow dog… and it just won’t leave. Wales watches as the mongrel nears him. He waits until it is within range, then spits, Whack—a stream of tobacco juice slaps the mutt on the head. The dog whimpers, then disappears.

It is night now. Wales beds down in the brush and waits for what is left of the gang he has ambushed to come after him There is a noise, Wales jumps, whips out his gun. Something is moving toward him. He tenses, chews his tobacco, waits.

There is more movement. Then, around the bend, the dog is staring at him, unabashedly in love. Wales looks at it. His face softens. He grits his teeth. The dog comes toward him. Wales waits, then spits. Again, right on the head. The dog whimpers, moves away, but will not leave. Smoke rises from the fire, Wales watches the dog, stares at it, then shakes his head and goes to sleep.

Dogs and women. Eastwood, as prototype for monosyllabic movie machismo, has taken some vehement abuse for sexism in his films. It is a subject which he has obviously given some thought.

“When I did Play Misty for Me,” Eastwood says, “I took it to Universal, and the first thing they said to me was, ‘Why do you want to do a movie where the woman has the best part?’ Before that I had done The Beguiled, with six major parts for gals. I did Two Mules for Sister Sarah… a lot of movies with good women’s parts. I don’t consider myself sexist at all. I dig chicks probably as much as, if nor more than, the next guy.”

There is an awkward pause.

“And you can probably call that sexist because I said ‘chicks,’ but I grew up where the guys in my neighborhood said that. The other day a female journalist asked me if I was intimidated by women, and I said, ‘No, I had a great relationship with my mother… I think she’s marvelous.”

“I’ve even heard that your movies are really gay fantasies,” I say.

Eastwood roars.

“People do put you down for macho quality,” I add.

“That’s getting back to those words again,” says Eastwood. “‘Fascist’ was the word before. Now it’s liable to be ‘macho.’ I never thought about being macho. I remember when I first came to Hollywood a director cold me, ‘Play this scene real ballsy,’ and I said to him, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wouldn’t know how to do that.’

“I never thought about being anything other than what I am. I put myself in a situation, learn the motivations of the character, and just go. If you started thinking about it, tried to play something like that, you’d come off like an idiot. It would be caricature. If you think too much you can shut out things that work for you. So I really don’t think I’m sexist. Jessica Walters was very happy to have that role in Play Misty, and there was the The Beguiled, and in The Gauntlet Sondra Locke has, if not a better role, at least as good a role as me. I mean, she is the brains behind the whole thing.”

“But isn’t there a danger there? Your audience comes to Clint Eastwood films with certain expectations. The Man With No Name and Harry were both men in total control. Shockley, in The Gauntlet, is much more vulnerable. He’s an alcoholic, and not so smart. What’s more, he falls for the girl! I should think you’re treading on slippery ground here. The fans rebel, think you’re getting soft.”

Eastwood nods but doesn’t really address the problem:

“I guess there is a dyed-in-the-wool Dirty Harry fan who will be disappointed because I don’t grab a cannon and mow down everything in sight, but I think we can expand on the women’s parts. And in The Gauntlet there’s still enough action to also satisfy the audience. It’s so hard to find really good stories and scripts. It’s amazing we could find three Dirty Harrys. I’d do another one, maybe, if we got a good script.”

Eastwood seems tentative here, and perhaps he should be. Though The Gauntlet started out well, its receipts are reportedly slipping.

Certainly it will not go in the tank, but it could turn out to be a financial disappointment.

“Don’t forget Josey Wales,” says Eastwood. “It was different, warmer, and it was a box-office success.”

“And easily your best picture,” I agree.

“I’d never done that type of Western,” he says. “I’d always done allegorical things and I wanted to do a saga. And the humor in that wasn’t like in some of the others—total camp—it was warmer. Like with the dog—he spits on the dog, but he really wants him… yet he feels he brings bad luck on everybody.”

Eastwood seems anxious to establish himself as the intelligent, civilized man he is. And although he is among the biggest stars in the world, he does seem to feel somewhat tarnished by the constant criticism. The increasing humanity in his films, and his vigorous, polite defense of himself, would seem to indicate he is trying gingerly to establish his full humanity, as an actor and a man.

“Many people who love your movies think they are either unintentional comedy or that the director makes them funny,” I say. “Many people assume you’re like Charles Bronson.”

“They should analyze Bronson’s movies,” Eastwood says curdy. “Are they funny?”“No.”

“Well, then, how come my movies have that humor and his don’t?”

“Well, people assume that the director puts in the humor.”

“I’ve been the director on six of them,” Eastwood says. “Do you think it’s just by accident?”

“All right,” I say, “The Man With No Name in the Italian westerns. How did he happen?”

“Okay,” he begins, “I invented the costume, for example. I took it over with me, they just said, “Come on over.’ I went down to a costume store. I had one hat, three shirts, a sheepskin vest. I bought myself these black Levis, two sizes too big, and washed them. I wanted them to be kind of baggy. I didn’t want them to fit too well, I wanted everything to be just a little off. Only the shoes fit right. I had the boots, so I took those… took the boots and spurs…”

“Did you and [director] Sergio Leone create the character together?”

“Well, he couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak Italian, so we had an interpreter. But I could see he was a jovial guy with good feeling for black humor, so I figured it was going to be fun. The script had a lot more dialogue, I cut a lot of it out. To keep the mystique of the character it was very important not to have the guy say too much. Very important not to know his past. And the less you knew about him, the better. If you stop and give a big expository scene to explain everything that’s going on, audiences resent that. I think what you have to do is internalize the imagination of the audience, and then they’ll be right with you.”

“So you were aware then that the movie had a camp quality all the way through it.”

“Oh, yeah… it was a slight parody.”

“It was, and it wasn’t.”

“Yeah, but you still do it serious, you don’t wink. You see guys who do that, they’re winking at the camera all the time they’re up there, then the audience doesn’t believe that. They sit back and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to see Joe Slapstick here.’ Even Chaplin and the Tramp, he played those scenes very serious. Or Gleason and Carney in The Honeymooners, they weren’t sitting there talking to the audience, or the crew, or the backstage or anything. You gotta play the part and the camp will come out of it. And it took a lot… It takes a lot,” he emphasizes. “You light cigars, you spit on the dog’s head—it’s easy to crack, to do takes on it. But I don’t. It’s played absolutely serious. You’ve got to believe it, and the audience wants you to believe it. It’s not stand-up comedy.”

Frankly, I’m happy to hear this. And yet I wonder, “Why do people think you’re dumb?”

Eastwood sighs, shakes his head. “Because in an age of cynicism it’s easier to believe he’s just a big stupid guy standing there, doing these tricks and just accidentally pulling it off. I’m not the smartest guy in the world from a classic point of view, or an educational point of view—I don’t pretend to be any Rhodes scholar—but l do have animal instincts about things and I rely on them. Nobody, I don’t care who it is, is anywhere just being stupid.”

(To be Continued April 2)

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