Friday, June 4, 2010
Billion Dollar Baby
The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site. (See review of Eastwood DVD box set below (May 31 post.)
In the most obvious and important respects, this book is what it purports to be: a handsomely designed, lavishly illustrated piece of coffee table furniture. It certainly doesn't hurt that its subject is a piece of eye candy who has aged remarkably well in the half-century the book covers. It is also a very useful movie guide, with newspaper-article length reviews of every movie in which Clint Eastwood has appeared or directed, supplemented by an evocative introductory essay. So by the standards of its genre, the book is successfully executed -- and, at $35 (currently $23.10 at Amazon.com), a good value.
But the real value of Clint is as a document of a remarkable, decades-long friendship. Richard Schickel first met Eastwood in the mid-1970s, and the two men began a conversation that has continued to this day. Schickel is also the author of a 1996 biography of Eastwood, which actually points to the only real defect to this volume that I see: it's relatively weak in limning Eastwood's life from his birth in 1930 to his arrival at Universal Studios in the mid-fifties. But what it lacks in comprehensiveness, the book makes up for in resonance and candor. Schickel is frank in assessing the multiple duds in Eastwood's career (Paint Your Wagon, anyone?) and, remarkably, so is Eastwood, who provides a steady stream of juicy quotes that are the likely result of trust (he also wrote an introduction for the book). Clint may not be objective, but it's exceptionally credible.
Schickel foregrounds a number of themes in his introduction and the subsequent essays. Among them are Eastwood's lifelong identification with the underdog -- and here it's worth pointing out the notably progressive racial and gender politics in many of those films, which include a textured quality in matters like age and sexuality -- as well as an understated masculine ethos and a growing focus on family issues, literal as well as metaphorical. I myself was struck, for example, by the sophistication in Eastwood's treatment of Native Americans in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), or the unambiguous feminist assertion at the heart of The Enforcer (1976), in which Dirty Harry -- the quintessential embodiment of presumably macho, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later masculinity -- gets taught a few lessons by a female partner (Tyne Daly, in her pre-Cagney and Lacey days) in a movie remarkably free of the dated, patronizing, gender conventions surrounding the portrayal of such issues at the time.
But the theme that's impossible to miss, either in the editorial commentary or in simply flipping the pages, is one of longevity. As Schickel notes at one point, Eastwood's film career covers one third of movie history as a whole. And that career has been marked by a remarkable sense of consistency in the sheer number of films in which he has acted and/or directed, and his proficiency in delivering those films on time and under budget. Even more extraordinary is the stunning intensification in the quality of his work -- films like Unforgiven (1993) and Gran Torino (2008) are extraordinary meta-genre commentaries, while Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) re-imagines the World War II film from a Japanese point of view. In a way that may well be singular in cinematic history, Eastwood has managed to be both the quintessential movie star as well as an important director for multiple generations.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of all this is that Eastwood appears deeply mindful, even haunted, by his good fortune, and his consciousness that others have not been so blessed. This is why, for example, he made his 1988 film Bird, about Charlie Parker (Eastwood is a passionate jazz fan and has in fact written music for his films). A fatalistic vein runs through his work, and alongside it a powerful sense of duty that suggests a stoic vision of life. This stoicism, which jostles with realized ambition, might well be the axis on which Eastwood's work spins.
"The American Dream is, in fact, composed of many dreams," Schickel notes toward the end of the book, a point made in my own book on the subject. But he goes on to make one I never quite apprehended before, which is that "the dream of an old age rich in competency is the last, largest, and most difficult to achieve." Clint Eastwood is, finally, an inspiring figure in his demonstration of the value of hard work for its own sake, and the hope, whether realized or not, that it might also have value for others.