Thursday, August 19, 2010
To a truly striking degree, Clint Eastwood is a transitional figure in the history of of the U.S. cinema. Born in 1930, he is almost a full generation older than the Baby Boomers on whom his work has had the greatest impact. While this doesn't explain everything -- one can find all kinds in any generation -- it does appear that to at least some degree, demography was destiny, both in the projects Eastwood went on to choose and the way he executed them.
Eastwood was a child of the Great Depression. While his biographers sometimes exaggerate the degree of privation in a family that was at heart middle class in outlook, there's little question that the Eastwoods were subject to fluctuating economic fortunes. They were also notably itinerant; Eastwood was born in San Francisco, but his parents moved regularly up and down the length of the west coast to take jobs that ranged from gas station attendant to office work at businesses like IBM and the Shreve, Crump and Lowe, a prominent jewelry company. Eastwood's father, Clinton Sr., had attended briefly attended college at the University of California; both he and his wife, Ruth, were musically literate, and passed this passion on to their son and (younger) daughter. Regular, if not passionate, attendees of whatever Protestant church was nearby, Eastwood's parents voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt twice before switching their allegiance to Republican Wendell Wilkie in 1940. The elder Eastwood did not serve in the armed forces during the Second World War, but took a job as a pipe fitter.
Such experiences seem to have inculcated a kind of low-key pragmatism that marked Eastwood's youth, and to at least some extent, his adulthood. The family eventually settled in the Bay Area suburb of Glenview, a town that was affluent but on the Oakland border; it was the latter that Eastwood would give as his hometown. He was an indifferent student and switched from the more upscale high school in Glenview to Oakland Tech, a trade school, from which he graduated in 1949. After he graduated he moved to join his family, now in Seattle and increasingly upwardly mobile, and held a series of odd jobs that included work at lumber mills (it was in these years he acquired a passion for country music). By 1951 he knew did not wish to lead a working-class life, and planned to study music at Seattle University. But with the Korean War on, he was drafted. He managed to spend most of his time in the army working as a lifeguard, happy to avoid going overseas.
Mingled within this hybrid middle-class and plebeian youth was what might be termed an incipient counter-cultural sensibility. Years before the Beach Boys made the sport a symbol of the California good life, Eastwood was a surfer. He had a love of nature -- "You looked down into that valley [at Yosemite National Park], without too many people around, and boy, that was to me a religious experience" -- that biographer Richard Schickel usefully encapsulates as "Pacific Rim Transcendentalism." (36) Above all, Eastwood was a deeply passionate jazz fan, and, more specifically, a bop fan. As it would be for the next generation, African American culture exerted a tremendous allure, one he was in a geographic position to sate by virtue of his location near Oakland, a major black metropolis. Able to sing, play piano, and compose, Eastwood's music would eventually appear a part in like Mystic River. Besides his singing role in the musical Paint Your Wagon, he would also record an album of country standards during his television years (reissued in 2010), sang a duet with Ray Charles in his 1980 movie Any Which Way You Can, and had a #1 country hit, in his duet with Merle Haggard, "Bar Room Buddies," from Bronco Billy, also in 1980.
But perhaps nothing reveals the degree to which Eastwood successfully rode a wave of generational transition than the way he ended up becoming an actor. After finishing his tour in the army (and surviving a near death experience in a plane crash off the California coast), he continued to work odd jobs that included pumping gas and digging swimming pools. He also got married, and enrolled in a business administration program at Los Angeles City College. But his inchoate professional ambitions were finally beginning to coalesce: He began taking acting classes, and in 1954 got his first big break when he got a job as a contract player for Universal Studios.
Eastwood thus became one of the final products of the studio system, a system crucial to what is widely regarded as the Golden Age of Hollywood, which took shape in the late 1920s and was now lurching toward collapse. To use a sports metaphor, he was a farm team prospect in a studio franchise. The studios in this system, whose membership varied but always included major players like Paramount and Fox, were vertically controlled operations in which everyone from electricians to directors were salaried employees who worked at the direction of executives. Those executives -- legendary figures like Jack Warner, or Louis B. Mayer, or David Selznick -- would swap or lend talent in their stable as part of their empire building (and pocketed any difference between what a rival was willing to pay and that talent's salary). Because the studios controlled not only the production, but also the distribution and exhibition of their movies, they were able to control, even dictate, which actors became stars (no new Clark Gable picture for you, Mr. theater owner, unless you also book the new Ronald Reagan movie, which, I'm telling you, you're gonna like). A 1948 Supreme Court decision declared this system unconstituional, which was breaking down anyway amid the onslaught of television. The program in which Eastwood was employed for two years was not considered a major pipeline to stardom, but he did win a string of bit parts in Universal movies, no doubt to a great degree on the strength of his striking good looks. After his contract was terminated in 1955, he continued to dwell on the fringes of Hollywood, but by 1958 his career as an actor was dangerously close to ending.
The turning point came with his casting as Rowdy Yates, a young, impetuous, but nevertheless impressive young cowboy on the CBS television series Rawhide. Though it ran for seven seasons, Rawhide never had the profile or prestige of better-remembered shows like Bonanza (1959-73) or Gunsmoke (1955-75), and for most of the series, Eastwood's character played second fiddle to Eric Fleming, who starred in the role of Gil Favor, the boss on what proved to be a never-ending cattle drive. But even though Eastwood got bored with the show, it nevertheless proved to be pivotal for his career in a number of ways. For one thing, it gave him an economic foundation that allowed him to invest, literally and figuratively, in more ambitious projects. For another, the show made him a minor celebrity and allowed him to make a series of professional contacts that would be fruitful for decades. For a third, it established a lasting relationship to the western genre that would become quite important to his artistic development.
Finally, in a less obvious but still important fashion, working in that genre -- becoming comfortable in the very concept of a genre, and experiencing the rhythms of steady production -- would later become hallmarks of Eastwood's career. Eastwood's younger contemporaries, whether directors like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese or actors like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, or Dustin Hoffman, were far more self-conscious artists who would work to an almost obsessive degree on projects that emulated or alluded to the work of the cinematic predecessors. Born into a world of television, their primary influences were nevertheless cinematic. Eastwood certainly admired his predecessors, too. But he would go on to have a much more workaday approach to his art that can make some of these figures seem downright self-indulgent by comparison. Temperament had something to do with this. But so did class background, ethnicity, and generational experience.
But Eastwood had something important in common with all these people, something common to a lot of people in Hollywood: a thirst for control over the terms of his work. To a great degree, this thirst is a male thirst -- women's work has traditionally been defined in terms of a web of relationships -- and while it's certainly widespread across the globe, this quest for control has a distinctively American cast, to a large degree because the United States has long been viewed by a great many (though not all) people as a place where such control is attainable. Clint Eastwood's career since the mid-1960s is a case study in how such control was attained. More importantly, his career is important in rendering a gallery of characters engaged in such an enterprise -- and the conflicts and ambivalences that resulted. Eastwood became an international star because he made the fantasy of the autonomous individual seem compellingly believable. He showed it as plausible in the 19th century, the 20th, and the 21st, from a perspective shaped by his generation and yet which resonates beyond it. And yet, even as he's done this, he's never quite repudiated the values of personal connection and institutional affiliation. Even as he's given us fantasies of control, the self-abnegation at the heart of concepts like love, loyalty and principle have remained in the picture. We shouldn't overlook them. In fact, we can't. This is our peculiarly American dilemma.
Next: Eastwood's early career.