For Eastwood, a Daring Riff
“Bird,” the upcoming Clint Eastwood-directed biography of be-bop sax king Charlie Parker, is sort of a cinematic version of a Charlie Parker riff. With its flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, its smoky, muted colors and its wildly fluctuating moods, it will either captivate you or blow you out the exit.
Parker’s music was like that--fresh, uncompromising, innovative jazz that challenged the most avid fans, of even his post-swing pre-rock era, to accept. As Eastwood said: “He just stood there and played his music and you could either enjoy it or try not to let the door hit you in the butt.”
With “Bird,” an $11-million film that spends nearly three hours celebrating the genius of a man who drugged and drank himself to death at 34, Eastwood is playing his own music, too. And Warner Bros., not about to let a door close behind it, is picking up the tab.
“I have to give them credit, I’m not sure how happy they were about my wanting to do this,” Eastwood said, before flying off to Italy, where “Bird” opens this week, and to New York, where it will be screened Monday as part of the New York Film Festival. (It opens in Southern California Oct. 14.) “I must say they never raised a doubt about it.”
This is the reason, more than his one term as mayor of Carmel, that people think the 58-year-old Eastwood has a political future. Hollywood’s most enduring star, 19 years on the list of America’s Top 10 box office attractions, a man whose 16 Warner Bros. films have
grossed $737.5 million, has to give the studio credit?
So, you ask him, in all seriousness: “Has anybody in Hollywood said ‘No’ to you about anything in the last 15 years?”
“No, I’ve been lucky that way,” he said, stretching his long legs over the coffee table in his Malpaso Productions office at the Burbank Studios. “Over the years, there were certain anxieties (among executives). ‘Beguiled.’ ‘Play Misty For Me.’ ‘Bronco Billy.’ ‘Honkytonk Man.’ You never know. . . .
“But you have to take a chance now and then. For me, just as a career, I wouldn’t want to be known only for detective stories or Westerns. Maybe with ‘Bird,’ I’ve stuck my neck out too far and it’ll get chopped off.”
With “Bird,” Eastwood has gone from Hollywood’s Biggest Star to its Most Powerful Jazz Fan.
Joel Oliansky’s script, written on contract for Columbia Pictures in 1982, was regarded in town as a “hot” property when it was assumed Richard Pryor would star in it. But when Pryor opted out, the script hit the studio shelf faster than an Iranian love story. It would take a superpower to get it down. And one did.
“I read the script once at the William Morris Agency,” Eastwood said. “I liked it, I liked the writing, and I was very interested in the subject matter.
“Later, I overheard (Warner chairman) Bob Daly and (president) Terry Semel saying that Columbia wanted a script called ‘Revenge’ that they had. I said, ‘That’s interesting, why don’t you call and see if you can hold out for the Charlie Parker script?’
“One day, Daly said, ‘We’ve got the Charlie Parker thing.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m in a high gear.’ ”
Is this crazy, a major studio pampering its biggest star by negotiating for a script about a black jazz alto sax player who, in his own time, was barely more than a cult figure and whose liberated be-bop legacy was almost immediately lost in the one-note frenzy of ‘50s rock?
“They knew I wasn’t going to star in it,” said Eastwood.
The answer is that if the director had to be someone other than the jazz-wise Oliansky, who had written it with the intention of directing it, Eastwood was a perfect choice.
He knows as much about jazz as Oliansky, and he had the clout to make it any which way he wanted. He used to play the sax himself, still plays piano and has written music for several of his own film’s scores, including the themes for “Tightrope” and “Pale Rider.” It was at his urging that Warner Bros. agreed to make the Oscar-nominated “ ‘Round Midnight,” Bertrand Tavernier’s paean to American jazz in Paris.
Eastwood is also held in some esteem as both an efficient and crafty director.
There are, in Warner Bros.’ reality, two Eastwoods. One is the virile, stoic, lethal and lovable cop-cowboy who rounds ‘em up and packs ‘em in--men, women and children--at theaters everywhere. This is the one the accountants love.
And there’s the Eastwood who doesn’t mind, whether the studio does, taking chances. This is the one whose work has earned retrospectives at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Paris’ Cinematheque Francaise, and who, twice in the last four years--with “Pale Rider” and “Bird"--has had his films premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Eastwood has played his career as his own jazz riff, hitting whatever notes he wants, casting himself in roles as diverse as the circus sweet Bronco Billy--a combination of Buffalo Bill and Buffalo Bob--to the sadomasochistically inclined New Orleans cop in “Tightrope.”
For each “Dirty Harry,” for each “Heartbreak Ridge,” for each commercial action film he has done for the studio medium well, he has done something for himself medium rare.
Right now, he’s preparing a film called “Pink Cadillac,” an action film that will be directed by Buddy Van Horn, the former stunt man responsible for Dirty Harry: Opus 5, “The Dead Pool.” Next year, Eastwood will take a crew to Africa and direct himself in “White Hunter, Black Heart,” from Peter Viertel’s 1951 novel based on the making of “The African Queen.”
In “White Hunter,” Eastwood will play a character based on the late John Huston, but apparently without the mannerisms.
“He wasn’t written as John Huston,” Eastwood said. “The story is about the obsessions of film making. I’m surprised it hasn’t been made before.”
or Eastwood, who has immersed himself in jazz since childhood, making “Bird” was less an obsession than a personal thrill ride. He has laced many of his sound tracks with original jazz music, and in doing so, has met many of the jazz artists he revered. But with “Bird,” he has actually recovered live performances of a legendary jazzman and given them new life.
One of the first things Eastwood did after Warner Bros. agreed to make “Bird” was fly to France to meet with Parker’s companion, Chan. “Life in E Flat,” her unpublished biography, was the main source for Oliansky’s script and, as it turned out, she was holding a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of live Parker performances.
“A lot of it was real slapdash,” he said. “Someone had just thrown a mike in front of Parker when he was playing. But I thought if it was possible to pull Parker’s music out and bring back some of the guys to do the background, you couldn’t do better than that.”
The engineers and musical composer Lennie Niehaus, a one-time alto sax player for the Stan Kenton band and a former army buddy of Eastwood’s, did the rest (see accompanying article). Eastwood and Niehaus brought together some of the country’s best jazz musicians, old and young, and there’s now a new Parker album--the “Bird” sound track--in record stores (see review on Page 8).
Eastwood resists the “jazz label” being put on the film. “If this is for people who love Charlie Parker’s music, we’re in a real limited situation,” he said. But the label is likely to stick.
The film is as faithful to its subject as perhaps any film biography has been. As Eastwood said, Parker was a paradoxical character, both self-destructive and full of life, and the movie, simultaneously dark and exhilarating, takes that as its theme.
The obvious question for Eastwood, as someone admittedly interested in the obsession of film making, is why he was so drawn to doing a film about an addictive personality.
“It was the music, the chance to get close to it,” he said. “I don’t have an addictive personality myself. I’ve never been addicted to cigarettes. I was never experimental with drugs. We sort of lived by the saying, ‘If there’s anything better than (a woman) and a cold glass of beer, you better not tell me about it. It might kill me.’ ”