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Calendar Goes To The Oscars : Clint, Closing In on El Dorado : Ask Clint Eastwood how he feels about his chances for a statuette, and his eyes drift off. You get the sense he might have preferred a question about his golf game

Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday.

Clint Eastwood’s latest schedule breakdown occurs the moment he steps out of his limousine at the side entrance to Bally’s Grand Hotel.

After having his afternoon plans thrown off by a luncheon that went on an hour longer than expected, the idea had been to find a quiet place to finish an interview before the start of the National Assn. of Theater Owners’ annual awards dinner, at which he is being honored as director of the year for “Unforgiven.”

But suddenly he’s being schmoozed by one of the hotel managers, then hustled off to a reception he knew nothing about.

Eastwood glances at his longtime publicist, Marco Barla, and at Joe Hyams, the Warner Bros. executive who looks after Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions, and their eyes all seem to shrug in midair. What reception? But there are no complaints as the slick hotel man in the white dinner jacket whisks Eastwood’s entourage down a long hallway and into a room filled with Hollywood bigwigs (Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, “Patriot Games” producer Robert Rehme), stars (Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg) and a few star-struck high-rollers who are presumably guests of Bally’s.

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Before he can get a drink in his hand, the Instamatics are drawn from their holsters and Eastwood is gunned down in a hail of flashing bulbs. Women materialize at his side, seemingly out of nowhere, smiling out at a friend with a cocked camera while the star, trying to lubricate eyes turned pink by an afternoon in the bright desert sun, squints, grins and bears it.

“I really can’t,” he says, rubbing his eyes with the back of his right hand, as yet another lady in an evening dress moves in. “I can barely see.”

“Just this one?” she pleads, hooking an arm around his waist and pointing to a friend training a camera on them.

Eastwood straightens, smiles and takes another direct hit.

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“Let’s make a run for it,” one of Eastwood’s associates says, and soon they’re heading back down the hall toward the casino, past startled gamblers, and to a quiet corner of a restaurant there.

“I hate to disappoint people,” says Eastwood, who is being honored for a movie in which he plays William Munny, out of Missouri, “a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” “But those flashes were making me blurry.”

Other than the surprise photo op, this kitschy convention of theater operators is friendly business for Eastwood. He has attended many of them before, and was honored as the association’s “Star of the Decade” almost 10 years before returning as its director of the year. At the Warner Bros. lunch earlier in the day, Eastwood thanked the exhibitors for supporting him when few critics did, and their loud standing ovation suggested that they took both his thanks and his success personally.

It is a contagious feeling these days. Suddenly, everyone’s a Clint Eastwood fan.

The rangy star seems to have arrived at a moment of high emotional drama rare even for Hollywood. Whether he wins any Academy Awards Monday night, he has already been to the mountain. After 30 years of box-office stardom, after 23 years of directing and producing, after three decades of being ignored or overlooked in America as a serious filmmaker, he has dazzled them all.

“Unforgiven,” his revisionist Western about alcoholism, violence and the romantic Outlaw Myth, was a hit with critics, moviegoers and the film Establishment, three groups who often seem to have little in common. Eastwood and “Unforgiven” were named director and picture of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics, and before heading over to Las Vegas for the NATO award, he picked up the prestigious feature directing award from the Directors Guild of America.

The DGA award makes Eastwood the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for best director as well, and he could take home second and third statuettes as producer and star of “Unforgiven.” In a competition where strained analysis is the rule, the case for Eastwood makes itself.

A more enduring star than either Gary Cooper or John Wayne, he has never been nominated before, or even been given one of those dubious career achievement “thank you” plaques.

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He is the last of the great Western heroes, and the only modern director to attempt to keep that most American of all movie genres alive. He’s respected by the film Establishment for his budget restraint and business sense, and by other filmmakers for his independence.

Eastwood’s only known enemy, in a business where enmity is a by-product of success, is Sondra Locke, the plaintiff in an angry palimony suit a few years back. And despite all those steely, tough-talking killing machines he has portrayed on screen, he has the reputation of being one of the industry’s gentlest and most respected figures.

“Anybody who has ever worked with him knows he is a total professional and a decent man,” says Robert Daly, chairman of Warner Bros. Inc. “When you work with him, you walk away feeling good about it.”

To all of these sentimental elements, add the fact that “Unforgiven” is a huge box-office hit, $80 million in U.S. grosses and counting, and regarded by many film people as the finest classical Western to come along since perhaps John Ford’s 1956 “The Searchers,” and you have an irresistible opportunity to make up for past sins and celebrate a legend.

Ask Eastwood how he feels about any of this, or how he likes his chances for the Oscars, and his eyes drift off to some other part of the restaurant. You get the sense he might have preferred a question about Sondra Locke, or his golf game.

“I’m just kind of surprised and pleased by the whole thing,” he finally says. “You don’t know how a movie’s going to be accepted. This one seems to have taken on a life of its own.”

Prod him a little. Remind him that only two Westerns--the 1932 “Cimarron” and Kevin Costner’s 1990 “Dances With Wolves"--have won the Academy Award for best picture, and that only Costner, in what may be the most dumbfounding footnote in Oscar history, has won for directing a Western. Not Ford, Howard Hawks, John Sturges, Fred Zinnemann or George Stevens. Only Costner. How do you figure?

“Americans are famous for overlooking their own art forms,” says Eastwood. “The Western movie has had great moments of popularity in film history. It seemed that at one time it was so mainstream, people wouldn’t take it seriously.”

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Being mainstream has been Eastwood’s curse, too, at least with American critics and the Oscar electorate. His work was being seriously considered by European critics 20 years ago, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art was organizing an Eastwood retrospective in the late ‘70s while the city’s most respected critics were still referring to him as some sort of crypto-fascist.

Eastwood acknowledges being excited by the serious recognition he got then, and bemused by some of the criticism. He recalls one critic saying he owed his audience an apology for the slapstick “Every Which Way but Loose.”

“I didn’t understand what this lady was looking for,” he says. “After all, it was just a movie . . . I didn’t think I needed to apologize.”

If he has reason now to gloat, he isn’t doing it. The closest he comes to chiding Hollywood for being 10 years behind Europeans in recognizing him is in saying that if he wins the Academy Award, “it will be one of the few times when (the prestigious French film magazine) Cahiers du Cinema and the academy are in sync on something.”

Eastwood is clearly having a good time on the awards circuit and will even admit, sort of, that he regards “Unforgiven” as his best work. “It’s a movie that if I went back to do again, I don’t think I’d do anything different,” he says. “Yeah, it’s certainly in there.”

Even though David Webb People’s script for “Unforgiven” was written in the mid-'70s, without Eastwood in mind, it’s hard to imagine it being made as well by anyone else. And it’s harder yet to imagine that it would have been filmed as written, with no hero and no romance, with the killing of innocent people and an ambiguous ending.

In many ways, “Unforgiven” is the culmination of all of Eastwood’s career choices, as both a star and as a filmmaker.

William Munny, a temporarily reformed alcoholic killer of men, women and children, is a repudiation of the mythic Western hero that Eastwood himself had helped perpetuate. When Munny talks about the killing he’d done, he has instant credibility. We can hold a flashback festival in our minds, see Eastwood’s face age behind a blazing six-gun as the Man With No Name in the ‘60s, as Joe Kidd and Josey Wales in the ‘70s, as the biblical enforcer in “Pale Rider” in the ‘80s.

The name changes, but the aim is always straight, and the killing has always come easily. Suddenly, however, it has all been funneled into a character who, when sober, is filled with remorse, and when angered or drunk, can become a mad-dog killer. The showdown in “Unforgiven” is not between a good guy and a bad guy, but between two sociopaths, a low-life bounty hunter and a sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman), neither of whom would think of allowing the other to “draw first.”

From such sadists and drunks, legends were born, and as they made their way into popular culture through dime novels, radio serials, movies and finally television, a perversely romantic epoch evolved. And Eastwood--as both a Western star and as a maverick cop exterminating vermin without due process in the “Dirty Harry” movies--has been one of its major beneficiaries.

Those twisted legends made careers for a lot of actors, and some took their parts seriously. John Wayne, in particular, had trouble distinguishing between his moral Western gunfighters and himself. Eastwood relates a story told to him by director Don Siegel about Wayne’s refusal to shoot a man in the back for a scene in “The Shootist.”

“I don’t shoot men in the back,” Wayne reportedly barked at the director.

“Clint Eastwood would shoot him in the back,” Siegel said.

“Well, then get Clint Eastwood to shoot him,” said Wayne.

Eastwood isn’t remorseful about the earlier movies--it wasn’t like he was drunk when he shot them or anything--but he did acknowledge in another interview that killing so many nameless people brings you to a point where “you start to wonder what value that has to society, if any.” In any event, “Unforgiven” punctures all of those romantic myths about painless killing, and only Eastwood, having developed a freedom unrivaled in the modern studio system, could have made a movie with such downbeat themes.

Since the early ‘70s, when Eastwood brought his Malpaso Productions to Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot, he has made more than 20 movies, all but two for Warner Bros. He did “Escape From Alcatraz” with his friend and mentor Don Siegel for Paramount, and the upcoming “In the Line of Fire,” directed by Wolfgang Petersen, for Columbia.

The deal is as simple and informal as any in today’s Hollywood, where negotiating contracts and litigating them are cottage industries: Warner Bros. covers his operating costs on the lot, and he tells them which movie he wants to do next.

“It’s been a total handshake deal from the beginning, one picture at a time,” says Daly. “We try to find things for him, he finds his own material, and when he says he wants to do something, we say, ‘Go ahead.’ ”

Says Eastwood: “The studio has never said, ‘OK, if you want to do that, fine, but you have to give us two action thrillers.’ They’ve always just said, ‘What do you want to do next?’ ”

Eastwood began early on in his career trying different things, in order to avoid, as much as possible, being pigeonholed as an action star. He played an FM jazz disc jockey whose one-night stand with a fan turned into a case of fatal attraction in “Play Misty for Me,” the first film he directed. He was a Civil War lothario, playing a fatal game of musical beds in a women’s boarding house in “The Beguiled.” And he ignored the advice of associates and Warner Bros. executives in taking on slapstick comedy in “Every Which Way but Loose.”

“There was a lot of resistance to my doing (“Every Which Way”),” Eastwood says. “The guy doesn’t carry a gun, he’s driving a truck, working with an orangutan. The material just appealed to me. I figured that maybe audiences will enjoy the effort that goes into that. If not, you go to the next chapter of your life.” Audiences did enjoy the effort--the movie was a huge hit.

For Eastwood and Warner Bros., the real challenge has been to balance Eastwood’s appeal as a star with his urgings as a filmmaker. His “personal” movies--"Bronco Billy,” “Honkytonk Man,” “Bird,” “White Hunter, Black Heart"--were not only risky commercial ventures, but potential drags on his popularity. But both Eastwood and Daly say there was never any question about whether he’d do them.

“Clint has made those films financially sound because he does them for a price,” says Daly. “He knows they’re tougher films to market and he keeps the cost down. He is one of the most efficient producers in the industry. He watches our money more than he watches his own.”

Does the studio intrude, insist on changes and casting to make his films as commercial as possible? Eastwood says they make suggestions, never insist.

“There were suggestions on ‘Unforgiven,’ ” he says. “ ‘You can soften this, you can do that. You kill this young Davey in the picture, can’t you let him live?’ I said, ‘No, you can’t. That’s the whole point, the innocent person being hurt by misunderstandings.’ There was the suggestion that the scarred lady ought to go off with William Munny at the end. Yeah, you could do that, but it’s a compromise. If you try to sew it all up like that, you just water it down.”

Eastwood acknowledges that there have been plenty of opportunities over the years to make big money deals with other studios, even to grab a quick fortune from hustlers asking nothing more than to use his name.

“I was in Cannes one year and this guy came up to me and said, ‘I made a $12-million deal with an actor here and we wrote it up on a napkin, and I’d like to make the same deal with you. I’ve got a napkin right here.’ I said, ‘Well, what would we make?’ He said, ‘We’ll find something.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you find something first, then we’ll talk.’ ”

Eastwood says he decided very early to make his decisions based strictly on the material, not the money, and though he has had some second thoughts about some of the material, some of his casting choices and so forth, “I’ve never had second thoughts about dough.

“If you want to be in for the long haul, you just have to trust your judgment about the material,” he says. “If you go whoring for the money, the audiences will figure you out. They know when you’re being a jerk, when you’re just trying to get them in a room and show them a movie you don’t even care about.”

Nobody can plan out a career to last more than 30 years, let alone one at Clint Eastwood’s level of stardom, and before “Unforgiven,” there were signs that his popularity was beginning to slide, even in overtly commercial movies. “Pink Cadillac,” “The Rookie” and “The Dead Pool” (No. 5 in the Dirty Harry series) had not rung up big numbers at the box office.

There’s been speculation that Eastwood agreed to go outside Malpaso and Warner Bros. to star in Petersen’s “In the Line of Fire” because the script was too good to pass up, and his role as a Secret Service agent protecting the President from a mad assassin, figures to beef up his star power.

Indeed, the trailer for “In the Line of Fire” shown at the exhibitors convention was met with more enthusiasm than almost any other. With the success of “Unforgiven,” and “In the Line of Fire” coming this summer, and “A Perfect World,” which he will direct and co-star with Kevin Costner, coming at Christmas, Eastwood is at a place lofty even by his standards.

At 62, the same age as John Wayne was when he won his only Oscar for “True Grit,” Clint Eastwood is finally peaking.


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