Forty-three years and 50 films into an acting career that took a decade to ignite, Clint Eastwood was honored with the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award Thursday night.
“Watching my career flash before me was like waking up with an orangutan,” the 65-year-old actor-director told a star-studded crowd of more than 1,100 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. “You say, ‘How did I get here?’ ”
The tribute, which will be broadcast on ABC in the late spring, documented the unlikely course that turned Eastwood from an actor featured in the 1955 horror film “Revenge of the Creature” into a veritable national icon. The evening also tracked the actor’s evolution from nihilistic outsider-outlaw to the vulnerable, multilayered characterizations he has embraced as of late.
Taking the romance out of gunplay, Eastwood portrayed a merciless killer in search of redemption in “Unforgiven"--a role that won him a 1992 best picture and best director Oscar. His portrayal of an aging Secret Service agent wrestling with frailty helped push “In the Line of Fire” over the $100-million mark. Last year, the actor took an even greater detour from the taciturn bounty hunter in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) and the embittered San Francisco detective Dirty Harry (1971) by playing a sensitized National Geographic photographer in the middle-aged romance “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Still, it was the actor’s fabled toughness and cool that spoke to him most, said Jim Carrey, who appeared with Eastwood in 1988’s “Dead Pool” and co-hosted the evening with Rene Russo. “Every guy lived vicariously through Clint Eastwood,” said the comedian, who quipped that the AFI was paying him $20,000,003 to co-host. (“If I lower my quote, I’ll have to do it for everyone.”) “He was the equalizer. He settled scores. ‘The Man With No Name’ had no name, so we could fill in our own.
“Clint showed more in one moment of silence than most actors can reveal in two or three. He has soul in his eyes--a real inner essence. That’s a technique Marty Feldman struggled with his whole life.”
On a more serious note, Russo credited Eastwood with reviving the western, placing his own laconic stamp on the genre. A few decades after falling in love with Rowdy Yates on “Rawhide,” she recalled, she found herself cast opposite the actor as a Secret Service agent in “Line of Fire.” “When our characters met, Clint was supposed to look me up and down and comment that the secretaries are getting prettier and prettier,” Russo said. “Instead of my glancing up coyly--as was scripted--he suggested I say, ‘And the field agents get older and older.’ For a man of a few words, he has a perfect pitch for dialogue.”
Another “Line of Fire” co-star, Dylan McDermott, shared a recollection with the crowd that included studio heads Sherry Lansing (Paramount), Mark Canton (Columbia/TriStar), Terry Semel and Bob Daly (Warner Bros.) and luminaries as diverse as Gregory Peck, Dustin Hoffman and Quentin Tarantino. Guests paid up to $25,000 for a table of eight to dine on giant ravioli and grilled salmon with a chocolate horseshoe and musical note for dessert. "[Director] Wolfgang Petersen asked Clint to do a scene a little more animated,” McDermott said. “To which Clint responded, ‘Was I in focus? If I was in focus, let’s move on.’ ”
While McDermott was impressed with Eastwood’s refusal to belabor the process, insult king Don Rickles took some jabs. They worked together on “Kelly’s Heroes” 25 years ago, he said, and he hasn’t heard from the actor since.
“Everyone says it--and I say it from my heart: ‘You’re a lousy actor,’ ” the comedian said, adding spark to a night largely mirroring Eastwood’s understated demeanor. “Though he has style, the entire cast had to lean over trying to hear what he’s saying: He’s the great Gentile whisperer.”
Comparing Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and “High Plains Drifter” (1972) with John Ford’s “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Steven Spielberg pointed to Eastwood’s “powerful influence on America’s image of ‘self.’ ”
“Clint Eastwood country is the real American heartland,” said Spielberg, last year’s recipient of the AFI award. “As an actor, Clint finds the most resonant emotion and the greatest economy because he trusts the audience to trust him. As a director, too, he lays back and plays it cool, never forcing himself on us. His movies never seem to be directed. It’s as if they materialize whole like a musical theme in jazz.”
A jazz aficionado, Eastwood was treated to some music as well, when his bass-player son Kyle fronted a quintet playing selections from “Madison County,” Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. Noting that “Bird"--the director’s 1988 film about Parker--had been a labor of love, Carrey called Eastwood a political force as well. “Clint was a better mayor than Sonny Bono ever was,” he quipped, alluding to the actor’s two-year stint as mayor of Carmel beginning in 1986. “If he wanted, he could secure the Republican nomination right now.”
That may be the only thing left for someone with two Oscars, a 1993 Museum of Modern Art retrospective and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 1995 Irving Thalberg Award to his credit. Someone who, after years of critical scorn, was called “an artist, a man who can be seen as clearly in his work as can Ernest Hemingway in ‘A Farewell to Arms’ "--by no less than Norman Mailer.
Such accolades were unimaginable even for a self-described dreamer such as Eastwood, whose family took to the road during the Depression so his father could find work--a giant leap from the days when he worked as a lumberjack or built swimming pools before landing a $75-a-week studio contract.
“When young actors ask me how to get into pictures, I tell them there’s more than a little bit of luck involved,” Eastwood said, accepting the award. “Lightning has to strike--a lot of times. It did for me.”
Director Carl Franklin was also honored with the AFI’s sixth annual Franklin J. Schaffner alumni medal. Since graduating from the institute’s conservatory in 1986, he has turned out two critically acclaimed films: “One False Move” and “Devil in a Blue Dress.”