Eastwood Unforgiven : Locke's Lawsuit Spins Saga of Love and Power in Hollywood

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 13 years after they fell for each other on the set of the 1975 film "The Outlaw Josey Wales," Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke were co-stars in life, love and a half-dozen movies. They were soul mates, inseparable, this close.

They also were boffo box office.

The perks were fabulous: access to top studio executives, homes in Bel-Air, Carmel, Shasta County, and Sun Valley, Idaho. The Warner Bros. corporate jet to shuttle them from house to house, to shooting locations, even on shopping expeditions for handmade tiles in Mexico.

But lest there be any doubt about who was the real player, these days Hollywood is treating Locke like the woman with no name. Her phone calls aren't returned. She doesn't do lunch, or any other meal, with studio honchos. And she hasn't flown anywhere on the corporate jet in years.

The reason, Locke is alleging at a civil trial currently underway in Superior Court in Burbank: Eastwood sabotaged her career after she slapped him with a palimony suit during their nasty public breakup in 1989.

That suit was settled a year later. But in a spinoff lawsuit now being tried before Judge David M. Schacter and a jury, Locke is alleging that Eastwood duped her into dropping the case, dangling a bogus three-year development deal to direct films for Warner Bros.

While she was paid $1.5 million, Locke didn't option a single film, much less direct one. She got the office on the studio lot and the parking space with her name on it, but no action. Later, she said, she learned the money she was paid came from Eastwood.

The deal, Locke's lawyer, Peggy Garrity, told the jury, "created a dead end for her career . . . financed by Clint Eastwood."

Locke has accused Eastwood of fraud, intentional interference with her ability to earn a living and breaching his financial duty to her. She has had difficulty persuading people in the movie industry to testify for her, Garrity says.

The lanky and laconic Eastwood, not surprisingly, responds that he had the best of intentions when he used his clout at the studio to secure the deal for Locke.

*

Eastwood's lawyer, Ray Fisher, told jurors that his client only wanted to encourage and help Locke with her directing career so she would be financially independent of him.

"He carried out his part of the bargain," Fisher told the panel. "The problems that Ms. Locke is talking about are either of her own making, we will show, or are a matter between her and Warner Bros."

Last week the courtroom belonged to Locke, who is seeking damages in excess of $2 million. This week, Eastwood is expected to take the stand and give his side of the story. The trial ultimately could boil down to a case of he said/she said.

To hear the 48-year-old Locke's version, it would seem she received the classic Hollywood treatment of an inconvenient woman who has, as they say, reached a certain age.

"This case drips with gender," said lawyer Garrity.

Indeed, it seems to stir passions along gender lines: Male tabloid journalists snickered and snorted as Locke testified. Around the corner from the courthouse, women at a coffee shop told TV reporters, "We hope she gets everything."

Had she known that the money to finance her deal would come from Eastwood rather than the studio, she never would have accepted it, Locke testified. "It's like having an employer who's not really paying you," she said. It sent a bad message "to the film industry and the world at large" that she "was not to be taken seriously."

And, she said, she was particularly vulnerable, still undergoing chemotherapy after a double mastectomy, when she signed on the dotted line. But she said she wanted to direct to stay in movies.

"In Hollywood, it's difficult enough for a woman in any position," Locke said, "but as an actress, it's particularly difficult as one gets a little older."

She said she wanted to forge her own identity as a director.

"I had, for so many years, set my own separate identity aside," Locke testified. "I had become so associated, really, as an appendage of Clint."

So far, much of the testimony has focused on details of promises made and allegations of promises broken. Locke called a top Warner Bros. executive to the stand, but his brief testimony seemed to help Eastwood more than hurt him.

Warner Chairman Terry Semel testified that he continued to socialize with Eastwood, but he no longer saw Locke socially after the split. He did send Locke a greeting card in late 1989 that congratulated her on "Impulse," calling it "a very well made commercial movie."

The card continued, "I'm sorry that you and Clint are over but do promise that the situation does not affect our business dealings in any way."

Semel recalled that Eastwood personally appealed to him to give Locke the development deal during a meeting in his office.

"He had gone through, in his opinion, all the reasons why that might be a good idea for us," Semel testified. "I felt that there was really good progress between Sondra's second movie and her first movie from the standpoint of [being] a better movie and a prospect of good talent."

On his way out the door, Semel recalled, Eastwood sweetened the deal, offering to underwrite any of the studio's cash losses in its business with Locke.

It will be up to the jury to decide whether such financial support reflects a hidden agenda such as sabotage, as Locke alleges, or a show of faith in her abilities, as Eastwood's lawyers maintain. Nonetheless, the agreement never was reduced to writing, nor was it disclosed to Locke or her lawyers at the time the palimony suit was settled.

Semel testified that Eastwood's personal word was good enough for him. "And, by the way," he added, "my hope and intentions were that it would be better for Warner Bros. and better for Mr. Eastwood and better for Ms. Locke if we did make a movie or two that did make money."

The case also has become the latest test in the post-Simpson battle over the news media's access to the courts. Judge Schacter ruled Tuesday that everyone, including reporters, be cleared from the courtroom when the jury is not present. Even a subsequent hearing about media access was held behind closed doors.

Several media outlets, including The Times and KNBC-TV Channel 4, challenged the ruling Friday in the state Court of Appeal as overly broad and a violation of the public's right to attend trials. The higher court has not yet ruled or set a hearing date.

During her testimony Wednesday and Thursday, Locke described the peaks and valleys of her career, even dropping a couple of glamorous names. Madonna, for one. Arnold Schwarzenegger for another. Both had shown interest in projects of hers, Locke testified.

*

Locke was discovered by Warner Bros. in her hometown of Shelbyville, Tenn., in 1968, during a nationwide talent search, and co-starred in "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." She was nominated for an Academy Award.

A year later, she moved to Hollywood, bringing along her closest childhood friend, a gay man. They married because, she explained to the jury, "it's funny the sort of cultural changes, but in those days males and females never lived together unless they were married." But she added, her husband is "more like a sister to me."

She appeared in a number of other films, the most memorable titled "Willard." She recalled, "It was about rats. There were a lot of rats in the movie and people may remember it for that."

In 1975, she fell in love with Eastwood, and soon they were living together. He bought the house in Bel-Air in 1981, and later a house for Locke's husband.

"Everything in my life was so perfect," she testified. "You know, I was with this extraordinary man, [who was] in love with me, and I was in love with him, and he was my Prince Charming and everything had worked out so well for me, and I was starring in movies."

Clint Eastwood movies, exclusively. "The Outlaw Josey Wales." "Every Which Way but Loose." "Every Which Way You Can." "Bronco Billy." "The Gauntlet." "Sudden Impact."

She testified that Eastwood didn't like her being away from him for long.

During his cross-examination of Locke, Fisher strongly suggested that her commercial successes came as a direct result of her association with Eastwood. He asked her pointedly about the films she starred in before 1975, and those she directed after 1989.

But Locke maintains that she sacrificed her own career during her years with Eastwood.

It was while she was directing "Impulse" that Eastwood grew moody and withdrawn, eventually asking her to leave after a quarrel on New Year's Eve, 1988. Four months later--April 10, 1989, Locke recalled--Eastwood changed the locks to the Bel-Air house and summoned a moving company to pack up her belongings.

Locke and her pet parrot were out on the street. Eastwood and Locke didn't speak for months. Her response was to file the palimony suit, which alleged cruelty, including allegations that Eastwood had forced her to undergo two abortions and sterilization surgery.

Although the vitriolic mudslinging has been kept to a minimum during the trial, the tension between Locke and Eastwood is tangible. He seems bored and not at all happy to be there. She appears cool yet resolute, a far cry from the waif she played in some of Eastwood's movies.

Neither acknowledges the other as they enter and leave the courtroom. On Thursday, Eastwood stepped into an elevator where Locke was standing. There was a discernible chill as the doors closed, both staring straight ahead, stone-faced.

*

Eastwood's career and personal life have flourished since the breakup. He won Oscars for best picture and best director for "Unforgiven" and was feted by the American Film Institute this year. He recently married, at age 66, a 30-year-old TV anchorwoman who's expecting their first child.

Locke, on the other hand, can't find an agent. Her income was zero in 1994 and 1995, and the only director's deal she has going is a small, independent film called "Do Me a Favor." She's being paid $10,000--one-tenth of what Warner paid her to direct "Ratboy" a decade ago.

Their stations in life seem to be reflected in their treatment at the Burbank courthouse. As court adjourned for the weekend, Locke exited through the front door, alone. Meanwhile, three sheriff's deputies helped Eastwood slip out the back door, away from the television cameras.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°