If, as Shaw said, loyalty in a critic is corruption, then Richard Schickel is rotten. Schickel’s “Clint Eastwood--A Biography” clocks in at 537 dense pages. There is scarcely a negative word or opinion about Eastwood in the entire volume.
“There are strangers,” writes Schickel, a veteran film critic for Time magazine, “who continue to resent and reject his message.” (You get the impression that the “his” should have a capital H). Fortunately, the power of the doubters “is now greatly diminished, but it is [still] there, especially in some of the odder corners of academia, and it is not without its murmuring influence.” Schickel, however, has been purified of doubt: “I trust the many tales told on the screen over this long career, and I trust the honesty of their teller.” Abandon all doubt, ye who enter this book.
I picked up “Clint Eastwood” wondering if it would lead me to an appreciation of an actor and director whose talent I always regarded as modest and whose range and sensibilities I saw as rather narrow and limited. I finished it wondering if I was even worthy of Eastwood.
But who possibly could be? In the course of the book he is identified, by himself and others, as “a rebel” but also as a “working-class guy” (albeit one who never held a working-class job for long), a favorite of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon but also a “die-hard liberal,” a consummate man’s man but also a “feminist filmmaker.” He’s the ultimate action star but at the same time a subverter of the traditional concept of macho, a man whose films display a sensitivity toward African Americans, Native Americans and gays, whose directorial skills are comparable if not superior to those of John Ford, Woody Allen and, dare we say it?--Schickel doesn’t quite dare, but he gets William Goldman to say it for him--Orson Welles!
At a presentation attended by Prince Charles, David Thomson is allowed to observe: “A visitor from another planet, advised on how to recognize modern royalty . . . would have no doubt which man was the prince.” He--or at least his “screen presence"--is “more aura than man.”
He’s the king, he’s a prince, he’s a queen, he’s our sister, he’s our daughter, he’s the mother of all American cinema. “What is in his soul,” Schickel writes, “is in all of our souls . . . acting out for himself, he acts out for all of us.”
Did I mention that “Clint Eastwood” is an authorized biography? No other is needed. Eastwood is the reference point for all things and so by definition needs to be the only one quoted on the numerous controversies Eastwood has gotten into over the years--the women he has left or who have left him, the directors he has fired for not directing a movie enough like Clint Eastwood to suit him, his support of a 1982 expedition by the right-wing former green beret James “Bo” Gritz to free supposed MIAs in Laos and Thailand.
For instance, you’d never know from this book that director Philip Kaufman, dismissed by Eastwood during the filming of “The Outlaw Josey Wales” for “indecision” and “self-indulgence” (defined by Eastwood), went on to direct “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Right Stuff” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” regarded by some critics as having more artistic vision in each frame than Eastwood has displayed in his entire career.
Those of us cursed with skepticism might be inclined to wonder if Eastwood’s current critical status as demigod has something to do with the fact that no superstar has ever worked harder to ingratiate himself with the critical establishment by attending festivals and giving interviews to small film journals. To many of those outside the establishment, James Wolcott’s line in an oft-quoted “Vanity Fair” piece has merit: “The truth is not that Eastwood’s films have gotten ‘hip,’ but that the movie critics have gotten so square.”
And Eastwood is square enough to have been a creation of the dime-novel writer in “Unforgiven.” There is absurd over-praising of Eastwood’s films, for instance, “Dirty Harry": “It’s not too much to say that ‘Dirty Harry’ is a movie about extenuating circumstances.” This is too much for those of us who see it as a second-rate action flick whose purpose is to get the audience worked up so that it cheers when Harry offs the baddie.
“High Plains Drifter": " . . . redefines the nature of screen heroism.” “High Plains Drifter” doesn’t redefine the nature of American spaghetti westerns. “Bronco Billy": “One could argue that the movie is, in its own way, its director’s most self-referential work.” One could, if one had absolutely nothing else in the universe to argue about.
The book is skimpy when it comes to Eastwood’s private life. His much-publicized stint as mayor of Carmel is summed up in a handful of campaign slogans: “It was, after all, one of the most tasteful campaigns in the history of modern American politics.” (We wonder if Eastwood’s opponent agrees.) “His slogan was simple: ‘Bringing the Community Together.’ ”
Eastwood’s worldview is summed up in psycho-babble about “Pacific Rim Transcendentalism, a belief that nature in the several majestic aspects that California presents it is the ultimate source of spiritual renewal.” He jettisoned Christianity at an early age: “The Bible stories he had listened to in Sunday schools had never appealed to him.” The future Dirty Harry found them “distressingly violent.” But looking down into the valley at Yosemite National Park, “Boy, that to me was a religious experience.”
And on matters of marriage, romance and affairs, “memory does not serve him particularly well.” Regarding Eastwood’s 13-year relationship with Sondra Locke and the subsequent palimony suit, we’re told that Eastwood felt a “sense of betrayal” when Locke threatened to go to court. “How could I have been such a bad judge of character?” Locke’s judgment isn’t a factor to be considered. One simply needs to trust the honesty of the teller.
The book seems to have been written for the sole purpose of punishing anyone who doesn’t love Eastwood enough. For instance, Sergio Leone (who launched Eastwood to fame in the spaghetti westerns) is trashed for what seems to be a perfectly fair comparison of Eastwood and Robert DeNiro: “They don’t even belong in the same profession,” Leone is quoted as saying. “DeNiro throws himself into this or that role, putting on a personality the way someone else might put on his coat . . . while Eastwood throws himself into a suit of armor and lowers the visor with a rusty clang.”
But the real villain of the book is former New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, whom one suspects Schickel holds responsible for most of the “murmuring influence” he mentions early in the book. Kael is accused by Schickel of being “devious,” “prissy” and “naive” for her dislike, of all things, “Dirty Harry.” (“Like it or not,” Schickel says, “we live in a ‘Dirty Harry’ kind of world.” I think Schickel may be trusting the tales told on screen a little too much.) “Can you imagine that kind of bigotry?” laments Eastwood, mulling over years of bad reviews. “I could,” Schickel writes, “perhaps better than he.”
Bigotry? For denying the greatness of Clint Eastwood? It would have served Schickel to look at his subject in the light of one of Dirty Harry’s most famous lines: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” It would also help if he acknowledged the limitations of someone he chooses to write about.