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Will the Real Clint Eastwood Please Stand Up?

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends" and "Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Century." He is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and book critic for Salon.com.

Twenty-odd years ago I was writing for a prominent New York weekly paper with a bohemian-leftist slant. One day, while standing outside the office of the arts editor, I was astonished to overhear a phone conversation that included the editor, the paper’s lead film critic and actor-director Clint Eastwood, who had called to thank them for a favorable review and invite them to a film festival where he was appearing. I say I was astonished because the paper’s unspoken policy was to savage all Republicans, particularly Reagan Republicans, and yet Eastwood’s name was as sacred in the paper’s arts section as Jesse Jackson’s was on the political pages.

How, I wondered, did Eastwood do it? How did the man who made government a dirty word in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) and whose philosophy of law and order as expressed by “Dirty Harry” Callahan delighted so many right-wingers seduce so many limousine liberals?

Patrick McGilligan’s “Clint: The Life and Legend” is the book that tells you how he did it. Published in Great Britain, “Clint” has apparently been bouncing around U.S. publishers amid rumors of threats from Eastwood’s lawyers. It isn’t difficult to see why. “Clint” is perhaps the most thoroughly demythologizing book yet written on modern Hollywood.

Contrary to a carefully cultivated public image that practically had him related to the Joads of “The Grapes of Wrath,” the future star was raised in thoroughly middle-class surroundings. Authorized biographies have suggested that Clint left the Oakland area’s Piedmont High School because he had become, according to the official bio written up by Eastwood’s company, “acutely conscious that there were no blacks in Piedmont, no Asians, only one or two Jewish families.” But the future Dirty Harry’s departure from the high school may have had more to do with what McGilligan characterizes as “mounting delinquency.”

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The man who would one day romanticize the Korean and Vietnam wars in “Heartbreak Ridge” (1986) remained stateside as an Army swimming instructor. Like John Wayne, he would eventually approve of the Vietnam War; unlike Wayne, Eastwood “made his endorsement of the war tacit, and refused to be pinned down.” But the private lives of all movie stars differ from fairy tale versions concocted for official biographies. McGilligan’s revelations of Eastwood’s private life, fascinating though they are, would be of only minor interest to film fans if they didn’t undermine the carefully constructed Eastwood mythology, a brew so potent that even Clint’s mother, in interviews, seems to have sipped from it. (Though, as McGilligan points out, “If Norman Mailer [in a profile in Parade magazine] can be forgiven for swallowing the bunk, mothers above all should be allowed to stretch the truth.”) McGilligan reveals, step by step, how an actor of such limited resources--his director in the so-called spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone, felt that Eastwood “had only two expressions: with or without a hat"--built an image not only as an actor but also as an auteur, culminating in the 1992 Oscar for best picture going to his “Unforgiven.”

From the very beginning, Clint “knew when and how to turn on the warmth and humor. Journalists felt an intimacy with him,” particularly those from Associated Press, United Press International, Hollywood Reporter, Variety and the Los Angeles Times. The French critic Pierre Rissient was so beguiled by “The Beguiled” (1971) and its star that he arranged for important critics from several French publications to see advance screenings. Monsieur Rissient would become Eastwood’s French press agent while continuing to write pieces about him. Jerry Lewis should have been so lucky.

Over the years, Eastwood fashioned a press corps perfectly willing to leave out discussions of his private life, including incessant womanizing; two out-of-wedlock children; the neglect of his wife, Maggie; and, eventually, their messy ongoing divorce. (McGilligan’s account of the demonization of Sondra Locke, Eastwood’s leading lady for six films and live-in companion for a decade and a half, by Eastwood and his devoted press is practically a book within this book.) Thus did Eastwood gain a reputation as a star who “rarely gives interviews and hardly ever makes public appearances” while at the same time being perhaps the most interviewed and accessible (to his coterie) of stars.

As the years went by, Eastwood was able to build up a “solid Clint bandwagon of U.S. reviewers” (and McGilligan isn’t afraid to name names) or, rather, Eastwood wasn’t afraid to round up the suspects in a Playboy interview in which he mentioned “the better, more experienced reviewers” such as Jay Cocks of Time magazine (who was “casually drafted into Clint’s social circle” after giving “Dirty Harry” its only positive review in a major publication), the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris and the New York Times’ Vincent Canby and Bosley Crowther. Many other critics have been loyal even to Eastwood’s failures: Gary Giddins, who wrote an adoring cover story on Eastwood for Esquire, hailed the slapdash flop “The Rookie” (1990) as “a knockout” and “the best action movie since ‘Lethal Weapon 2.’ ” To Eastwood’s most devoted fans, comparisons with other filmmakers aren’t enough. Peter Biskind in Premiere likened Eastwood’s westerns not to John Ford’s, but to Elizabethan tragedy.

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“Many critics,” writes McGilligan, “because they liked Clint in person as well as on the screen, strove to find artistic merit in his films, even though there emerged a basic contradiction between the films they supported and those which audiences loved. The audiences wanted the omnipotent Clint, while the critics preferred the uncharacteristic films in which Clint found himself powerless or defeated.” Eastwood was really able to reconcile the two Clints only one time, in “The Unforgiven,” by allowing himself to be beaten and humiliated and still return to do what the man with no name had done at the beginning of “Fistful of Dollars,” namely to kill everyone and ride off.

And so Clint Eastwood, who had made a career out of posing as the consummate anti-star, seemingly indifferent to the Oscars--"I will never win an Oscar, and do you know why?,” McGilligan quotes him as saying, “First of all, because I’m not Jewish. Secondly, because I make too much money for all those old farts in the academy..."--walked off with an Academy Award that crowned his career. Or it would have crowned his career had he not gone on to make several more turkeys.

In the end, if Eastwood remains “an enigma” to his objective biographer, it may not be a failure of McGilligan’s abilities as a researcher. McGilligan seems to reveal that when one arrives at the heart of Clint Eastwood, one finds, as Gertrude Stein wrote of the Oakland where he grew up, that “there is no there there.”


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